The Best Way to Engage Students When Teaching Main Idea


Whew! Teaching the main idea in non-fiction text can be so hard! Most teachers I know have little tips and tricks to make it easier and more effective. After teaching for many years, I have my tricks too. Student engagement is everything in teaching, so that is where I put the extra effort. That extra effort turned out to be the best way to engage students when teaching the main idea!

Main Idea

Why is the main idea so important? To truly comprehend what you have read, you must be able to find the main idea. It is what ties all the sentences together. It makes the information make sense. The rest is evidence that supports it.

Definition of Main Idea

One of the first things that can trip up our students is differentiating between the topic and the main idea. In second grade, students learn how to identify the topic of a passage. It is simply the subject of the passage, like trucks, animals, games, etc.

In third grade, students go deeper into comprehension by learning to find and identify a passage’s main idea. It is what the passage is about or what the author wants us to know about the topic.

How to Find the Main Idea of a Passage

This is one of the most challenging reading skills. It doesn’t seem to matter their grade level – this one is hard at every grade level.

As a teacher, I found it to be the toughest to teach as well. What seems evident when reading a passage seems to elude some of my student’s comprehension.

So, I needed to find some tips and tricks to help my students while they work on this challenging skill while also keeping them engaged in the process.

Engagement Tip #1: Give them the road map – Set the purpose for their reading by giving them the specific steps.

Engagement Tip #2: Make it Interactive – Try to use passages that students can write on. Jotting notes and underlining details while they are reading keeps them highly engaged and supports your close reading strategies.

Engagement Tip #3: Make it Fun! – Give students colorful pens, pencils, and highlighters to use while they jot notes and underline. Using color makes everything more fun and when they are having fun – learning comes a little easier!

What are the Key Details?

Step 2 on the anchor chart is to identify which key details support the main idea. This one is tricky because students can struggle to determine which details are most important. That’s why I like to give them specific guidance.

Engagement Tip #4: Give students specific categories for key details

In the anchor chart pictured below, the supporting detail boxes give students different categories of details they can locate. Doing this helps them know what to look for and how to differentiate those details.

  1. Facts or evidence
  2. Reasons or explanations
  3. Descriptions and details
  4. Examples

Reading Paragraphs

Engagement Tip #5: Give students fun and interesting topics to read about!

Combining one of the most challenging reading skills and text kids cannot relate to or care about is a recipe for failure.

That’s why you must find passages your kiddos will want to read. Here are a few topics that 3rd graders love to read about:

  • animals
  • animal habitats
  • games
  • sports
  • other kids
  • famous people
  • geography
  • history
  • space
  • toys

One topic that you can always engage third graders with in reading is animals. They LOVE to learn about animals! Check out the offer below, which will give you an engaging reading resource about snow leopards!


Grab this FREE Main Idea Resource!

Having the right tools can help your students be successful at finding the main idea! This FREE download includes an engaging reading passage about snow leopards, a graphic organizer, bookmarks, comprehension questions, and a summary writing activity! CLICK HERE to grab this FREE resource!


Want more non-fiction resources? In this post, I share how I teach students to ask and answer questions in this engaging text about Washington, D.C.!

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