Main Idea and Details: Six Scaffolded Activities to Help Your Students

Do your students struggle with figuring out the main idea? Elementary teachers through fifth grade are always trying to come up with ways to help their students with this skill. Sometimes main ideas are easy to identify—and sometimes they are much more difficult. However, if your students have a good foundation with what a main idea really is, they will be more likely to have success. Today, I am outlining a step by step scaffolded approach to teaching your students about main idea, starting with identifying a topic. While some of these ideas may seem too “little” for your grade level, they really can help build up their foundation.

Struggling with teaching main idea and details to your class? These activities help you build their foundation as they learn the difference between topic, main idea, and supporting details.

I'm going to talk to you about activities listed on this pyramid from the bottom up. You can grab the activities mentioned here.

1. Identifying the Topic

In this activity, students are given a bag with six images to study. The images are all related in some way. Students will identify the topic of the bag. (Ex: seaweed, water, octopus, shark, whale, coral, topic: ocean) When looking at one picture alone it may be hard to identify the topic, but when the images are together, students can figure it out.
Students will identify the topic of a collection of pictures.
The topic of these images is baking.

How to Differentiate Identifying the Topic

  • Give younger students topic cards to match the pictures to
  • Give older students real life photographs to study 

2. Understanding How Words are Related

Similar to the previous activity, students will look at a group of words to determine how they are related. Now, you may feel that this is the same activity as the previous one, but it really isn’t. By having students look at the words, they start to think about how words in a text are connected. (This will help them later when they have to figure out how details support the main idea.)
Six words are given to students. It's up to them to determine that plants is the topic, and the other words support the topic. You can have a discussion about how they are all related.

How to Differentiate Understanding How Words are Related

  • Give younger students simple words that they have interacted with before (leaf, pumpkin, scarf)
  • Give older students higher order vocabulary to relate (solid, liquid, gas)

3. Understanding How Sentences are Related

In this activity, students are provided three detail sentences and have to determine how they are related. This gets students thinking like an author, (which prepares them for the next levels).

The reason this helps:

Instead of simply handing students a paragraph and asking them what the topic or main idea is, this activity has students start by looking at the actual words in the sentences. What words are repeated? How are those words related to each other? (Like our previous activity taught them to think about!) What does the author seem to be describing or telling me about?

This activity allows them to think like a writer. They can ask themselves, what would I write as the main idea of this paragraph? Then, when it is time for them to search a paragraph for a main idea, they are already familiar with thinking like an author!

4. Writing a Main Idea and Details Paragraph

In this activity, students are provided various facts about a topic and are asked to construct a main idea and details paragraph. Once again, students are thinking like a writer. How do the facts relate to each other? What would my main idea be?
Providing an extensive fact list about a topic allows the students to look for facts that are related to each other. Not only are they learning about a specific topic, but they begin to look for main ideas among related facts.

How to Differentiate Writing a Main Idea and Details Paragraph

  • Give younger students a simple graphic organizer to fill in if they have not been taught paragraph structure yet
  • Give older students facts related to science/social studies topics you are studying

5. Reading to Identify the Main Idea

In this activity, students are given mixed up sentences from a paragraph and must identify which one is the main idea and which ones are the details.
Students must determine which sentence ties them all together.
This higher-order-thinking skill forces them to look at the actual content of the sentences, think about how they are related, and determine which sentence ties them all together. Students begin to develop a deeper understanding of how main ideas and details are related to each other.
This activity allows students to determine how main ideas and details are related.
>>>>You can try this main idea and details activity for free! The freebie includes ways you can differentiate this activity for students in second through fifth grades.<<<<

6. Explaining How Details Support

After students have identified which sentence from the paragraph is the main idea, it’s time for them to justify their answer. Students will explain how they know the details support the main idea. This takes the activity from simply identifying the main idea, to defending how you know that was the main idea.

I hope these activities help you support your students through their understanding of topic and main idea and details.

Resources Mentioned:

Main Idea and Details Scaffolded Activities
Main Idea and Details Sentence Sort Bundle

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