Main Topic vs. Main Idea & How to Teach Both in the Classroom

Blog post about teaching main topic and main idea in your elementary classroom

Hello fellow educators! Bringing the core concepts of main topic and main idea into your elementary classrooms can be so exciting! Throughout this journey, you’re not just imparting knowledge, you’re lighting the path for your students to become insightful readers and thinkers. Today, I’m here with some tried-and-true strategies, fun activities, and free resources that will help you teach main topic and main idea in your elementary classroom!

Read the Standards: Aligning Pedagogy with Benchmarks

First off, you’re probably all too familiar with the CCSS (Common Core State Standards), but it’s important to recognize how central finding the main topic and main idea is to these benchmarks. Grasping these concepts is critical for students as they journey from learning to read to reading to learn.

The Common Core’s ELA Anchor Standards for Main Topic and Main Idea include:

Anchor Learning with Anchor Charts

Using anchor charts can be a lifesaver. Not only do they provide a visual reminder for students, but they also help kids anchor their new knowledge. Imagine this: a vibrant chart in your classroom outlining what a main topic or main idea looks like, with examples drawn from texts your class loves.

Anchor charts can (and should) be clear and simple. This will make them easy to understand and reference later. For Main Topic and Main Idea, you can use similar outlines. Either a four-block graphic organizer like the one above: including a space for the Main Topic and three spaces for key details, or an easy-to-remember idea like an ice cream cone: with three scoops for key details and the cone at the bottom as the main idea.

Either way, you want your students to remember that the main topic and main idea will need to be supported by key details.

Focusing on Main Topic in Primary Grades

For the little ones, focus on main topic. At this stage, the key is simplicity. Help children grasp the overall subject of a text with engaging read-aloud sessions and class discussions. Then, transition that understanding into identifying the main topic through pictures and simple texts.

Practice, practice, practice. This will be essential for student understanding. So, I would recommend the following:

  • Anytime you read an informational text in the classroom, ask students to identify the main topic (even after this unit is complete).
  • Keep sticky notes near the anchor chart for students to add the main topics/key details of their independent reading texts.
  • When watching a presentation or hearing a talk on a field trip or assembly, bring students back to the idea of the main topic by discussing this after.
  • Reference Main Topic in other subjects when reading science, social studies, and even the arts & humanities.

These simple additions can bring students to the realization that most everything we take in (in the form of text, picture, presentation, etc), has a main topic. They will naturally begin to think about the main topic on their own.

Teaching the Transition to Main Idea in 3rd Grade

As students move into third grade, it’s time to bridge the gap to main idea. This step-up from topic to idea might seem small, but it’s a giant leap in cognitive development. Use age-appropriate reading passages to transition into richer discussions about what the text is really about—the main idea.

This transition to understanding Main Idea is important. Students are now tasked not just with identifying the topic, but the essence of what is being said about that topic.

Reviewing Main Topic

Begin your instruction with a review of the main topic. This familiar ground provides a secure starting point before introducing the concept of main idea, ensuring a strong foundation.

Introducing Main Idea

Distinguish the main idea as the core of the text, often the message or point that the author is trying to make, while the main topic is simply the subject. Use familiar texts to scaffold this understanding, allowing students to see a clear transition from topic to idea.

A Focus on Key Details

With Main Idea, your students will be looking for key details in longer texts. So, instead of simply locating or restating a sentence from the text, they will be summarizing the point of paragraphs and sections. So, be sure to allot adequate time to focus on this part of the puzzle as well.

This is why I like the ice cream model for main idea. Each “scoop” is like the flavor of a section or paragraph. What was this section about? is like What did this flavor taste like? So, if students can remember that each “scoop” is a section and the “cone” is the main idea, they will know that those three key details help create the overall main idea or flavor of the ice cream cone.

Bridging the Gap with Passages and Practical Activities

Visual tools like graphic organizers help students see the relationships between the main topic, supporting details, and the main idea. These tools synthesize information in a structured, accessible format.

The upper elementary years are where the magic happens. Kids are now analyzing texts and discerning the main idea like detectives on a mystery case. Here’s where graphic organizers come in handy, helping students map out their thoughts and link supporting details to the main idea.

Static lessons don’t go far in an elementary classroom—we need action! Incorporating task cards, interactive notebooks, and even digital graphic organizers can morph something that will stimulate AND support your students’ learning.

Picture this: A brightly colored task card or flip flap interactive notebook page. Students read a short text, talk it over with teammates, and use the interactive pages to break down the text—they’ve identified the main idea, almost like they’re playing a game or doing a craft (but shh, we won’t tell them they’re actually learning!).

And, of course, you will want to practice with passages, too. In fact, I would provide a variety of avenues to practicing this skill. Have students reading passages, text books, articles, and more. They will be able to use the skills and tools they’ve learned along the way to determine the main idea and understand the text more wholly.

Want a free Main Idea activity to get you started?


This free digital activity comes with links to Seesaw and Google Slides for your students. They will practice their main topic or main idea skills.

Grab some resources to help you!

The resources seen in today’s post are from my ELA units. Each grade level has a complete unit for teaching Main Topic or Main Idea. Available from Kindergarten to 5th Grade.

If you’re looking for Main Topic or Main Idea lessons that are ready to go, these grade-level units have everything you need! From lesson plans to assessments, task cards to comprehension passages, click your grade level for a closer look:

Interested in reading more ELA blog posts?


You might also like...