Helping Your Child Find the Main Idea

By Kathy Stemke

It is important that children learn how to discern the main idea of a paragraph or a story as early as possible. State-mandated tests often include reading comprehension sections where the child is expected to be able to pick out the main idea. More importantly, when they master this skill their reading comprehension will improve markedly, and they will enjoy reading much more.

Many children think that the first line of a story or essay is always the main idea. To help them understand that the main idea is what the whole story is about tell them to “think of a story as a meal.” It starts with an appetizer whose job it is to entice the reader to continue. We often call this first paragraph the introduction. It’s followed by the side dishes which add a variety of flavors to the story, or additional information to make it fuller. The main dish is the meat of the meal or the main focus, the main idea. Dessert is the final part of the meal where the story winds down to a conclusion.

What we are looking for in the main idea of a story is simply the main course of the dinner, the “meat.” A good way for children to start this process is by putting things in categories such as things you wear, fruits, or vegetables. When they come up with a list of clothing items, discuss that the broad term or main idea is that they are all things you wear.

Next, go into finding the actual main idea of stories. Start with non-fiction books, because they are much easier for a young child to understand. Then, go into fiction stories. Here are a couple of games that will help children practice finding the topic sentence or main idea.

Guess the Topic!

Write a paragraph that doesn't have a topic sentence and have the child guess the topic. Just write supporting sentences.

For example, you could say, "You color with them. They come in many different colors. You can make beautiful pictures with them." When they guess crayons, ask them if it would have been easier to start the paragraph with, "I love crayons?"

Topic Sentence Match Up!

Understanding the main idea of a paragraph can be tough for beginning readers. Here's an exercise you can do to help them see the difference between the main idea and the supporting facts.

Write each topic sentence on a separate index card.

Topic: Dogs are friendly animals.
Topic: I love the winter.
Topic: Candy isn't good for you.

Write each detail on a separate index card.

Detail: They are always waiting for their owners to come home.
Detail: They want to sit with you.
Detail: There are a lot of fun things to do, like sledding and snowball fights.
Detail: We go skiing.
Detail: Every time I eat it, I get a stomachache.
Detail: It's not good for my teeth.

Mix them all up, turn them face up, and match up a topic with two details.

Main Idea Flower Diagram

Another great teaching tool is to diagram the main idea of a paragraph by using a picture of a flower with a thick stem, a large round center and four long petals. The main idea goes on the stem. The topic sentence is written in the center. The four details are written on the petals.

Soon your child will be picking the main idea out of every paragraph or story. This skill will help them understand what they are reading. Better reading comprehension skills will build a firm foundation for your child's education. This is necessary for understanding textbooks in science and social studies. When they understand what they are reading, they will retain more information, and enjoy learning.

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Nicole weaver said...

What an informative post. I hope you do not mind me making a copy of this article to share with my middle and high school students. You have no idea how so many of them are still clueless on this very important topic. In fact, tomorrow we start a standardized test called CSAP. All teachers have to administer this test for the four days. Thank you, I really like the analogy you used to explain your topic. Great, great post. Mil merci, mil gracias, a thousand thanks.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful, Kathy and so helpful too! Thanks for posting!

Unknown said...

Thanks for stopping by Nancy and Nicole. I'm so glad you can use the information with your students, Nicole.

Karen Cioffi said...

Wow, Kathy this is a great article. It's full of useful tips to help a child comprehend a story's main subject.

Janet Ann Collins said...

This is very helpful, and I haven't seen anything like it recently.

Karen Lange said...

Great info, thanks so much. Am tutoring a sixth grader for this very thing and these ideas will dovetail nicely.

Accountant, Author & Freelance Writer said...

Interesting way to present an important topic. Great job!

Donna J. Shepherd said...

Very helpful!

Dallas said...

What fun and helpful activities! I also loved the video. Keep up the great work Kathy!!

All best,

Unknown said...

Thanks for stopping by everyone.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Looking forward to my guest appearance here on the 15th!

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