we know that the main purpose of reading an informational, or nonfiction, text is to learn something. kids, though, often get stuck in the little details. if you’re a teacher, you know that any fact or detail with numbers attached to it seems to scream IMPORTANT to a kid. nonfiction texts are about so much more than facts and details. just as there are ideas in our fiction books, there are ideas – central ideas – that are supported by facts and details across a text or a section of a text.
identifying those central ideas (i.e. main ideas) and supporting details is the work of reading standard 2. we suggest beginning with a performance assessment to get a sense of where your kids are with this work, and then maybe also use the standards to look vertically across grade levels to see how the work progresses. some possible small groups or strategy lessons to address the work within standard 2:
- sort topics and ideas from a shared text to help build an awareness of the difference between a topic and an idea (which is required to make the jump from second to third grade in standard 2). we’ve found success with writing some topics and ideas down on index cards from a text that has been already read aloud, and then giving students time to work with a partner to decide whether the index card they’ve been given is a topic or idea. then, as a group, sort them and come up with some characteristics about topics and ideas. students will often notice, for example, that topics tend to be a word or a few words, like a category, whereas ideas are more of a complete thought or sentence, and tell what about the category we’re learning. the set up for this work could look like this:
- read a paragraph or chunk of the text (e.g. if the text is an article with sections, pause after each section), and then use the phrase, “this section teaches me that…” to identify the main idea of that part (third grade standard 2). or, if a student isn’t quite ready for main idea, and needs to focus on identifying topics instead, pause and use the phrase, “this section is about…” (second grade standard 2).
- for students who are having difficulty moving from focusing on facts and details to ideas, teach them some questions they can ask themselves to synthesize the facts and details (this would strengthen standard 2 third grade work). it could look like:
- to develop the work of supporting main ideas with details, which is part of the work of standard 2 beginning in third grade and then continues in each grade after, teach students that one way to organize main ideas with supporting details is by using boxes and bullets (something we learned from the teachers college reading and writing project’s (tcrwp) units of study). we’ve found it’s helpful for students to list the most important facts or details from each section (so, if there’s an article, maybe write down one (or two! or more! we hate to limit in case there are really essential facts and details in that section, but sometimes, some kids need a limit so that they’re more discerning in the facts and details they’re determining to be important) fact or detail from each section) of the article next to bullet points. then, look across the bullet points and star the ones that fit together and seem to be related to a larger, more central idea. using the phrase, “these facts all show that…” or “these facts all teach me that…” can help nudge students toward an idea.
- use boxes and bullets to write a summary of the reading (fourth grade standard 2). when we’ve taught this, we’ve shown how boxes and bullets can easily transfer to sentences that can become a summary paragraph. we often model starting with the main idea (the box), and then using transitional words to list the different pieces of evidence (the bullets), and writing a concluding sentence that reminds the reader of what the main idea was.
- using color to synthesize ideas into larger ideas is an idea we got after hearing mary ehrenworth at tcrwp talk about the power of readers using color in their reader’s notebooks. the fifth grade standard 2 requires students to identify more than one main idea within a text. once students are proficient at the work of the fifth grade standard 2, we teach them that color can help them synthesize their ideas into larger, even more central ideas. our students color code ideas that fit together (saying something like, “these are blue ideas, these are yellow ideas”), and then look across all ideas with the same color to name a new idea that would cover all of the same color-coded ideas. this is higher level work as the new idea is larger, covering more of the text than the original main ideas.