Ms. Jasztal's Reading Comprehension Series: Main Idea and Supporting Details

By Victoria Jasztal on February 18, 2010
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

When students read or listen to non-fiction, they must locate details that pertain to the main idea of the selection. Whenever we study a new unit in class, we rely on our prior knowledge and use focus questions as well as text features to help "set the purpose" for what we are preparing to read. This week's entry about locating the main idea and supporting details in a selection will help your students work on the most important skill in reading, and the most tested skill on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, in our case.

Vocabulary to Teach Your Students

  • Main Idea: The main message the author is conveying to the reader
  • Supporting Details: The information that "backs" up the main message
  • Schema: Prior knowledge before reading the selection
  • Acquire: I tell my students to gather or "acquire knowledge" as they read, to "expand their schema" of the topic.
  • Text Features: Prior to reading the selection, have students look for text features. I have used this printable tally sheet (PDF) from, which teaches about cutaway diagrams, sidebars, labeled pictures/diagrams, subtitles, and picture sequences/flow charts. This sheet has made my students more aware of text features and helped them "set the purpose" before reading. Along with this sheet, students wrote thick questions that were answered for the reader by looking at the text features.


Currently, my students are having 3-4 center rotations in one morning for a duration of 30 minutes each. Lately, I have been thinking of many creative ways for my students to focus on the skill of main idea and supporting details through audio podcasts, video podcasts, books on tape, board games, and printable resources that have been made available to me.

Idea #1: Record yourself reading a selection and put it on a CD or iPod

Implementation: My students are studying oceanography because we have been reading Adelina's Whales in the Macmillan Treasures series, as well as, a selection about coral reefs. We also recently studied Thomas Alva Edison because our unit in science was about electricity and he was born on February 11, 1847. Two ways I have recorded myself have been:

  • Going to Scholastic News online as well as the TIME for Kids website to find articles about coral reefs that I can record for my students to listen to on CD. I used the recording program, Audacity, to make this possible. By recording myself reading the articles in Audacity, I was able to introduce a few more difficult articles to read and explain the more challenging vocabulary used in the articles. One article was about how the freezing temperatures in Florida have impacted the coral reefs.
  • Second, I recorded myself reading a Reading A-Z selection about Thomas Alva Edison (level Z benchmark selection).
  • After recording your podcast (which I imported to an .mp3 file and put on CD using iTunes), either create your own sheet or use a sheet that encourages your students to search for pertinent details. Expository Text Structure (PDF) from is the file I am referencing for the center rotation about coral reefs. Then for the recording about Thomas Edison, I came up with these questions:
    • Schema: Write down a few facts you already knew about Thomas Edison prior to reading this article. (Encourage your students to write more complex statements than "He was an inventor", for example.)
    • Acquired Knowledge: Write down a few facts you learned today by listening to the recording about Thomas Edison. 
    • Numbers: Write down a fact that has numbers in it from the selection. (I always stress that facts with numbers in them are EXTREMELY important!)
    • People: I asked a few questions about names that appeared in the selection. Example: Write down the name of the man who was president when Thomas Alva Edison passed away in 1931. This man, in Edison's memory, asked everyone to dim their lights.
    • Vocabulary: Write down three words you consider to be "million dollar words" from the selection. Use one of these words in an original sentence, a sentence you come up with on your own. (This encourages students to use context clues.) 

Idea #2: Incorporate Music

Implementation: You can incorporate music using a CD player or iPods as well. There is a plethora of educational music out there; Mr. Duey and Rockin' the Standards (Tim Bedley) are the two educational music artists I have used the most this year. Both artists have music that can be downloaded on iTunes. After your students listen to the song, have them write down the "main message" the song was conveying to them. To make it less difficult to understand the music, provide lyrics as well, which is available at the artists' websites. Ask students to find the details that supported the "main message" as well.

Idea #3: Create Sorting Games

Implementation: You can create sorting games where students can categorize details and main ideas. This printable I created has cards that you can cut out for a center that has students categorize details pertaining to the St. Louis Arch, Yellowstone National Park, and Ellis Island. You can also create cards in a Microsoft Word file using tables that has students differentiate major and minor details.

Idea #4: Use professional books that focus on main idea and supporting details

  • Main Ideas and Summarizing: 35 Reading Passages for Comprehension is one of Scholastic's best and very reasonably priced resources that focus on this skill. There are short passages on each page followed by four questions that focus on the main idea as well as the supporting details. There are also a few pages at the back of the book that are formatted a little differently. This may work extremely well for homework or for a contest in class.

Idea #5: Use games and websites that focus on this skill in your classroom

IMG_5737 IMG_5740

Two tremendous board games I have used in my classroom this week that pertain to main idea and supporting details are both from Lakeshore: Outlast and Capture the Flag. Another excellent board game is Reading Roadway. Additionally, here are some websites that address main idea and supporting details directly or a skill that goes hand-in-hand. You can have students visit these websites on the computer during reading rotations:

Other basic ideas that support this skill:

  • Have students paraphrase information.
  • As stated earlier, have students write down thick questions that were answered for the reader by reading the selection.
  • Have students determine the most important vocabulary words in the selection that correlate with the main idea and author's purpose.
  • Have your students work in literature circles (around chart paper) to write down important vocabulary, thick questions, important details, and sketch pictures/text features that correlate with the main idea.
  • Have students write and record podcasts.
  • Encourage your students to read news articles online and comment on them. Encourage students to read the newspaper at home and watch the evening news. Ask them how they would tailor the evening news or write a newspaper to make it more pertinent for kids. 
  • Keep your classroom stocked with magazines that are full of non-fiction articles. I have a subscription to Scholastic Storyworks, yet I also have issues of Scholastic News, OWL, Boys' Life, Girls' Life, National Geographic Kids, National Geographic Explorer, Weekly Reader, TIME for Kids, and several others. If your students get done with a center rotation early, encourage them to look through the magazines to find an article that fascinates them.
  • Create a bulletin board that incorporates knowledge your students have acquired by reading non-fiction selections. Keep postcards and tacks handy so they can post their information on the board for others to see. Last year, I had a "schema board".
  • KWL is always an excellent strategy: what you knew before reading the selection, what you want to know, and what you learned once you read the selection. This is an excellent strategy when you begin a unit in class; since we are beginning our science unit on Force and Motion soon, I will be creating a KWL chart in a whole-group mini-lesson. 
  • Present your students with "dull reading material" and encourage your students to rewrite it to make it more exciting for the reader. You can encourage your students to rewrite parts of textbooks as well. Have them convert what they have read into a comic filled with interesting facts, for example.



love this webpage.

You're welcome. I am going to post some test-taking strategies for teachers who are still preparing for state testing (important for main idea):

-Look at the questions first. -Underline the key words in the questions, and then "hunt" for the answers in the selection. -Check, double check, triple check! Eliminate what you know is incorrect.

As a past Reading first teacher we have used materials to support students in the area of main idea of a story. I have enjoyed learning about how to further support students in understanding this concept when they address a story. I thought the idea of music and board games are wonderful. Currently I am learning more about technology to use in the classroom as a masters student in technology. Thank you for the postings!

Thanks, Tia. The kids particularly have enjoyed completing the literature circles together, and just before FCAT (for me) has been an opportune time for me to review text features, author's purpose, and writing thick questions.

Thanks for the wonderful ideas. I will be starting an expository review unit in a couple of weeks. Great timing...

Thank you, Wendy! Are there any other areas of reading you want me to post about soon? I plan on covering more areas like: author's purpose, vocabulary, cause and effect, and written responses. I am curious in knowing what you would like to see. Which grade do you teach? - Victoria

Thank you very much for posting the expository text structure. It will be an invaluable resource for me. ;) Great Post!

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