What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea?

Main Idea PosterIn my ongoing belief that we, as teachers, learn much when we try to do the tasks we assign to students, I asked a group of teachers I worked with to do a task that was part of a 5th grade nonfiction reading and writing unit recommended by the NYC Department of Ed. The unit, designed by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, asked students to read and watch several texts and videos related to zoos and endangered animals in order to ultimately write an opinion essay. But before they took a stance on the topic, the students had to complete a smaller task for each text and video they studied, one of which the teachers and I agreed to try out ourselves.

For this task, students had to read an adapted excerpt from journalist Thomas French’s book Zoo Story, called “The Swazi Eleven.” The excerpt focused on a group of elephants who were flown from game reserves in Swaziland to two zoos in the States because of a slew of problems. And after reading the piece, the student were prompted to “summarize the main ideas and supporting details,” so that the teacher could see if “you can spot the main ideas and show how they are supported with key details.”

Zoo StoryThe piece is a wonderful choice of text, but when I announced the task to the teachers, anxiety filled the air. Clearly we all felt the pressure to perform what turned out to not be such a simple task. If you click through to the piece, you’ll see that it’s quite complicated; it explores multiple points of view about multiple problems and solutions that have multiple causes and effects, and some of these aren’t explicitly stated—which meant that we couldn’t simply look for a main idea sentence, which is something we teach students to do.

Additionally, as we tried to write we wrestled with another problem: What was the prompt really looking for? One teacher used a strategy she’d taught her students to use: she identified the who, what, when, where, and why. But in doing so, she feared she’d reduced the complexity of the piece to a single perspective. Another felt that writing a summary of the main ideas was something of an oxymoron, with summaries sticking to the surface of the text and main ideas going deeper. Several of us, on the other hand, sought to capture what we saw as the big picture, which had to do with how human beings had messed things up for animals. But in trying to do that in a timed setting, we left out critical details. I, for one, neglected to mention elephants, while a colleague forgot to note zoos.

As we debriefed the experience—which began with relief that we weren’t getting graded—we acknowledged how challenging this was with a complex text and how inadequate much of the instruction we offer to students is. Too often, for instance, we model finding the main idea with a text that’s simply too simple—e.g., one in which the main idea is explicitly stated in the text. Or we model in ways that are, frankly, confusing, with the supporting details not really connected to the supposed main idea.

All these problems and more were on display in the student work I recently looked at with a 7th grade teacher. She’d decided to supplement her students’ reading of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with several nonfiction articles about unusual traditions around the world. And in addition to considering the thematic connection to “The Lottery,” she wanted to use these nonfiction pieces to give her students practice in finding the main idea.

To do this, she broke the class into small groups and gave each group an article to look at, including one about a small town in Spain that celebrates the town’s patron Saint Goat Throwing in SpainDay by throwing a live goat from the church’s bell tower. Then she asked each group to read their text, discuss it, then create a chart that noted the main idea and supporting details.

Several groups cited the topic (which was usually the name of the tradition) as the main idea, writing down, for instance, “The Day of the Dead” at the top of their charts. That made us suspect that some students weren’t sure about the difference between a topic and an idea. And while, as you can see below, the group that read the goat throwing article was able to do more than that, we weren’t sure there if they understood the difference between a fact and an idea (which we had to wrestle with ourselves) or if they realized that a main idea could be implicit, rather than explicit, which meant that they might have to do more than chose a sentence to quote.


What seemed interesting, though, was that the supporting details this group cited did all seem to point to an idea: that this tradition was quite controversial. Recognizing this allowed the teacher and I to formulate a way of talking about ideas versus facts. As I suggested in an earlier post, ideas often explore a fact or event through one or more of the following lenses: compare and contrast, problem and solution, cause and effect, and/or claim and support. And as I wrote about theme, we might do better if, rather than asking students what the text is about, we asked, “What about what it’s about?”

We also thought that whether that group was aware of it or not, they had, in fact, noticed a pattern: a handful of details about what people thought about the tradition. And if they considered what the writer might be trying to show them through that pattern, they might be able to construct a main idea, rather than identify or find it. But that would require a change in the kind of thinking we ask students to do.

Deduction InductionWhether they’re in the shape of a flower, a table, a fishbone or a hamburger, most of the graphic organizers we have kids fill out ask them to think deductively—that is, to come up with a large generalized idea first then think about what supports that. Starting with the details, however, and then thinking about what ideas they might point to involves inductive thinking. And while deductive thinking often works in texts where a general idea is spelled out, many students simply have no idea how to ‘spot’ a main idea when it’s not right there for the spotting, and they need to see how use details to build those bigger ideas.

Finally, I noticed another pattern in the goat throwing piece that seemed to have implications for thinking about main ideas: recurring references to how no one really knew the origin or purpose of the custom. The same, I think, is true of the way we tend to teach the main idea. We do it the way it’s traditionally been done, with the same old strategies and worksheets, without necessarily questioning why or assessing the strategies’ effectiveness. And in this new world we find ourselves in, with its emphasis on complex texts, perhaps it’s time to think more complexly about the main idea.

20 thoughts on “What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea?

  1. Hi Vicki!! First I have to laugh that once again we seem to be on the same posting schedule! I had taken a breather after my Dad died. THIS is right on the money, especially in naming the kinds of thinking we are asking kids to do and how hard it is for many, including adults!! I too am a great advocate of asking teachers to “do” or to “think” in the ways that we ask our kids to. Too often we “assume” that they can do what is expected without realizing how it is the details that matter and that always change things.
    Loved having you here in NH!! Hope to see you at NCTE!!

    • More and more I’ve come to think that it’s always the details that matter–and that as readers & writers & teachers we do best when we follow Nabokov injunction and “Caress the detail” to coax it to yield meaning. Will look for you in Boston this weekend!

  2. So spot on! Teaching grade 4 and have struggled teaching this many times thinking about: what makes a summary different from a main idea? And how can I get the students to understand when I struggle. Thanks a lot for this post.

    • Thanks, Alex. This reminds me that struggles can also be seen as opportunities to learn–whether it’s the teacher or the kids figuring something out. Of course the Common Core Standards have complicate things here as the new tests seem to be dropping the term “main idea” for “central idea”. Is there a difference between those? Who knows! But maybe by changing the terms they’re hoping we change our vision of what it means.

  3. I love this post!, Vicki! And yes, we always learn so much when we try out the tasks that we are asking kids to do! Also, the model you present for induction (in at final organizer) is very similar to them model that Kate R. & Chris L. offer for close reading in their book Falling in love with Close Reading–coincidence? Thanks for the great post.

    • Dorothy and I did talk about inductive thinking in What Readers Really Do, so either Kate & Chris noticed it there and recognized its significance or, as two smart people struggling to figure out how better to help kids read, they arrived at the same idea, too. Either way, I think kids will benefit from seeing how we can grow ideas, not find them lying on the ground.

  4. Vicki,
    Wow. This is cool thinking. There’s a lot there to try to puzzle out. It’s interesting because my teaching buddy, Megan, and I have been trying to figure out how to help our fourth graders enter informational texts more effectively. They’ve been doing such deep thinking about fiction, but that hasn’t quite translated into the realm of informational text. Probably there’s a lot to think about why that’s the case, but one of the reasons, I think, is that they get to the level of topic, but not much farther. (As I watch myself read, I realize that I start with a topic, too, as in…This piece I’m reading is about…) However, your “what about, what-it-is-about” is a good second and third step. The huge benefit of that question over formulas and graphic organizers is that a question generates thinking, whereas using a graphic organizer, by definition, becomes a filling-in, or search and find activity. We shouldn’t have to figure out “main ideas” until we’ve thought about the piece, tossed it around, and explored it for awhile.

    As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve found them to be very important for my teaching.

    PS. I wonder if the graphic organizers came from older versions of writing, almost like what you’d do with those note cards (actual paper!) from my youth, and then transplanted into reading at some point?

    • I’ve been thinking I might need a Part 2 post to dig into the idea that you’ve articulated here, that those organizers don’t really promote thinking, they ask you to demonstrate it. Or put another way, they’ve become a product, not a part of a process. And if you can do all that thinking in your head, you don’t really need the organizer to help you, and if you need help in the process of thinking, the organizer’s simply no use. Interesting to think, though, how notecards might be useful, because you could manipulate them. You could also spread them out to help you cluster patterns and see where some connect. There’s probably an app that would do that, too, but personally I like notecards.

      And P.S. Loved your post about Reading, the Thing You Do, or Reading, the Class. And as for the question of what you’re teaching them, I wonder if the answer isn’t that books are wonderful and thinking about them is thrilling.

      • We finished The One and Only Ivan today. The kids cheered. They cried. So did I. That’s worth something, ain’t it, under fluorescent lights and a slate-gray November sky in an old brick school in Iowa? “It’s never too late…” 🙂

      • Despite the belatedly reply, know that this made me cheer & get teary, too. It is, indeed, worth something. And how much better is it for kids to learn that “It’s never too late to be what you might have been,” which involved all sorts of thinking strategies and skills, than to ‘master’ questioning? I’d say, a whole lot.

  5. Vicki,
    I love working with inductive thinking. We’ve used the Picture Word Inductive Model with elementary students and then used sentence sets with high school students as we looked at patterns. As you said, it’s when the main idea is not explicitly stated that the reader has a problem and graphic organizers do just become fill in the blank activities. This is also the reason why a specific “formula” or “process” for close reading often fails the student and does not transfer to independent reading materials of their own choice!

    And a second point, we have to do better with instruction that has students working with complex text in ways that make sense! The what is the thinking – not the regurgitation of first sentences from paragraphs (typical main ideas)!

    It is so important that teachers work with the same tasks as students. It allows them to anticipate sticky spots and also requires some conversation to work through the many possibilities. And of course, if instruction has not been aligned with the assessment, the mismatch will create even more difficulties for the learners! If it was easy, we would already be doing it!

    Have fun and learn lots at NCTE13!

    • Your comment sparked an idea and a question. I wonder if the behind both of your points is that we need complex, text-based thinking, not text-dependent questions for complex texts. And what is the Picture Word Inductive Model and the sentence sets? Sounds intriguing.

      Will try to tweet at NCTE, but still afraid I can’t listen and tweet at the same time!

      • Absolutely correct about the fact that we need students to be doing complex, text-based thinking and not answering text-dependent questions for complex texts. There is no mention of “text-dependent questions” in the CCSS (I personally checked). Too many authors are stopping short with the questions and answers as the end result and students are missing out on the “struggle with the text” that is necessary for complex texts.

        Emily Calhoun developed and wrote about PWIM for ASCD. Here’s the chapter that explains -http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/199025/chapters/Describing-the-Picture-Word-Inductive-Model.aspx At one point the entire book was online but I have not checked lately. In our sentence work developed by Bev Showers, the teacher chooses sentences from a short story for a data set that the students categorize and label. Some absolutely hate it because it’s hard and “these sentences start with the” is not acceptable!

        Have fun at NCTE! I have to have a full-size keyboard to tweet. I can’t poke at the letters one-at-a-time and keep the message in my brain and continue listening simultaneously – too old to multi-task well!!!

  6. VIcki,
    My students seem to fall into two categories: the ones who stop short with the topic and the ones who get lost in the details. Thank you for strategies that honor the diverse ways we process information. “Finding” the main idea has been like seeking the holy grail. If students (and teachers) realize their job is to construct the idea not find it, we might promote that inductive thinking you speak of!

    • So true that finding the main idea is like seeking the holy grail! But let’s just remember how lost those knights got and that, in the end, what was important was the quest, which sometimes took them to amazing places that weren’t what they expected. Now . . . before I start singing songs to Camelot, I better pack for Boston. And if by chance you’re at NCTE, let me know as I’d love to say hi in person.

    • I can’t really take credit for that, Audra, as I got it from a book Janet Burroway wrote about writing fiction–though perhaps I’ll take credit for recognizing that it’s as useful to ask when it comes to main ideas as it is to thinking about themes. And hope to see you at NCTE!

  7. Pingback: Wanted: “Complex, Text-Based Thinking by Students” | Resource - Full

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