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Strategies for Teaching Your Students About the Main Idea and Supporting Details

By Kellie Hayden

Teaching strategies about the main idea and supporting details is very important. Students need to learn how to identify the main idea because questions about the main idea in reading passages usually show up on standardized tests and/or reading tests in general.

What is the Main Idea?

Teachers need to first explain to their students what a main idea is. The main idea is what the author’s main point is or the most significant thing in the passage. This is sometimes called the topic sentence of a passage. Or, it is directly stated within the passage. To make matters frustrating for some students, the main idea is sometimes inferred, which means students have to "read between the lines" and figure it out on their own.

To add to the confusion, some of the answer choices are specific details that the students remember from reading the passage. These are details and not the main idea. However, some students will inevitably pick the detail answer choice because they remember reading about it in the passage.

Strategies to Differentiate Between Details and Main Idea

When students take a reading assessment with multiple choice questions, they usually will need to identify the main idea. They must wade through four answer options to choose the main idea answer choice. A few answer choices will be easy to discard because they are not details from the passage. Or, the answer choice may be one specific detail from the passage that is not the main point.

However, some students will struggle with the details from the passage that seem to "masquerade" as the main idea. Some students think that the longest answer choice will be the correct answer as well. This is not always true.

Example Question with Analysis

Snow Day For example, in this passage:

  • The snow fell all night. When Bobbie woke up the next morning, his hillside was blanketed with six inches of snow. Blaring on the radio were the school closings that his sister, Brooklyn, sat listening to carefully. His school district, Lincoln Schools, was closed for the day. Brooklyn and Bobbie cheered. Brooklyn headed back to bed, while Bobbie dug around in the closet for his boots, hat, coat, and gloves. He was not going to waste one minute sitting around in the house. He was going sledding on his favorite hill.

The main idea of this passage is

A. Bobbie kept his snow gear in the closet

B. Due to a snow day, Bobbie was going sledding

C. Bobbie and Brooklyn listened to school closings

D. Bobbie was going sledding with his sister on their snow day

Analysis of question:

A. This is a specific detail from the passage, but is not the main idea.

B. This is the main idea, because it is the main point of the passage.

C. This is a specific detail from the passage, but is not the main idea.

D. This could be main idea but there is a false detail in the answer choice: His sister went back to bed. She did not go sledding with Bobbie.

From this example students learn the following strategies to find the main idea:

  • Look for the trick- the answer that could be correct, but has a falsehood in it.
  • Look for the point that mainly describes the passage
  • Avoid confusing supporting details within the passage for the main idea

Several passages should be used to demonstrate to students the difference between main idea and supporting details.

When students must find the main idea of a passage, they need to be careful not to choose specific details from the passage or "trick" answer choices that have false details in it. It takes careful reading to answer these questions correctly. And, it takes time and patience in teaching strategies to find the main idea while separating the supporting details.