How to Teach Main Idea to First Graders

With any skill I teach in the classroom, I model the skill, have the students work on the skill with guided practice, and then observe them as they work on the skill independently.   Using these steps, this is how I would teach “main idea.”

First, write a short paragraph on the board or overhead such as this one: Michael had fun at the school carnival with his friends.  They ate pizza and then played a lot of games.  They had their faces painted.  They ate popcorn.  Then it was time to go home.

Explain that main idea tells what the whole story is about.  Explain how the first sentence tells the main idea in this story, Michael had fun at the carnival.  Then proceed with the following sentences to show how they support the main idea.

  • “Is eating pizza and playing a lot of games fun?”  “Yes.”
  • “Do most kids think getting their faces painted is fun?”  “Yes.”
  • “Is it fun to eat popcorn?”  “Yes.”

Now show how the supporting sentences would not be the main idea:

  • “Is the main idea (the whole story) about eating pizza?”  “No, because they played games, had their faces painted, and ate popcorn, too.”
  • “Is the main idea about playing games?”  “No, because they ate pizza and popcorn, and they had their faces painted, too.”
  • “Is the main idea about having their faces painted?”  “No, because they played games, and they ate pizza and popcorn, too.”
  • Reinforce how the main idea, the whole story, is about Michael having fun at the school carnival with his friends.  And all of these things (eating pizza, playing games, having faces painted, and eating popcorn) are ways to have fun.

Next, give the students a worksheet with no more than four short stories on it.  Make sure the stories are separated with lines so it will not cause any student to be confused.  Make sure the stories are numbered so you can easily refer to a certain story.

  • Read the first story together orally with the class and also all of the choices for main idea.  Work through the process in the same way as the above story.  Have the students underline the main idea in the story with a crayon or colored marker.  Then have them mark the answer.
  • Read the second story and answers orally with the class, but this time have them choose the answer by themselves.  After they have marked their answers, talk about the correct answer and why it is correct.  Allow students to change their answer, if necessary.  Make sure they underline the main idea in the story.
  • Have students complete the third story independently.  Again, after they have marked their answer, talk about the correct answer and why it is correct.  Let them correct their answer.  Make sure they underline the main idea in the story.
  • Complete the fourth story in the same manner as the third one.

Give students a similar worksheet in the same format and have them complete the worksheet independently.  Then you can assess how well each student understood the concept of main idea.