Helping students identify two or more main/central ideas in a text

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I’ve been thinking about how we can help students identifying multiple main/central ideas in a text. Traditionally we’ve focused on identifying one main idea, but beginning in 5th grade (and continuing in 6th and 7th), the Common Core Standards for Reading Informational Texts expect students to be able to “determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.”

An easy access point may be to read an article or essay about a historical figure and ask the students to think about and list the character traits of that person-as revealed in the trait. We did this in a lesson with a group of fifth grade students who were reading a four page text about Frederick Douglass (in their Wonders basal). (BTW-This lesson only used the Wonders text as a resource; we were not following the lesson plan provided in the basal.) The students had already read the text once with a focus on the text-dependent question, “How did How did Frederick Douglass try to bring about positive (good) change for African Americans?” The students were able to identify important details to answer this question easily–he spoke in public, he published a newspaper, he wrote a biography and so forth.

Then I posed a more difficult text-dependent question, “What character traits did Frederick Douglass exhibit (while advocating for African Americans)? What in the text makes you think so?” We started by talking in small groups to generate a list of traits and then shared out. I listed their suggestions on the dry erase board. (See image below.) Notice how I wrote the students’ language to the left (next to bullets) and then added Tier Two vocabulary as we went. For example, one student said, “He never gives up.” I wrote this down and so, “So another way we could say that is that he was determined?” The student nodded and I added that to the list as well.

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Each one of these traits listed could serve as a main/central idea in the text. There are multiple details from the text that could be used to make the case that he was inspirational or determined or tenacious. We tackled one together as part of shared note-takinghe was able to overcome his fear of speaking. (See the image below with three-column notes; these notes were projected on a screen with a document camera–for all students to see.) We explained our thinking (2nd column), cited evidence from the text and explained why it was evidence (3rd column). These notes helped the students begin the body of an analytic essay in which they described three main ideas in the text. The list of traits we’d created would serve as a resource when they continued taking notes and writing about additional main ideas in the text.

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For me, this experience revealed an easy way for students to start identifying multiple main ideas in the same text.

Hope this helps.

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