Main Idea and Main Topic (Exploring ELA)

Main idea lessons and activities

I’m back with another blog post in the Exploring ELA blog series. This blog post will give background knowledge and teaching ideas for the main idea and main topic standards for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-grade students.

Main topic and main idea can give students a tough time. This may be a standard that you introduce in seclusion but should be practiced weekly with nonfiction texts. So after teaching students how to identify main topic or main idea, you’ll also need to teach key details to support it. Then they can practice that skill throughout the year. Here is a breakdown of the Common Core standards for kindergarten through fourth grade.

  • Kindergarten-With prompting and support, identify the main topic, and retell key details of a text.
  • 1st grade- Identify the main topic and retell key details of a text.
  • 2nd grade- Identify the main topic of a multiparagraph text as well as the focus of specific paragraphs within the text.
  • 3rd grade- Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.
  • 4th grade- Determine the main idea of a text and explain how key details support it; summarize the text.

In a nutshell: 

Kinder and 1st Grade simply require students to identify the topic. 2nd grade is the same, but with harder level texts. 3rd grade is where it transitions from main topic to main idea. This will require more thought processes from the student, which is how CCSS functions. They add more difficult skills on the same standard through the elementary years.

And here is where I can try to help you! Here are a few guidelines or tips for tackling this tricky standard… Read below to get more details on each!

  • Introducing Main Topic
  • Teaching It With and Without Texts
  • Focus on Key Details
  • (3rd Grade) Comparing Main Topic and Main Idea/Finding Both

1. Introducing Main Topic

For 1st and 2nd graders (and even 3rd, too), finding the main topic of a text is the first essential skill they will need for this standard thread.

Mix, pair, and share activity

(Source: Joyful Learning in KC)
This is a straightforward activity that gives a very early glimpse at main idea and main topic. You can draw them up really quickly as this blogger did, or you can snag some pictures on Google if you want to make them apply to informational texts, too. This is great for showing images and having a Mix-Pair-Share activity with students to identify and compare main topics.

Main topic anchor chart

(Source: Creative Colorful Classroom)
Starting with a main topic anchor chart is a wonderful idea. Having one anchor chart to refer to over and over again through your main topic/main idea lessons is very smart, and it is convenient for kiddos. In this example, the blogger involved her students in the creation of the anchor chart, which really appeals to me.

Practicing main topic and main idea

This is a poster board or chart paper that you can do with your whole group. Split the page into four squares and have students write the main topic on a Post-It note. As they learn about key details, come back to this text and activity, and add the newly learned key details.

2. Teaching It With and Without Texts 

Students need many, many opportunities to get their hands on texts to practice finding the main topic. However, texts are not the only way they can practice this skill.

Decoding printable texts with crayons

(Source: Unknown on Pinterest– if you know the owner, please contact me to credit them!)
I love this idea for decoding printable texts. Crayons can be used when reading a nonfiction text and underlining the main idea and details. This concept can also be used when teaching informational writing too.

Reading to learn main topic and main idea

(Grade level resources: RI.K.2RI.1.2RI.2.2RI.3.2RI.4.2)Give the students many opportunities to read texts and answer questions about main topic or main idea. They will need to get their hands on real informational texts in book form to practice with, but they will also need many opportunities to use text that they can write and mark all over. Underlining their texts and marking their text where they found their answers are excellent practices for students to do.

(Grade level resources: RI.K.2RI.1.2RI.2.2RI.3.2RI.4.2)
Don’t limit the kids to only learning about main topics with informational texts. Matching topics with photographs, partner talking, and personal writings are all ideas to practice main topic without using books or texts. Let them pretend to be the author. Depending on the level of writing experience, have students either write one paragraph about a given topic, or have them write their own entire passage on the main topic.

3. Focus on Key Details

Once students have found the ability to identify the main topic (or main idea), they need to able to support that main topic or main idea with text evidence or key details.

(Grade level resources: RI.K.2RI.1.2RI.2.2RI.3.2RI.4.2)
Allow them to practice with passages, as I showed you in step 2, or nonfiction texts such as these National Geographic books. On the left, you will see a nonfiction text about books and a printable worksheet that focuses on main topic, key details, and text evidence. On the right, you will see an interactive notebook activity where students work independently to read about solar systems and planets, then fill out the three key details for the main topic.

4. Comparing Main Topic and Main Idea & Finding Both (3rd Grade)

In 3rd grade, learning begins to change from topic to idea. This requires a bit more skill from the students because they’re not only finding a topic; they’re now finding the argument or idea from the author.

Topic and idea anchor chart

(Source: Whale-Come to 2nd Grade)
I love how this anchor chart incorporates topic and idea, which is where third graders will get confused. That big jump from identifying the main topic to identifying the main idea is tricky. This anchor chart is fantastic to start the unit with! Leave it up for students to refer back to as often as they need.

Brain Pop Jr. video

(Source: Brain Pop Jr. YouTube)
This free video will help your third graders set up the difference between main topic and main idea. Stop the video throughout and have students turn and talk with partners to discuss their new knowledge. Refer back to the video throughout your unit, trying to trigger any knowledge they picked up from the video.

(Grade level resources: RI.K.2RI.1.2RI.2.2RI.3.2RI.4.2)
Students will need multiple ways of practicing main topic vs. main idea because coming up shortly; the main topic will not be something they’re asked to identify. It will eventually be phased out in the progression of this informational standard. Meaning, once they’ve mastered the main topic skill and truly learned the difference between the two skills, they won’t need to focus on it anymore. And once they’ve mastered comparing the two, focus on continuous main idea practice during the unit. And don’t forget to incorporate main idea lessons throughout the year to cycle the skill and keep it fresh in their minds.

5. Suggested Read Alouds

Mentor texts for main topic and main idea

Read alouds and mentor texts are incredibly important to model the skill of main idea and main topic. I’ve listed six possible book titles to use while teaching main idea and main topic, however almost all informational texts are great to use to test the skill. All the books that are linked in this blog post are affiliate Amazon links.

Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
Who Has These Feet? by Laura Hulbert
I Am Amelia Earhart by Brad Melzer
Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca
The Museum Book by Jan Mark
Ivan: The Remarkable Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate

Grab some resources to help you!

Looking for virtual lesson ideas?

I have created two digital activity sets that cover Main Topic and Main Idea. Like I said throughout the blog post, main topic is for K-2 and main idea is for 3-4.


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Teaching Main Idea and Main Topic- Studying the ELA standard that focuses on main idea/main topic and key details.

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