Why Main Idea is Not the Main Idea – Or, How Best to Teach Reading Comprehension

  • reading comprehension summarizing paraphrasing text structure main idea
  • 02 December, 2023

Teacher question:

You say that we cannot successfully teach comprehension skills like main idea. But our standards require that we teach main idea, and our state tests ask main idea questions to assess whether our students are accomplishing that goal. I don’t get it, your advice on this is not helpful.

RELATED: Should We Still Teach Sight Vocabulary?

Shanahan response:

For years, comprehension skills like “main idea” were taught by having kids read texts and answer main idea questions. The idea is that question-answering practice will improve the ability to answer the kinds of questions the students are practicing with. Often the question types themselves have been labeled as comprehension skills and, as everyone knows, practice is a great way to learn skills. Some of these supposed skills include main idea, supporting details, literal recall, comparison/contrast, drawing conclusions, inferencing, and so on.

There are still scads of books and programs aimed at just such pedagogy – that present brief texts accompanied by questions of a particular type so kids can do that kind of thing over and over. Many schools have even developed their own pools of such items to prepare kids for standardized tests – hoping to make kids better at answering such questions.

Learning outcomes show a pronounced lack of sympathy for such teaching. Dolores Durkin (1978-1979) long ago classified it as assessment rather than instruction.  

Studies show that question types do NOT distinguish different kinds of comprehension (ACT, 2006; Davis, 1944; Eason, Goldberg, Young, Geist, & Cutting, 2012; Kulesz, Francis, Barnes, & Fletcher, 2016; Muijselaar, Swart, Steenbeek-Planting, Droop, Verhoeven, & de Jong, 2017; Spearritt, 1972), which means practice with answering specific kinds of questions WON’T have a specific impact on reading comprehension. There is certainly nothing wrong with asking questions about what the kids have read, just don’t expect such practice to exert much impact on the ability to deal with specific question categories, nor even to have any impact on reading comprehension. It just doesn’t work that way.

This problem is quietly acknowledged by reputable test makers who appropriately do not report performance on different types of comprehension questions – they don’t because they can’t honestly do so.

Those are the facts, ma’am.

However, main idea is an interesting case in point because everyone seems to agree on the importance of main idea in comprehension. Everyone!

And, yet I don’t believe that main idea is the main thing in reading comprehension, and it appears that much of the teaching of this is wrongheaded.

People don’t even agree on what a main idea is. Different studies and programs use different labels and have different ideas as to what those labels describe: topics, important ideas, central ideas, themes, and idea-most-referred-to are all thought to be main ideas (Williams, 1988). One study reported nine different conceptions of main idea (Moore, Cunningham, & Rudisill, 1983), and studies of instructional programs show similar inconsistencies (Afflerbach & Walker, 1992; Jitendra, Chard, Hoppes, Renouf, & Gardill, 2001). Apparently, the different labels can even lead to different responses on the part of the question answerers (Butterfuss, McCarthy, Orcutt, Kendeou, & McNamara, 2023). If you ask the “main idea question” in different ways, you get very different responses.

That’s problematic, but it isn’t the main problem here.

No, the main problem is that – for the most part – studies show that just having students read texts and answer main idea questions does not consistently or significantly improve main idea identification or reading comprehension (e.g., Sjostrom & Hare, 1984; E. A. Stevens, Vaughn, House, & Stillman-Spisak, 2020; R. J. Stevens, Slavin, & Farnish, 1991; Stoeger, Sontag, & Ziegler, 2014; Taylor, 1986; Toonder & Sawyer, 2021).

One reason for this failure is that figuring out main ideas is not very skill-like. Test your students’ ability to answer main idea questions and you’ll get different results depending upon the text. The ability to determine a main idea is affected by text type (narrative, exposition), text structure, the explicitness with which the idea is stated, the length of the text, the amount of topic knowledge possessed by the readers, and any and all these variables may interact with each other making it even more complicated (Afflerbach, 1990; Hare, Rabinowitz, & Schieble, 1989; Pressley, Ghatala, Woloshyn, & Pirie, 1990). It is hard to provide a skill-like response in that complicated a context.

Given that, it’s not surprising that the tests used by researchers to evaluate main idea interventions tend to be “over-aligned” with how the students were taught. Outcome assessments may use texts and tasks so like the training that it isn’t clear whether students mastered a skill or just got used to the lessons. That may be why, in many of the studies, the trained kids improved on main idea tasks with no benefit to their reading comprehension!

Nevertheless, several of the experimental instructional regimes have managed to accomplish improvements in both main idea performance and reading comprehension. But instruction that invests heavily in question-answering practice can take no comfort in these results. In many of the studies in which the intervention succeeded, the control groups were the ones that received the question-answering practice. Oops!

What are the takeaways from this diverse collection of studies?

One thing that is clear is that the successful interventions provided considerably more thorough and more extensive main idea instruction than the questioning schemes usually do. Often the successful teaching was explicit, took place daily for considerable amounts of time, and continued across several weeks.

The most effective instruction went far beyond question-and-answer practice. These interventions didn’t emphasize main idea as, as they did a comprehensive understanding of the texts, with main idea as just one element in that. The main idea is really not the main idea.

Three kinds of instruction paid off the most: summarizing, developing an understanding of text structure, and/or paraphrasing (Brown & Day, 1983; E. A. Stevens, Park, & Vaughn, 2019; Zhang & Wijekumar, 2023).

Main ideas unify the parts of a text (so summarizing and text structure make sense) and the successful restatement of a paragraph or text (paraphrasing) will necessarily capture the main idea, but along with other key information, as well.

I’ve come to believe that the difference is that main idea questions steer students into thinking about a specific fact in a text, while these three instructional emphases – summarizing, text structure analysis, paraphrasing – require more integrated, extensive, and thorough thinking about a text’s content; hence the power to improve reading comprehension.

Also, some of the more successful schemes provided students with guided practice in analyzing structure and formulating paraphrases with systematically varied texts.

Teacher guidance matters because it provides timely explanations of why certain responses are sound and offers support for reanalysis of the text when necessary – this is teaching, not practice in responding to faux assessments.

Varying the texts is important because text plays such an influential role in determining how well readers can summarize, paraphrase, or analyze structure. Concentrated practice with one or another kind of text should help students to learn how to deal successfully with the relevant text features, and then over time, the types of text can be varied so that students gain insights about how to adjust their efforts Baumann (1984) had students work with texts that had explicit main ideas and then shifted to those that did not. I would add another step of then working with a more mixed collection.

If you are serious about teaching students to comprehend better (and to master the kinds of “skills” cited in your state standards), knock off the question-answering practice and teach students how to comprehend better. Asking lots of main idea questions won’t cut it.

One more valuable bit of advice:

The texts that schools usually use for specific comprehension skill practice tend to be vapid, sapid, stupid, and wasteful (no, these are not four of Santa’s reindeer or Snow White’s dwarves). Reading comprehension should be taught with texts worth reading – texts from which we want students to gain knowledge. Kids need to learn how to summarize texts using an author’s organizational plan and how to translate text information into their own words, but they need to do this while trying to gain worthwhile knowledge from the texts they are reading during this work.

Getting the main idea should not be the main idea. Students do better when reading goals are more demanding and more integrated.


ACT. (2006). Reading between the lines. Iowa City, IA: American College Testing.

Afflerbach, P. P. (1990). The influence of prior knowledge on expert readers' main idea construction strategies. Reading Research Quarterly, 25(1), 31-46. doi.org/10.2307/747986

Afflerbach, P., & Walker, B. (1992). Main idea instruction: An analysis of three basal reader series. Reading Research and Instruction, 32(1), 11-28. doi.org/10.1080/19388079209558102

Baumann, J. F. (1984). The effectiveness of a direct instruction paradigm for teaching main idea comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(1), 93-115. doi:https://doi.org/10.2307/747654 

Brown, A. L., & Day, J. D. (1983). Macrorules for summarizing texts: The development of expertise. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 22, 1–14. doi:10.1016/S0022-5371(83)80002-4

Butterfuss, R., McCarthy, K. S., Orcutt, E., Kendeou, P., & McNamara, D. S. (2023). Identification of main ideas in expository texts: Selection versus deletion. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal. doi.org/10.1007/s11145-023-10431-5

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Durkin, D. (1978-1979). What classroom observations reveal about reading comprehension instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 14(4), 481-533. 

Eason, S. H., Goldberg, L. F., Young, K. M., Geist, M. C., & Cutting, L. E. (2012). Reader–text interactions: How differential text and question types influence cognitive skills needed for reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(3), 515-528. doi.org/10.1037/a0027182

Hare, V. C., Rabinowitz, M., & Schieble, K. M. (1989). Text effects on main idea comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 24(1), 72-88. doi.org/10.2307/748011

Jitendra, A. K., Chard, D., Hoppes, M. K., Renouf, K., & Gardill, M. C. (2001). An evaluation of main idea strategy instruction in four commercial reading programs: Implications for students with learning problems. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 17(1), 53-73. doi.org/10.1080/105735601455738

Kulesz, P. A., Francis, D. J., Barnes, M. A., & Fletcher, J. M. (2016). The influence of properties of the test and their interactions with reader characteristics on reading comprehension: An explanatory item response study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(8), 1078-1097. doi:https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000126

Moore, D. W., Cunningham, J. W., & Rudisill, N. J. (1983). Readers’ conceptions of the main idea. In J. A. Niles & L. A. Harris (Eds.), Searches for meaning in reading/language processing and instruction (32nd Yearbook of the National Reading Conference). Rochester, NY: National Reading Conference.

Muijselaar, M. M. L., Swart, N. M., Steenbeek-Planting, E., Droop, M., Verhoeven, L., & de Jong, P. F. (2017). The dimensions of reading comprehension in dutch children: Is differentiation by text and question type necessary? Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(1), 70-83. doi.org/10.1037/edu0000120

Pressley, M., Ghatala, E. S., Woloshyn, V. E., & Pirie, J. (1990). Sometimes adults miss the main ideas and do not realize it: Confidence in responses to short-answer and multiple-choice comprehension questions. Reading Research Quarterly, 25(3), 232-249. doi.org/10.2307/748004

Sjostrom, C. L., & Hare, V. C. (1984). Teaching high school students to identify main ideas in expository text. Journal of Educational Research, 78(2), 114-118. doi.org/10.1080/00220671.1984.10885584

Spearritt, D. (1972). Identification of subskills of reading comprehension by maximum likelihood factor analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 8 (1), 92–111.

Stevens, E. A., Park, S., & Vaughn, S. (2019). A review of summarizing and main idea interventions for struggling readers in grades 3 through 12: 1978–2016. Remedial and Special Education, 40(3), 131-149. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932517749940

Stevens, E. A., Vaughn, S., House, L., & Stillman-Spisak, S. (2020). The effects of a paraphrasing and text structure intervention on the main idea generation and reading comprehension of students with reading disabilities in grades 4 and 5. Scientific Studies of Reading, 24(5), 365-379. doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2019.1684925

Stevens, R. J., Slavin, R. E., & Farnish, A. M. (1991). The effects of cooperative learning and direct instruction in reading comprehension strategies on main idea identification. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(1), 8-16. doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.83.1.8

Stoeger, H., Sontag, C., & Ziegler, A. (2014). Impact of a teacher-led intervention on preference for self-regulated learning, finding main ideas in expository texts, and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(3), 799-814. doi.org/10.1037/a0036035

Taylor, B. M. (1986). Teaching middle-grade students to read for main ideas. National Reading Conference Yearbook, 35, 99-108.

Toonder, S., & Sawyer, L. B. (2021). The impact of adaptive computer assisted instruction on reading comprehension: Identifying the main idea. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. doi.org/10.1111/jcal.12573

Wijekumar, K., Beerwinkle, A., McKeown, D., Zhang, S., & Joshi, R. M. (2020). The “GIST” of the reading comprehension problem in grades 4 and 5. Dyslexia: An International Journal of Research and Practice, 26(3), 323-340. doi.org/10.1002/dys.1647

Williams, J. P. (1988). Identifying main ideas: A basic aspect of reading comprehension. Topics in Language Disorders, 8(3), 1-13. doi.org/10.1097/00011363-198806000-00003

Zhang, S., & Wijekumar, K. K. (2023). Teacher professional development and student reading comprehension outcomes: The heterogeneity of responsiveness to text structure instruction in grade 2. Technology, Knowledge and Learning: Learning Mathematics, Science and the Arts in the Context of Digital Technologies, doi.org/10.1007/s10758-023-09693-3

LISTEN TO MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Podcast


See what others have to say about this topic.

Kay Stahl Dec 02, 2023 04:04 PM

I appreciate your mention of text and content considerations related to student identification of key ideas. Those paragraph drills designed to teach students the main idea do not necessarily transfer to comprehending and applying the identification of key ideas. Analyzing a students’ summary writing and text retelling provides external clues to a student’s cognitive processing of ideational prominence. Explicit instruction of text structure and summarization must include guided practice in discerning levels of importance, not just the main idea.

Mark Pennington Dec 02, 2023 04:07 PM

Like distinguishing main idea from summary. I favor the olden days when we used these terminologies: "Re-tell" for narratives and "summary" for informational/expository and argumentative domains.

Other main idea issues: 1. Teachers confuse these text types, such as "What's the main idea in "Little Red Riding Hood?" In narratives, main idea is often confused with theme. 2. In informational/expository and argumentative texts, teachers confuse main idea with claims/thesis statements. 3. Teachers often attempt to shoehorn the notion of one controlling main idea into a text when, say an article or essay may have multiple main ideas. I often hear this sort of confusing instruction: "Each paragraph has a topic sentence, which is the main idea of that paragraph... now what's the main idea of the whole?"

Tammy Dec 02, 2023 04:10 PM

Oh thank you for this thoughtful post. In addition to the excellent strategies you outlined here to replace the meaningless main idea Q and A, I have been encouraging teachers to explicitly share the type or genre of anything they read in front of kids from Pre-K on. Lunch menu, picture book read aloud, everything. Is it real (true) or not. (If they go to lunch expecting pizza and finding grilled cheese instead, then the lunch menu might be fiction!)

I focus on genre which gets to purpose and structure. Everyday there might be 100 opportunities to talk about what this book, paper, story, text is for. It helps kids with comprehension at a much deeper level and in a more flexible way that main idea drill.

Kristen Dec 02, 2023 04:41 PM

Our curriculum (EL Education) asks for the “gist” of any genre of text. Is this similar to a summary?

Timothy Shanahan Dec 02, 2023 04:44 PM


Perhaps... I suspect people have lots of different ideas on what gist is -- a main idea or a full blown summary? In either case, whatever it is supposed to be, asking kids to provide it won't be sufficient without explicit teaching of the steps needed to accomplish it.


Dr. Bill Conrad Dec 02, 2023 04:47 PM

The focus of reading should be to derive meaning from text. So in addition to summarizing, paraphrasing, and textual analysis, it might be helpful to have children try and derive meaning from text that they have read.

Christine Anselmi Dec 02, 2023 04:49 PM

It has been a long struggle for me (first as a student, then as a teacher) to express my confusion about main idea as it has been taught. You articulated well the problems with making finding the main idea a task in and if itself. As a skill, would you say identifying key words in a paragraph(s) of a text would be beneficial as components of summarizing and paragraphing?

Harriett Janetos Dec 02, 2023 06:23 PM

I recommend the IES Practice Guide for grades 4-9 written by Sharon Vaughn and six others. They provide a routine for getting the 'gist' on page 47.


Lauren Dec 02, 2023 06:37 PM

I enjoyed your list of adjectives and the reference to reindeer and dwarves. I agree that it is easier to teach comprehension when there is something interesting, and meaningful in the text.

Beau Golwitzer Dec 02, 2023 06:42 PM

The curriculum we use suggests using a graphic organizer that begins with identifying the topic of what's been read, then the main idea, and then several supporting details. After that, students write a summary putting all of this together. Is this an effective way of having them write a summary, and, if not, might someone suggest a resource that provides a more effective way of having students write a summary?

Keralyn Nelson Dec 02, 2023 08:13 PM

I agree with you. My confusion lies in the fact that I learned how to comprehend text intuitively, without direct instruction. So all of these ideas are quite theoretical to me. I don’t understand the “how” part. What does this look like in a classroom? How do you teach these?

Cheryl Scott Dec 02, 2023 09:19 PM

I agree that guided practice with lots of teacher modeling (thinking aloud about one's own analyses of a text), guided practice, paraphrasing, and text structure work , and text variety are all excellent ways to improve comprehension. Just as important is working on texts about topics that kids find intrinsically interesting. When working with struggling 3rd and 4th grade readers, I first asked the students about their interests. This led to texts about Captain Cook in Hawaii (his demise), Tom Brady, amenities on the world's largest cruise ships, the Alamo, how to avoid bears when camping, etc.

Timothy Shanahan Dec 02, 2023 10:05 PM


That can work -- if there is sufficient guidance and feedback.


Timothy Shanahan Dec 02, 2023 10:07 PM


There are blogs on teaching summarizing and text structure on this site.


Timothy Shanahan Dec 02, 2023 10:11 PM

No, I don't think key words will help much in most cases.

Karen Pina Dec 02, 2023 10:40 PM

In your mind, what do you make of the misalignment of the Common Core standards with how children actually learn to comprehend text? Do you think it presents a flawed framework for guiding and evaluating student learning?

Secondly, as a special educator, my mind went right to IEP goals when reading this blog. What I am getting is focusing on goals that address an approach to comprehension that best aligns to how children actually learn and demonstrate comprehension--goals that address retelling, summarizing, paraphrasing and analysis of text structure. Can you provide any other guidance for developing IEP goals that are generally transferable across texts and fruitful in advancing a student's reading development? For compliance purposes, our district very strongly encourages IEP teams to select specific standards for goalsetting which can lead to focusing on instructional tasks that are inefficient in advancing student learning.

Timothy Shanahan Dec 02, 2023 11:20 PM

I think the CCSS comprehension standards are fine, unless someone tries to approach them as single divisible goals (like you describe). These standards work better as a totality than as a series of singular steps. Some groups even tried to break them down eve more than this. I'd advise educators to look at these in a more sophisticated and appropriate way than the often do.


Tim Daugherty Dec 03, 2023 12:51 AM

I recently attended a training and the speaker said when teaching comprehension most reading curriculums have it backwards. "The Reading's instruction focus should not be spent teaching the comprehension strategies, but rather teaching background knowledge, vocabulary, and syntax using rigorous varied text. Finding the main idea, summarizing, making inferences etc... is the result of comprehending, and is the way for testing for comprehension." "Teach the strategies, but focus more on student's interacting with the text." Our current curriculum goes about teaching reading by focusing on teaching comprehension strategies. I am an Instructional coach for a K-5 Elementary and our students our strong in PA, Phonics, but as they move in upper elementary their comprehension skills are stagnant. Any direction or advice would be much appreciated.

Timothy Shanahan Dec 03, 2023 01:08 AM

It's in vogue right now to claim that knowledge is pretty much all you need and you'll have high reading comprehension. Knowledge certainly plays a role in comprehension but teaching it in such a way that it improves reading comprehension is much more complicated than your speaker probably made clear -- and ignoring hundreds of studies on the teaching of strategies and language abilities and their positive impact on comprehension reveals someone who is ignoring the actual research.


Dr. Bill Conrad Dec 03, 2023 01:52 AM

Upon reflecting upon this fine piece of writing, I reflected on the critical role that reading comprehension plays in the support of our democracy. Sadly, many of our fellow citizens do not have the comprehension and critical thinking skills to maintain the fabric of our democracy.

Reading is not a spectator sport when it comes to democracy. It must become more than a passive exercise to derive meaning in text. It must also be woven into a generative frame that includes writing. The reading must intertwine with the needs of the community to expand and enhance our democratic community. The great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire recognized the important interplay that reading and the community played to support a thriving democracy.

I recently wrote a commentary on EdSource called When We Fail Education, We Fail Our Democracy. I expand in greater detail that teachers and the education system play in producing highly literate citizens who can make wise choices in support of our democracy.

Mary Baker-Hendy Dec 03, 2023 07:29 AM

Dear Dr. Shanahan,
The Jack Friday like phrase "Those are the facts, ma’am.” may have been meant to be fun and casual, but it read as dismissive to women. I am sure that was not your intention. With respect and gratitude for your work. Please keep the advice coming.
Mary BH

Jennifer Dec 03, 2023 01:18 PM

I agree with everything you've written. I think the issue is that teachers are held accountable through testing to teach main idea comprehension in this isolated way. Many schools require it as part of their curriculum. How would you respond to a teacher in that situation?

Ed Jones Dec 03, 2023 02:43 PM

@Kristen, Here is EL Education's use of that. https://eleducation.org/resources/gist-vs-main-idea/
But I can quickly find plenty of other places where they use them interchangeably.
I'd go with EL's definition, and not worry too much--for all the reasons Tim mentions! :-)

Timothy E Shanahan Dec 03, 2023 02:55 PM

If you want kids to do better on a main idea test or on the main idea items in a test, teach students how to use text structure, summarize, and paraphrase -- don't worry so much about main idea. Use challenging texts and hold the kids accountable for gaining the information from the text. Your kids will do better.


Frank Dec 03, 2023 05:25 PM

Hi Tim, great and useful information as always. I would be curious what you suggest in terms of teaching students oral language skills. We know that students just learning to read can pick up a lot through read alouds, and much of this transfers over into reading/writing when their print skills develop more. However, I rarely see systematic, structured oral language programs or methods being discussed around the topic of comprehension. Rather, people are seeming to swing more into feeding kids knowledge building curriculum early on in their learning, despite not having much evidence in how to best implement that in a developmentally appropriate way. However, there does seem to be ways to teach and embed things like vocabulary/background knowledge in even simple narrative discourse and stories that seem more appropriate for our youngest learners and which teachers may feel they can do on their own effectively, but I have yet to see this as the case. Any thoughts you can give on this would be greatly appreciated.

Jill Dec 03, 2023 08:16 PM

Hi Tim,
I teach basic text structures and summarizing in my first grade classroom, but haven't thought of paraphrasing. Would it be too early to do that? If so, how would I differentiate the two ideas (summarizing vs. paraphrasing) for first graders?

Timothy Shanahan Dec 03, 2023 08:29 PM

Paraphrasing often is summarizing but not always. Basically, you are trying to say what someone else has said, but in your own words -- which has a tendency to shorten things a bit (hence, the summary).
For instance,
James went to the traveling circus last week with my friends, Aimee, Billy, and Mary.
This might be paraphrased: James and his friends went to the circus recently.


Timothy Shanahan Dec 03, 2023 08:34 PM

With younger kids, oral language development is important, but by the time kids are in grade 2, the emphasis should have shifted to written language (which is more demanding than oral and more closely related to reading). For written language, I have blogs on this site about sentence comprehension, vocabulary, morphology, text structure, and cohesion. In terms of younger kids, reading to the children, lots of opportunity for discussion, vocabulary teaching, extending student talk (by helping them expand their utterances), etc.


Joan Sedita Dec 04, 2023 12:11 AM

This topic of main idea, whether it should be taught, and how it should be taught is something I have focused on for over 40 years, so this is going to be a long response. Thanks, Tim, for emphasizing in your post that simply asking questions about main ideas is not teaching comprehension. I wish you would have offered more detail about how to do this.

You make a good point that there are many labels associated with main idea (getting the gist, central idea, topic). Regardless of what you call it, the ability to distinguish the big idea from related, supporting details is essential to making meaning while reading. And this does not come naturally to many students. They need explicit instruction about this with lots of guided practice using different types of text, about different topics, in different subjects before they can apply this critical thinking skill as part of their reading comprehension repertoire. And that’s another important point: identifying main ideas while reading should be part of multiple strategies students use at the same time, which is why it should be part of close reading instruction and not taught as an isolated skill.

First, it’s important to emphasize that recognizing the big idea vs supporting details is an important skill/strategy to support comprehension. There are some folks in our field who, in their attempt to promote development of knowledge in place of comprehension strategy instruction as the solution to improving reading comprehension, often use “finding the main idea” as the example of something we should dispense with. Research supports explicit comprehension instruction, including main idea instruction. Klingner and Vaughn’s Collaborative Strategic Reading (Getting the Gist) and Palinscar and Brown’s Reciprocal Teaching (main ideas as part of summarizing) come to mind. And it is one of recommendations in the recent IES Practice Guide for intervention in 4-9.

How do we explicitly teach students to identify main ideas while reading and state thoem in their own words? As noted in the IES guide, teaching a routine for the critical thinking process of finding the main idea is helpful. Beginnin with my work LD students at Landmark School in the 80’s and 90’s, and over the past 20 years providing literacy PD to teachers through Keys to Literacy, , I find it is helpful to teach students to identify essential details and then determine what they have in common. For example, if a paragraph has several detail sentences describing the different types of nests built by birds, then the main idea would be something like “different birds build different types of nests”. This is similar to Klingner and Vaughn’s suggestion to “identify the most important person, place or thing in a paragraph and then state the most important idea about the person, place, or thing”. There are some additional “techniques” we teach students such as “Label the Bucket” and “Goldilocks” designed to support their critical evaluation of the text.

It is also helpful to recognize that main idea can be taught along a scope and sequence, moving from simple to more complex application. This begins with categorizing items or words, then paragraph main ideas where a topic sentence is available and then where it is implied and not stated, then central ideas of multi-paragraphs.

Main idea instruction should be integrated with the application of other comprehension strategies, such as summarizing, paraphrasing to help students state main ideas in their own words, and note taking where students jot down main ideas and key details

Finally, I agree with Tim’s point that texts often used for main idea practice are “vapid, sapid, and wasteful”. This is often a result of trying to teach main idea as an isolated skill rather than providing instruction and guided practice during subject instruction using real text. As I noted at the start, main idea instruction and guided practice needs to be integrated with other close reading and comprehension strategy instruction using real text, taught by teachers of all subjects who use a consistent approach and terminology for that instruction.

Debra Meyer Dec 21, 2023 09:07 PM

My then 7th grade dyslexic son's class in an elite dyslexia school read this article: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/21/us/21artist.html in a "Newsela" version. When the teacher asked what kind of writing project they should do hoping to elicit the "document based query", instead heard from my son that they should write the incarcerated person a letter. Other children were astounded as "prisoners don't deserve letters" and a rich discussion ensued. To try to get the class back, the teacher asked what the article was about. One kid said prison, a second kid said art and my kid said "redemption".

Amy Feb 18, 2024 11:27 PM

I get confused with the emphasis on building background knowledge and using texts 2 years above grade level when teaching Reading (comprehension). Actually it seems we are teaching or measuring listening comprehension. My kids are really great about listening to my read alouds, discussing them, and making connections. However this knowledge does not transfer to assessments because everything in the classroom has been read to them. We've missed the important part of actually teaching reading skills (how to read) and my kids are on average 2 years below where they should be in reading ability. So, while they are 2 years below grade level, I'm reading books 2 years above grade level, and on independent assessments (both universal screeners, phonics assessments, and written Reading tests) my students simply can't transfer the knowledge. Can you speak to this idea about Listening Comprehension versus Reading Comprehension? Wouldn't Reading Comprehension only be if students are actually able to read the text?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 19, 2024 01:19 AM


Why would you teach students with textbook two grades above level? That makes no sense. Reading comprehension requires, well, reading. Reading it to the kids might do you some good, but it won't help their reading comprehension. I have written about listening comprehension versus reading comprehension on this site (look up listening comprehension). Reading the texts to the students is not a good way to go. There are blog entries and publications on teaching with complex text-- get back to grade level and try some of those instructional moves.


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Why Main Idea is Not the Main Idea – Or, How Best to Teach Reading Comprehension


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