Tag Archives: writing in response to nonfiction texts

Do they really get what the main idea means?

Can your students explain what their main idea statement means? Is a superficial understanding or misunderstanding of the main idea impacting their ability to identify or explain supporting details?

We need to give students time to unpack the main idea. It’s worth it and pays off when they begin to identify key details and explain how those details support the main idea.

A few other suggestions:

  1. Help students unpack a main idea by asking them to define a particular vocabulary word or phrase in the main idea statement. This may mean they have to look the word up!!!!! For example, if the student is writing about how tornadoes are powerful, do they understand that powerful, in this case, means having or producing a lot of physical strength or having an impact on something? Or if they are explaining the achievements of a historical figure, do they understand that achievement means something done successfully with effort, courage or skill?  And if they are explaining how skyscrapers have changed over time to become safer, do they understand ideas like change over time (how something becomes or is made different during a period of time) and safer (free from harm or risk) mean?
  1. Ask students to underline and annotate key words and phrases in the main idea statement. Below is a photo from a shared “unpacking the main idea” experience with a small group of 3rd/4th grade students in response to a NewsELA article about a blind student named Amare. The annotations might include:
  • definitions,
  • synonyms,
  • “this makes me think…” statements
  • connections to background knowledge or details in other texts
  • etc.

  1. Provide time for students to used their annotated main ideas to discuss what they are thinking or understanding–during think-pair-share. I find it helpful to model thinking through the annotated statement and how I would explain the main idea using the annotations.
  2. If the students are writing an essay that begins with a main idea statement, ask them to explain the main idea (in a few sentences) before identifying and elaborating on supporting details. The photo below is from the shared writing experience with third/fourth grade students. The second sentence is one that I wrote – but student “H” composed orally first.

An instructional thought—engage students in a shared experience unpacking the main idea. Together define key words, underline and annotate, write. This might be for the first article in a text set. As the students read and respond to additional texts, they begin to take charge of unpacking the main idea.

Hope this helps.