Monday, October 31, 2011

Teaching Main Idea

Some readers never struggle with identifying the main idea of a text.  If you teach reading class, it is likely that you are one of those readers, in which case you may not understand the process involved in determining the main idea in a passage.  If this skill comes easily to you, you may not realize that recognizing the main idea is a multistage process, and struggling readers may have trouble taking any one of these steps.  This article will explain how readers extract main ideas from texts and will better prepare you to teach students to identify main ideas in nonfiction passages.

Determining Main Idea

Determining the main idea in a text is a second order reading skill.  That is to say, readers must first comprehend the text.  After comprehending the text, readers must further examine the information within the passage and find commonalities.  By finding connections and drawing conclusions, the reader ultimately makes a logical inference determining the primary idea in text.  To further complicate the matter, many texts often contain nonessential information that may distract readers from the main idea of the passage.  So readers may have to recognize and disregard information that does not relate to the main idea of the paragraph or passage.  Here are some tips to help struggling students identify the main idea in a variety of passages:

1.  Read the Entire Passage: many so-called experts will tell readers to focus mainly on the first and last sentences of a paragraph to find the main idea, and while at times this may prove useful, test writers are aware of this trick and often won't structure their paragraphs so simply.  Additionally, it is a best practice to read and comprehend the texts on which you are evaluated, rather than trying to cut corners and find "too good to be true" shortcuts.

2.  Ask, "What is the author doing?": Make sure that you answer this question in your own words.  If you have to cherry pick information from the text to answer this question, you do not have a thorough understanding of the text and should reread the passage if time allows it.

3.  Practice Makes Perfect: As with most things, we improve our efficacy through practice and repetition.  So, practice identifying main ideas in a variety of passages with these main idea worksheets.

The "Another Good Title For This Passage" Trick

Another favorite trick of the test writers is to ask test takers what "another good title for this passage would be."  Inexperience test takes are often confused an misled by this question.  Victims of this trick mistakenly believe that they are actually looking for the best title of the passage, but that is not the case.  Rather, this question is a disguised form of the main idea question.  So, if you encounter such a question at anytime in the future, remember that you are not actually looking for the best title.  Rather, you are attempting to find the title that most accurately summarizes the main idea of the text.

Teaching main idea can be most difficult for good readers, to whom this skill comes naturally.  But, by remembering that identifying the main idea of a text is actually a multistage process that requires instruction, modeling, and practice to learn, you can teach your struggling readers to reliably identify the main idea in texts.

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