How to Use the 5 Ws to Get to the Main Idea - Lucky Little Learners

How to Use the 5 Ws to Get to the Main Idea

Blog Posts, Comprehension, ELA

Written by: Krys Warstillo

Ask a group of second graders what the main idea of the Three Little Pigs is and they might say, “straw houses are weak.” Getting to the main idea is hard for students. Teaching students to use the 5 W questions helps them focus on the important information in a given text. 

Using the 5 W questions is similar to teaching main idea using key details except that very specific types of clarifying questions are being asked. Using the key details to find the main idea can be difficult for many students since it can be more open-ended. There are a lot of great ideas for teaching students to find those key details, but using the 5 W questions gives students structured questions to help them focus on specific information. This will more easily lead them to the main idea. 

Asking Questions

Good readers ask questions. It’s a mantra in many classrooms. However, students must be taught explicitly to ask and answer these clarifying questions. Asking and answering: who, what, when, where, and why helps students separate extra information from the key details of a text. 

What are the 5 Ws?

  • Who are the people, characters, or things involved?
  • What are the problems, actions, or ideas?
  • When does the story take place? This could be the day, year, season, past, present, or future. 
  • Where does the story take place? What’s the setting?
  • Why? What are some causes or explanations for events in the text? 

Modeling the Behavior

Main Idea Graphic Organizers

Students need to see and hear how asking questions works. Graphic organizers, like the one in the Lucky Little Toolkit, are a simple way to walk students through the process. 

To introduce the concept, students can be given a piece of text. This can be fiction or nonfiction. Write down answers in your graphic organizer or an anchor chart. Be specific about which details need to go into the organizer and which details aren’t as important. As a class talk about why certain pieces of information from the text are included in the organizer, while others are not. Do this activity as a class until students feel comfortable and confident completing it on their own.

Another good strategy is modeling this behavior in a more average day-to-day setting by both asking and answering the 5 W questions out loud during whole class read alouds. This shows students that a graphic organizer isn’t necessary. Students must understand that this is something good readers do any time they’re reading text, not just a formal classroom activity.  

Main Idea Mystery Bags

Popular activities like the Mystery Bags that are in the Main Idea and Details Activities can be adapted for 5 W practice. For example, create a bag with a cupcake liner, a menu, and a measuring cup for students to practice answering questions like:

  • Who would use these items?
  • What are they used for?
  • When might they be used?
  • Where woud you find them?
  • Why would someone need these? What is their purpose?

Answering these questions would lead students to discover that the main idea of this bag is a bakery or restaurant. This post contains teacher recommended main idea activities that are easy to adapt for use with the 5 W questions. 

Knowing how to use the 5 Ws is not only important when uncovering the main idea but also helps teach students to effectively use text evidence to support their answers. This post goes into more detail on the specifics of how to get students to use the 5 Ws to build the habit of referring back to the text to back up their answers. 

Practice Makes Better

Like all skills our lucky little learners are working through right now, it’s not going to be perfect. Our learners need a lot of practice to become proficient in this skill. Luckily, we’ve got some wonderful Main Ideas & Details Reading Passages to get students the practice they need without the fuss. Students will be able to practice using their clarifying questions with these no-prep passages. 

Finding the main idea in a piece of text is difficult for students. One great strategy is to ask and answer the 5 W questions. It helps students focus their attention on important details. Students will need a lot of practice with this skill. For a complete instructional pack that scaffolds student learning and eventual independent practice shop the Main Idea and Details Activities bundle.


Main Idea & Details Passages

Main Idea & Details Activity Bundle

Lucky Little Toolkit

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1 Comment

  1. Staci Robinson

    Thank You


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Welcome, I’m Angie!

Hello there! I’m Angie Olson- a teacher, curriculum developer, educational blogger and owner of Lucky Little Learners.

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