Are your students working on main idea strategies? Are you wondering how to teach main idea? Check out my 32 simple, no-prep non-fiction stories specially designed to teach main idea concepts, with an additional 50 stories included in my expansion pack. You’ll love these main idea worksheets!
Before we work on main idea, we need to make sure that our students have a foundation of reading, lexical, and syntax skills (Nippold, 2017). As SLPs, we really want to make sure that our students have the foundational vocabulary and grammar abilities to understand the smaller parts of what they read. Do our students understand compound and complex sentences? Don’t forget to address that need as well! (If you need help getting started on this, check out my Systematic Sentence Combining: Target Syntax in Speech Therapy resource).
Once we know our students understand the parts of what they are reading, we can build up to comprehension of one, two, three, and more sentences at a time (Ukrainetz, 2017). We don’t want to frustrate our students by working too fast, too soon. We want to build confidence, slowly over time, and introduce concepts one at a time within carefully constructed materials.
Our students need explicit instruction, with well-practice strategies to help them be successful in non-fiction comprehension tasks.
When students struggle to identify the main idea, first we need to make sure we give the definition of “main idea” first. Chances are good that their teachers have taught them, but our students with language disorders need lots of exposures to new vocabulary, especially abstract classroom concepts!
There are a lot of different terms around the concept of the main idea. If it’s been awhile since your last English class, here’s a quick summary:
For non-fiction, a main idea might look like a headline. For stories, the main idea can follow the pattern “Somebody Wanted But So Then.”
I came up with this idea a couple years ago and it’s still one of my go-to strategies to explain the difference between when a teacher asks you to retell vs summarize vs give the main idea:
This is just a piece of printer paper, a large index card, and a small index card! You could even add an extra level with a post-it note for “Topic.” So many of my students had aha moments after this and were better able to understand how much information each question type asks for!
Begin by teaching students the main idea of photographs. You could use the pictures from any of my products with real pictures because they include dynamic photos with a clear subject and action. The digital sentence sliders, inferencing and predicting, and creating narrative products would be particularly useful.
Once you have some good photos, practice forming one sentence with your student to describe the main idea of that picture. Try this one for example:
What’s the main idea of this picture? A woman fell off her bike in the woods and hurt her knee. Or something similar. Capture the essence of the photograph, but keep it to one sentence. Not too short, not too long.
When my students can identify the main idea of pictures, I introduce this packet! Although curriculum-based therapy may be an eventual goal, I prefer to start with focused practice of skills. Students are expected to learn and retain the texts they read in the classroom. If we are teaching strategies on new knowledge, it’s a huge increase on the student’s cognitive load. Focus on one step at a time.
I hand them the worksheet and remind them of what main idea is. We start with the first box. I tell them to “scan” (they might need a reminder of what this word means) the text and look for words that are repeating. That is a clue to what the text might be about. I tell them to make a “smart guess” about the topic of the text and write it on the line.
Next, I have my students read the comprehension questions. We talk about how it’s easier to find information in the text when you know what you’re looking for. This is a useful strategy they can use in the classroom too!
Then we read the text! I almost always read it out loud for my groups. They follow along and circle or highlight important information as I read it. Students are also encouraged to underline or highlight words they don’t know. Sometimes I have students who think they know all the words. In that case, we look for the targeted tier 2 vocabulary words included on the page and discuss their meaning. Some of my students need greater awareness when they don’t actually know a word.
Vocabulary is best learned through multiple exposures and techniques. I also talk a lot about targeting vocabulary in my post here if you want more information!
I stop after each paragraph for them to write what the sentences are mostly about in the small boxes to the right.
These worksheets are great because they are very short reading passages. We have moved beyond main idea of pictures, but many of my students are ready to go to full articles or texts. Breaking up the passage helps students learn and practice pausing and reflecting on what they have read often.
Once we finish reading the text, we usually answer the comprehension questions. I encourage them to look back at the text to see what they circled or highlighted. I give lots of praise to students who circled or highlighted important information!
Now we’re finally ready to work on main idea! These worksheets have been incredibly helpful for my students in teaching them main idea. We use the 3 boxes we already filled out while we read to identify what theme keep repeating. The prompts I use for this section are already written in the main idea box on the worksheet to make it easier for you!
Last, we summarize the information by identifying the topic and one thing they learned!
Explicit strategy instruction, followed by systematic practice of increasingly complicated targets is the best way for our students to find success. Scaffold your student’s understanding and guide them along the path to generalization.
If you’re ready for a grab-and-go approach to teaching non-fiction comprehension strategies, check out my Non-Fiction Text Comprehension – Using Language Strategies Including Main Idea packet, with an additional 50 stories included in the Non-Fiction Text Comprehension Expansion Pack – Language Strategies & Main Idea. These main idea work sheets make speech therapy easy, fun, and functional!
Nippold, M. (2017).Reading comprehension deficits in adolescents: Addressing underlying language abilities. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 48(2), 125–131.https://doi.org/10.1044/2016_LSHSS-16-0048
Ukrainetz, T. (2017). Commentary on ‘Reading comprehension is not a single ability’: Implications for child language intervention. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 48: 92–97.