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Where Students Get Stuck: Tips for Getting the Main Idea


Information from EQAO shows that many students have difficulty identifying the main idea in reading selections. As a result, they also have trouble developing a main idea with sufficient and relevant supporting details in their writing.

Getting the main idea is the key concept for mastering writing tasks and understanding reading tasks.

Getting the Main Idea

The complexity of identifying the main idea is often overlooked. We tell students that the main idea is what a piece of writing is “mostly about,” but for some students this is not specific enough.

As well, students are taught that the main idea will appear in the topic sentence at the beginning of a reading selection. Frequently this is not the case.

The main idea may appear anywhere in the opening paragraph, and sometimes it is not stated directly at all. In these cases, students need a strategy to “search out” and identify the main idea.

Topic versus Main Idea

Most students can successfully identify the topic. They run into problems when they confuse the topic with the main idea. When asked what the main idea is, many will simply state the topic. And when asked to be more specific, they will often suggest details from the selection.

Writing instructions (and OSSLT writing tasks) place great emphasis on terms like main idea, topic, topic sentence and supporting details. Use plenty of examples to help clarify these terms. Read sample selections aloud and ask students to identify the topic, main idea, and supporting details by asking questions:

“What message is the writer sending you? Because you can’t remember everything you read, what is the one thing the writer wants you to remember?” That’s the main idea.

Point out the difference between a topic and a main idea. Show students how a supporting detail relates directly to the main idea.

Image by mcclave