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Home » Blog » Literacy » Tips From Teachers: Teaching Main Idea and Key Details

Tips From Teachers: Teaching Main Idea and Key Details

Comprehension, Literacy, Tips & Hacks

Written by: Jess Dalrymple

Determining main idea and key details in a text can be difficult for second graders. And this means it’s also a challenging skill to teach! 

So, we scoured our archives, drew upon our own teaching experiences, and relied on the expertise of teachers in our Facebook community to bring you countless tips, strategies, and resources to help you teach main ideas and key details with confidence.  

Jump to an answer:

Question 1 ~ What is the difference between main idea and central message?

We’ve heard this question has been the cause of many unresolved staff meeting discussions! The reason for confusion is likely the tricky (or vague) language in our standards.  So, when we encounter these terms, are they being used interchangeably, or is there an intended difference? 

Members of our Lucky Second Grade Teachers Facebook group agreed that the central message in a text is a lesson or a moral whereas the main idea tells what the story is about.

Here are some additional comments teachers shared on this topic: 

  • “Main idea is what a book is mostly about. Central message is like the theme… it is a message the author of a fiction or literary non-fiction book is trying to share with the audience.”
  • “Central message is what the author is trying to “teach” you… like ‘slow and steady wins the race'. It’s called numerous things: central message, theme, message, lesson, etc. Main idea is what the text is mostly about.”
  • “Texas tests definitely ask questions about main idea and central message in both fiction and nonfiction genres. There are also questions about main idea of a certain paragraph. Both TAKS and STAAR had these types of questions on the release tests!”

Question 2 ~ What works BEST for introducing the main idea and key details concept?

We asked teachers this question, and were totally blown away! It turns out there are SO many creative ways to teach main idea and key details ~ we could’ve devoted a blog post JUST to this topic!

Here are the most effective strategies for introducing the concept to build a deep understanding, according to our Lucky Little Learners teacher community.

⇒ ⇒ First off, check out this Lucky Little Learners blog post for a plethora of main idea and details teaching suggestions and resources – complete with pictures so you can see each idea in action!

And now, for some recommendations straight from the mouths of teachers: 

  • “We teach by finding the gist for each paragraph of a text and that’s been helping them get the overall main idea of the text.”
  • “Use a graphic organizer. Start by giving the main idea and finding the details to prove it. Then when they are comfortable, switch it up by finding details in the text and using those as ways to conclude the main idea.”
  • “We use thinking maps for everything! Tree maps and brace maps are good for introducing how main ideas and key details are related.” 
Download this Brace Map
  • “Ask students to retell the story or passage in ONE sentence. What would they say?”
  • “Give students the details and have them identify what the main idea is.”
  • “With informational text, have the kids look for a word (topic) that was said repeatedly and then look to decide what the text is teaching about that topic (details).”
  • “Introduce main idea with ‘Mystery Bags’. Gather materials from around the house that all fit a theme (ex: birthday party, taking care of a dog, sports, etc.) and place them inside bags. Talk about how each item is a key detail and they go together to make the main idea. Students open the bags in groups and record their key details and the main idea on a graphic organizer and then each group presents to the class.”
  • “Use “top secret” envelopes and inside each one are 5 sentence strips. One has the main idea, the other 4 are supporting details. Students determine the main idea using their “detective clues” to solve the case. Easy & engaging!”
  • “I’ve had success with using illustrations or photos to practice main idea and details. I cut pictures out of magazines and have my students say what they think the main idea is and write three details about each picture.”
  • “We construct our own paragraphs as a class. I cut up four or five pictures all on the same topic, but each one showing a different detail. As a class, we come up with a topic (title), a main idea sentence, and then a detail for each picture. This makes a cute bulletin board display as well! After doing this whole group, I give pairs or small groups their own bags with different topics.”
  • “I use actual building blocks. I use the smaller rectangle ones as pillars for the details to hold up the triangle main idea block. (Looks like a house.) They need enough details to support the main idea. I put masking tape on the blocks so I can write on them. The kids love it and then they talk about main idea and details during recess when they play with blocks.”
  • “I play a game I call ‘Go for the Gold’. Students read a section and choose one word. Then they have to explain why it fits the entire section of text and how it relates to the heading. They LOVE this game. We talk about word choice as a gold medal word, silver medal word (gives details but doesn't capture the key point) or bronze medal word (it's about the topic but unrelated to the key point).”
  • “I start with a puzzle! You split your kiddos into groups and give them the pre-cut puzzle (just a piece of paper with a cartoon ocean scene cut apart into pieces that contain ONLY one animal on each piece). They put the puzzle together and then we talk about what the WHOOOOLE puzzle was showing us…THAT is the main idea! The sea turtle, the octopus, the school of fish, the shark…those are all small details that are included, but the main idea is “the ocean”. Something like that is fun cause it gets the kids doing something slightly active, but that they can really visualize. We use puzzle piece organizers for the rest of the unit so they can remember the main idea is like the WHOLE puzzle, not just one tiny piece.”
  • “Teach details first and then use them to name a main idea, versus finding the main idea first.”

Question 3 ~ What can I do when my students are struggling with main idea and key details?

When your students are struggling with identifying the main idea and key details of a text, it helps to have some tools in your toolbox for breaking this concept down and reteaching it in a new way! 

Here are some excellent ideas teachers had for us: 

  • “Drawing always helps. If they draw what the story was about they can use that picture to tell (then write) their summary.”
  • “We look at pictures I find online. My struggling students have one minute to look at the picture and then I cover it up. From there, they have another minute to list as many details from the picture they could remember. After we make a list we develop a main idea of what was happening in the picture.”
  • “For struggling kids trying to find the main idea in fiction, we have them try the sentence… The story was mostly about (the main character + the problem.)” 
  • “Give your students the main idea and one or two details, and let them come up with another detail that fits the main idea.”
  • “Give your students paragraphs. Make sure they are simple and have a clear main idea. Add in an extra sentence that is off topic. Have the students evaluate the paragraph to see which sentence does not support the main idea. Give them a highlighter and you'll see plenty of engagement!”
  • “Use song lyrics! Use technology to play songs while students have the lyrics in front of them and they have to come up with the main idea. Pick songs with a strong message. Print off copies of the lyrics. Play the song in the background. Allow kids to brainstorm potential main ideas. Then come together as a group to discuss.”
  • “Put main idea and the details inside blown up balloons. Each team needs a set. Each team pops the balloons one at a time and decides if it's the main idea or a detail.”
  • “During guided reading, stop after each page and prompt each student to finish the sentence, ‘I remember…' (whatever it was the page was about). When they get really good at that, switch to having them jot down the main thing the author talked about on each page on a post-it.”
  • Scaffold students’ practice towards mastering main idea and details with main idea word sorts. Students are given a collection of words. They need to sort the words into three groups and give each group of words a title that will provide the concept of the main idea of the group.
  • “For this strategy, all you need is a reading passage and disposable cups. Type the passage up in individual sentences and cut apart. Mix it up. The students have to put the sentences in order to complete the story, then decide what the topic sentence is as well as the supporting details. They either glue the topic sentence or write the main idea around the outside of the cup and put the detail strips inside the cup. It is a good visual for children to see the cup with the details inside it.” 
  • Reintroduce the concept as a pizza. (The main idea is the whole pizza/ the details are the toppings.) Then give them specific strategies for finding the main idea (look at the title and headings; look at the pictures; look for words used more than once; reread the first and last sentence, etc.) 

Question 4 ~ What can I do when my students are not transferring their understanding of main idea and key details to print or assessment situations?

This is the million-dollar question, isn’t it?! Often our students are successful when the activities are guided, but when it comes to working independently, they struggle to apply the skill correctly.

Here are some things to try if this ever happens with your students:

  • “I teach my students to create tree maps. It takes a lot of practice, but they get it down and are always able to apply it independently!”
  • “Color coding, following specific step-by-step directions, and modeling my thinking process out loud have been life savers for transferring the skill of main idea and details! We follow specific steps over and over and I have an anchor chart posted for my students to refer to when they are working independently.
    1. Read the text.
    2. Circle the words that repeat themselves with green to find the topic.
    3. Ask yourself, “What about the topic?”
    4. Look at the 1st and last sentence.
    5. Read the middle sentences (details) and see if they go more with the first sentence or last. If they go with none, look in the middle. 
    6. Underline the supporting details with blue. 
    7. Underline the main idea in red if it is stated in the paragraph or text.”
  • “Teach kids to look for repeating words in a paragraph. Next, have kids put those repeat words into a sentence. This works! They come up with excellent main idea sentences every time!”

And there you have it! All the best strategies and advice the Lucky Little Learners community can offer to make the teaching of main idea and key details a great success in your classroom! 

Together we are better! 💗


  1. Ms. Kellie

    Love this! I look forward to using these ideas and suggestions in order to teach main idea and details to my second graders!!

  2. Alicia Williams

    I work with students with multiple disabilities. It has been challenging to keep them on task. I need some suggestions to help my students become successful in class.


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