Probably one of the hardest comprehension skills I have attempted to teach students is main idea. There are a few common struggles that I see among my students with language disorders including:

  • Being able to choose the main idea, but not generate their own statement
  • Confusing details with main idea
  • Simply restating the title

There are days that I feel I’ve talked myself hoarse and around in circles trying to convey the message and my students continue to look at me quizzically! However, with several students working on this concept this year (…..goals of my own writing), I’ve had ample time and ample motivation to figure it out. So, from my own experience, here are a few tips that I’ve employed.

*Note* As I started to write these, i kept trying to come up with a defined “starting point” for treatment, but realized that I really couldn’t. Where you start really depends on the individual student and what he or she is already bringing to the table. Each of the following ideas could be a potential starting point, depending on your kiddo.

1 | Use books or movies that are already familiar.

I had some of my best success this year using popular or favorite movies or books that students had recently finished. Using the good ole-fashioned white board, we were able to discuss the stimulus in detail, including the title, characters, events, problems, etc… and slowly piece the information apart into appropriate “main idea” and “detail” headings. Giving students some sort of limit at the start seemed also to help. For example, “you have to explain your favorite movie to me in just one sentence.” Usually, they would begin with the entire story, stacking run-on on top of run-on. By listening to their words and helping them break them down within their familiarity we were able to formulate that one sentence, then move on to the rest.

2 | Go all the way back to categories.

For some students, a long trek backwards was necessary. However, by asking them to begin with a task that was already known to them – listening to a list of related words, then formulate the category label for them as a group – we were able to start working our way towards understanding classification, which could then lead to main idea generation.

3 | Go sentence-level.

When memory and comprehension are a struggle, keeping up with all of the details from a story can be overwhelming for the student attempting to reason them together into a main idea. By working at a 1-2 sentence level, students were able to better retain the information itself, which made it easier for them to grasp the concept at hand.

4 | Ask them to generate titles.

After presenting information title-less, I will often ask students to come up with their own title for the story. Sometimes, I’ll begin by exploring a few books or movies that are familiar, discussing how their title relates to the main idea of the story. Similar to the one sentence summary, this forces students to look at all of the information presented and condense into a short, succinct idea.

Ready to get started? Check out a few resources that may be helpful!

  • This blog post from Teaching Made Practical provided ideas and resources that I found super helpful!
  • Main Idea Practice Pages for Beginners offers short, simple stories for main idea and generation and an easy way to connect the dots to a supporting detail.
  • I love this hands-on activity with visual stimulus for teaching the concept without burdensome passages.
  • My own Auditory Comprehension Short Stories target main idea and details, as well as concrete question and inferences, in short, 4-sentence stories, including fiction and non-fiction.