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Why Students Struggle to Figure Out Main Ideas in Nonfiction Texts

We have all sat next to students in a conference and asked them what they think the main idea is in the nonfiction text they are reading only to be met by blank stares, wild guesses, or rereading of a fact directly from the page. So many students struggle to figure out main ideas even though we teachers have been teaching it year after year since at least the first grade. After many frustrating moments I finally figured out why many students are so confused about main ideas and how one key lesson can make a huge difference.

The Confusion

Here is the confusion in a nutshell.

A main idea tends to have three parts to it and most of us only ever taught students two of the parts. Here are the three parts that help students understand what a main idea consists of:

Part 1: the general topic

Part 2: the specific category (or part of the topic)

I always taught those two parts, but I guess I forgot about this important third part.

Part 3: the idea

Yes! A main idea has to have an idea in it.

Let't take a look at this in practice. Say we are reading a page from the book The Best Book of Sharks by Claire Llewellyn.

Part 1: The general topic- sharks

Part 2: The specific category or part- jaws and teeth

These first two parts are right in the text. The tricky part comes with part 3- the idea. This is because as the reader I have to read the facts and infer an idea about this topic and category. In other words, I have to consider, "What idea can I form about this topic and category based on the information given?"

Part 3: Idea- Jaws and teeth are essential in hunting and eating and are kind of like knives and forks for people since they rely on them to make their food edible and they also are replaceable. We don't always use the same knife for every type of food just like sharks have different types of teeth depending on what type of food they eat.

The confusion lies in the common misconception that the main idea is the specific category. Students tend to stop at part 2 and think the category is the main idea. A typical student response would be, "Sharks jaws and teeth," as the main idea... but this is missing an idea.

The Lesson

So if your students tend to forget the idea part of main ideas and struggle with this confusion too, here is a lesson that can really help. Model how you go through each part with a short excerpt of text. Use sticky notes and your own reading notebook to show the steps. After your modeling you can guide students to try the same strategy with a different short text.

Step 1: Identify the general topic of the text. Jot that down on a sticky note.

Step 2: Read the heading and begin to preview the section. Think about the specific category or part of the topic you will be learning about. Jot that down on a second sticky note.

Step 3: Read the text closely and think about what the information is teaching you. Put the details together and think about what idea the author is giving you about this specific category of information. Write down your idea on third sticky note.

Step 4: Put all three parts and sticky notes together to form a solid main idea statement.

The Shift

Rather than teach main idea as something that is in the text, we can teach students the power of thinking about the parts of a nonfiction text and how they can put them together with their thinking. Since each reader's thinking is involved there is not one right main idea of a text.

When we put the pieces together and form a bigger idea it is called synthesis. One reason why figuring out a main idea is so challenging is that it involves a lot of synthesis. This is why we wrote a whole chapter in our new book, What Do I Teach Readers Tomorrow? Nonfiction about synthesizing information. If your students struggle with main ideas consider this lesson and read our chapter that is filled with several other lesson ideas, chart examples, notebook entries, and look for's.

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