How to Go Beyond Finding the Main Idea in ELA Classrooms

Focusing on activities such as summarizing, analyzing textual features, and paraphrasing drives deeper reading comprehension.

February 16, 2024
SeventyFour / iStock

When it comes to teaching students how to read challenging informational or artistic texts, the emphasis on discrete comprehension skills like “finding the main idea” or “making inferences”—methods that are meant to transfer across disciplines—have fallen in and out of favor. 

Recent research seems to have settled the matter in favor of deeper engagement with texts within a discipline, as we reported in our yearly roundup of the most significant education studies of 2023.

A large study in 2020 from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, for example, found that “exposing kids to rich content in civics, history, and law” taught reading more effectively than skills-based approaches. And in 2023, two studies out of Harvard University and Brown University concluded that “knowledge rich” curricula, which emphasizes building background knowledge through reading and discussing texts, can lead to 20 percent improvements on general reading comprehension exams. 

Large school districts in states like Maryland and Louisiana have taken note, adopting new curricula, embedding richer texts into early ELA instruction, and asking students to engage in more metacognitive work to process those texts. 

Still, teachers wonder exactly how to move away from focusing on skills like finding the main idea, when they’re often entrenched in standards and assessed on state exams. One teacher recently asked the literacy expert Timothy Shanahan how to navigate the dilemma.

Shanahan responds in depth in his blog, Shanahan on Literacy, writing that if the goal is to deepen reading comprehension, then engaging in the practice of “answering specific kinds of questions,” such as “what’s the main idea of this passage?,” isn’t of much use. In fact, research demonstrates that having students read texts and answer main idea questions “does not consistently or significantly improve main idea identification or reading comprehension.”

Finding the main idea isn’t a problem in-and-of itself, Shanahan notes—teachers can continue to ask students to do that—but focusing too narrowly on the main idea limits the discussion of other critical textual features, like broader issues of narrative structure, information hierarchy, tone, and the use of figurative language.

Helping students notice and decipher meaning from these features of a text requires pushing them to practice literacy skills that go well beyond finding the main idea. These include summarizing what you’ve read in your own words, discussing narrative decisions and the meaning of key phrases, and using active reading skills and writing skills to pose questions and predict outcomes.

“Getting the main idea should not be the main idea,” Shanahan writes. “Students do better when reading goals are more demanding and more integrated.” 

Here are how other teachers are encouraging students to think beyond the surface level of the texts they read, and boost comprehension in the process. 

Discuss and Reflect 

To get elementary school students to distill meaning from the challenging texts they read, educator and author Michael McDowell recommends infusing discussion into reading comprehension activities so students have a chance to process what they read on their own, and build on their understanding through dialogue with their peers.

First, McDowell gives students texts “a few grade levels” ahead of their current reading level (Shanahan also advocates for this) and conducts interactive read-alouds. This might look like reading the text aloud yourself for students, and then having them reread it on their own. Afterwards, McDowell asks students to think about or write a brief summary of what they’ve just read, and then share them back in small think-pair-share groups. 

Fishbowl discussions can be useful for a larger classroom discussion, McDowell notes. He recommends the Four A’s protocol, which tasks students with reading a text and thinking through or writing responses to questions like “What do you agree with in the text?” or “What do you want to argue with in the text?,” and sharing those responses in a group. Activities like these, which force students to restate an author’s points and tease out nuances, can help students develop the sort of “comprehensive understanding” of texts Shanahan calls for. 

After discussions take place, McDowell says that teachers should step in and provide a “debriefing” of the reading, pointing students back to an interrogation of the text as much as possible. 

Summarize, in Your Own Words

In a 2023 interview with Edutopia, Shanahan cited research he’s conducted that is credited with identifying a mutually reinforcing relationship between writing activities and reading comprehension. The studies from the 1980s find that one of the best ways to improve comprehension—and increase knowledge—is to ask students to write responses, analyses, or critiques as they read texts.

More recent research agrees. A 2021 study finds that when students write a short summary about a challenging text and are given a follow-up comprehension test, they vastly outperform students who read a summary of the reading provided by a teacher. Further research shows that it’s important to instruct students to avoid trying to regurgitate texts verbatim: Students engage “more meaningfully” with readings when they attempt to paraphrase points in their own words, from memory. 

A fun version to try: Ask elementary students to summarize what they’ve read as if it were an episode of television, writes educator and author Brian Kissman. Students can write a brief sentence or two stating, in their own words, the main idea of what they’ve just read, then continue to engage with the text by describing key elements, such as the characters involved, the setting, and any central tension or conflict. Finally students can write a paragraph, from memory, that summarizes “the fundamentals of who or what did what, where, when, why, and how,” Kissman says. 

Using this approach works particularly well for longer non-fiction texts, as it can help students make sense of individual chapters and “carry meaning forward” as they read on. 

Create a “Text-Structure-Conscious” Classroom

UCLA graduate school of education instructor Rebecca Alber writes that educators—the most experienced readers in the classroom—can easily forget that reading requires “predicting, making connections, contextualizing” and critiquing as we read along. 

Teachers, she writes, must back up and teach the fundamentals of comprehension, explicitly training young students to read in this active, self-reflective manner. Before students even dig into a text, for example, the class can skim it, pose questions, and make predictions. “Talk out loud as a whole group, inviting students to make predictions about what they are going to read,” Alber says.

Students should also take note of key textual features before a deeper reading, according to Alber: It is one long narrative? A poem, fictional story, or non-fiction text? If it’s non-fiction, is it something personal, like a letter, or something meant to be consumed by many, like a newspaper article? Scanning other, more minute textual features can be helpful, according to Alber. Are there subheadings? Charts or graphs? Hints in the title as to what the tone of the text might be? 

“Providing students with knowledge of the text structure and its features will help them with comprehension and to identify the author’s goals or intent,” she says.

As students read the actual text, Alber suggests asking students to read with a purpose instead of “just reading.” Start them with phrases like, “Here's your mission as you read. Look for…” Some possible targets include “humor, author’s purpose, use of literary devices (such as foreshadowing, imagery), facts, confusion, and context clues for new words.” Modeling what this might look like for students in a sample text can help them get started. 

Students should be taught to mark up texts to keep track of their insights. Some basic annotation practices worth modeling include numbering paragraphs to keep track of evidence, circling key words, phrases, or dates, and underlining an “author’s claims and important information connected to those claims.” You can also show students how margins of a text can be used as valuable real estate—such as a place to leave questions they have about the text.

During this reading and annotation process, Alber suggests encouraging students to find connections to the text by pulling out moments they can relate to themselves, other texts they’ve read, or to society at large: “This reminds me of (my birthday party, a poem we read, that snowstorm last year).” These connections, she says, help students deepen their analysis and formulate the language needed to effectively discuss their insights in groups, or write about them during assessments.

Nell K. Duke, a professor and researcher at the University of Michigan, writes that these sort of strategies will not only deepen comprehension, but create a “text-structure-conscious classroom” where students are encouraged to take an “interest in how authors organize their texts.”

Draw for Understanding

Sketches, doodles, and drawings can also prove useful for helping students consolidate understanding about a text, a developing body of research shows. 

A 2022 study finds that “organizational drawings” such as concept maps or sketchnotes that attempt to link ideas with arrows, annotations, or other relational markings helped fifth graders visualize how ideas and information are connected—a tactic that can prove useful when trying to understand a complex text. Meanwhile, a 2018 study found that recall of specific vocabulary words could be improved if students attempted to draw the word after studying it. Researchers concluded that drawing “improves memory by promoting the integration of elaborative, pictorial, and motor codes, facilitating creation of a context-rich representation.” 

Jill Fletcher, a middle school English teacher in Hawaii, puts this strategy into practice by asking students to mix in art to convey their understanding of a given text in “one-pagers.” Fletcher provides students with a single sheet of standard printer paper and has them write the title and author of the text they’ve read on the page, as well as a quote from the text—“their favorite line, or the one they see as most important”—and explain in writing why they chose it. They then write down some of the main ideas explored in the text, questions they have about it, and any personal connections to it that might have surfaced while reading. 

After they’ve done some of this processing, Fletcher has students draw pictures that relate to the main idea of the text, and makes it clear that their level of artistic skill isn’t all that important (stick figures are welcome, and the research also suggests that aesthetic qualities are largely irrelevant). “It’s important to emphasize that you’re not assessing the one-pager based on appearances—what matters is that they show their understanding,” Fletcher says. 

As part of the creative process, Fletcher’s students list some key terms from the text, and attempt to supply their own definitions to them, in addition to any images or icons that might be useful to represent the terms (see this National Council of Teachers of English blog post for some examples of what the final product can look like). 

The activity is particularly powerful for students because it deemphasizes finding a “single correct answer” and instead allows students to be creative and challenge their thinking in new ways. “They’re not trying to find the solution—they’re trying to find a solution they can stand behind.” 

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