The Main Idea About Finding the Main Idea

By March 8, 2015 No Comments

Yes, but how do you really separate “main idea” from “theme” or “author’s message” or even “moral”? We use so many different terms, and we don’t all mean the same things when we say them.


This comment came from a fourth grade teacher, after she and 40 of her colleagues had spent the morning working through a cycle of close reading tasks with a short, grade four, nonfiction text, in an effort to weed out the main idea.

We had completed multiple reads through different lenses, created columned charts, researched the difficulties, and discussed the text in partners and small groups. And yet when it came time for each group to propose a main idea of this fairly straightforward informational text, and to offer textual evidence of where and how the author introduced and developed that main idea, our responses differed widely and surprisingly. And we’re the teachers. The group expectation had understandably been that we would all come up with—wording variations aside—pretty much the same (read “right”) answer. But we hadn’t, and we were uncomfortable, and we all had more questions than answers.

theme vs. main idea

Isn’t the response from the back table really more of a theme than a main idea? 

I’m confused about main idea and author’s message. Do we only discuss main idea in terms of nonfiction texts and author’s message is the term we use for literature?

But then what do we do with literary nonfiction, like essays and memoirs?

Yes, and we’re calling this an informational text, but this author clearly has a message. I think this is strongly persuasive writing, and it has a narrative quality to it.

How can we expect our students to succeed if we’re not even in agreement about these things?

And then the ubiquitous. . .

And how do we prepare them for the test, where they have to choose the correct answer?

“Well,” I waded in, “let’s look back at what we’ve done.”

After completing several cycles of comprehension work earlier that morning, we moved in on the main idea of the text without the aid of a mini-lesson, or check list, or graphic organizer to guide us in pinning down that slippery thing. There was much murmuring at tables, signifying a fair amount of discomfort around asking students to “speculate” about main idea without these traditional tools (scaffolds, if you will).

“But this is inquiry-based learning,” I reminded the group, “so it is going to feel backward for many of us.” Okay then. We all took a deep breath and dove in.

Small groups created “main idea” charts. We then concluded that from ten tables there were only four significantly different responses. The four groups whose charts best represented those key responses talked us through their thinking and described the work they had done. We all took notes on what we heard them say. We titled our notes, “What We Do to Identify the Main Idea.”

We listed things like

  • Look for repetition.
  • Discuss our different viewpoints.
  • Test our ideas by rereading.
  • See how the different sections of the texts connect to each other.
  • Re-examine introduction and conclusion.
  • Consider the title.
  • Consider why the author includes the specific information in the text.
  • Debate respectfully.
  • Separate details that support an idea from the idea itself.


We all became more comfortable with the seemingly backward structure of the work, realizing that the process allows students to be the experts, reporting what they did that worked, rather than being told in advance how their work should look and unfold.

In the end, our groups hadn’t come up with the same “main idea” answer, but they had used many of the same tools and strategies to identify strong responses, and in fact, it was those tools and those strategies, rather than the tidy “right” answer, that we were really after all along.

One teacher observed at the end of the morning, “Main idea is just not that concrete. In thinking about preparing students for testing, we need to move away from thinking about some formula. Even if such a formula existed it wouldn’t really help students. This process, these tools will help students, both on assessments, but more importantly in their overall literacy.”

And isn’t that really the main idea?