Helping Students Understand The Main Idea

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What is the main idea of a story anyway? If your students are like mine and take the Dibels or Acadiance testing, you are familiar with the subjective testing of retell, which includes the delivery of the main idea of a story read.

Telling the main idea of a story is actually a hard concept for students to understand as it is a confusing and difficult skill, which needs to be strategically taught. After all, if it is misunderstood, students continue worksheet after worksheet — test after test to wallow in their confusion. Without promising feedback, simply trying their best at giving answers that may or may not please the subjective grader is a hopeless effort.

What is the Main Idea?

The main idea is asking the reader to state the authors purpose, what is it the author is trying to tell you? “Whenever someone tells you a story they have a reason behind it, maybe a friend played a fun game yesterday and wants to tell you about it. Knowing why a story is told and what information the teller wants to get across is important in understanding the story.” This knowledge along with the understanding of the characters, conflict, and the solution is simply put— the Main Idea of a story.

Here are some of the ways I teach my student exactly how to find the main idea of a story.

Strategy 1: Pay Attention to the Title of the Story. Author’s generally include the topic of their story in the title, especially in works of nonfiction. For example, this title gives the reader a great deal of insight: Giraffes: Towering Beauties of the Savanna. Instantly a reader knows the author believes the giraffe to be a beautiful animal that is taller than other animals (towering), and lives in the Savanna.

Strategy 2: Think As You Read: Don’t rush through your reading. Rather think about the story as you are read along, making pictures in your brain as you go. If you truly engage in the story, you are more likely to remember what you read.

Strategy 3: Find The Conflict and Action in the Story: Dig deep into the story. Think about the conflict, the action, how problems were solved. This information will give you more information into the author’s purpose in writing the story. What is it the characters learned, how did things change, how were things solved?

Strategy 4: Keep it Simple: Know that summarizing the main idea of a story is actually easier than it seems. Simply restate the title, tell the characters, setting, a brief description of the beginning (set the stage), middle (what is the problem), end (how was it solved), and you have given the main idea, or the author’s purpose.


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