What do we mean by “main idea”?

main idea

There are many interpretations of the term “main idea” or “central idea” as related to the Common Core standards. In my search for clarity, I have turned to the 1986 text Teaching Main Idea Comprehension, edited by Jim Baumann. (Sadly, this book is out of print, but there are still used copies available.) In the first chapter, James Cunningham and David Moore propelled my thinking forward. They describe research into the many interpretations of “main idea” – in the field by teachers, students, and in the professional literature on the topic. They explain main idea as “the general, umbrella term” and beneath that umbrella are “nine specific types” of main idea tasks:

  • gist
  • interpretation
  • key word
  • selective summary/selective diagram
  • theme
  • title
  • topic
  • topic issue
  • topic sentence/thesis sentence
  • other

Below I’ve attached a PDF of three pages from this chapter that explain these tasks and provide clarity. THESE ARE REALLY WORTH READING. This makes sense to me – that there are many interpretations of main idea and, in the end, it’s a broad term that encompasses basically a set of tasks or even skills that we should be able to employ fluently. I’m not saying – let’s go out and teach these nine tasks, though. I corresponded with Cunningham via email and he replied (regarding his and Moore’s current views) – “We’re not wedded to the notion that we captured exactly the right set of variations of the main idea, though” (12/16/2013, personal email). He explained further – see more in my next blog entry.

Teaching Main Idea Comprehension 1986

So my thinking is evolving and I’m beginning to understand why our students need more clarity when we ask them to identify the “main idea” in a passage. We need to break this down for students and be more explicit.

In my book Teaching Close Reading of Informational Texts, in the sample lessons I describe, I’m asking students to “synthesize the ideas in informational text” – I’m asking them to focus on the theme of the text. (I even use “theme” as synonymous for my “central idea” in my definition of synthesis). Cunningham and Moore (1986) define theme as “a generalization about life, the world, or the universe that the passage as a whole develops, implies, or illustrates but which is not topic or key word specific” (p. 7). For example, if we did a close reading of an excerpt from Marching for Freedom, one theme that might emerge is “perseverance is an important element in effectively pursuing change.”

marching for freedom

This is different than the gist – “a summary of the explicit contents of a passage achieved by creating generalized statements that subsumed specific information and then deleting that specific (and now redundant) information” (Cunningham & Moore, p. 6). So the gist of the excerpt from Marching for Freedom might be “In the early 60’s, in Dallas County, Alabama, civil rights activist like Amelia Boynton pursued helping African Americans register to vote despite obstacles like unfair literacy tests administered by government agencies and physical intimidation by opponents.”

What’s important here is that we need to be careful when we ask students to identify the “main idea” of a passage. What do we mean by this? Do we mean the topic? The gist? The theme? Even an interpretation? We need to clarify and explicitly define for our students. Also, I don’t think we teach one and not the other – students need both. Theme helps students use what they learned from one text to interpret the content in other texts. (Cunningham & Moore’s definition of interpretation – “a summary of the possible or probable implicit contents of a passage,” p. 6).

I have more to say about this – of course 🙂


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