Learn what works

According to Jeff Zwiers in Building Reading Comprehension Habits in Grades 6-12, “Getting the main idea is the most vital type of thinking readers can do to comprehend a text.”  He later adds, “It is why the text exists” (30).

The main idea is defined as “the most important idea in an expository text.”  While main ideas are also present in narratives, they are often referred to as “themes” (Duffy 138).

For several reasons main ideas are difficult to teach:

  1. Most of the time, main ideas are implied and not explicitly stated.
  2. A number of comprehension strategies are required to arrive at a main idea.  Readers must summarize, use prior knowledge, and then predict the author’s underlying message.
  3. There is no way to know for sure what the author’s main idea is; readers can only make a ‘best prediction’.
  4. A reader’s thinking about the main idea may change as new information is encountered in the text (Duffy 138).

Readers must understand that authors write because they have some important ideas to convey.  Consequently, determining the main idea means readers must question where the author is placing value, or emphasis.

The thinking process is rather involved, as readers must use text clues, access prior knowledge triggered by those clues, and then predict what the author thinks is most important.  Zwiers (2010) refers to this process as “sculpting the main idea”.  He defines this as “the process in which a reader looks at emerging clues and develops the text’s core information before and during reading, not just after” (31).

The main idea can be developed by looking at three things:  (1)  The Topic:  What word or phrase describes what the text is about?  (2) Description:  What does this specific text say about the topic?  (3)  Text Purpose:  Why was this text written?

See how it works

Main Idea / Supporting Details Explicit Instruction Lesson Plan

Video Resources

Do what works

Blank Explicit Instruction Planning Guide

Web Resources


  • Duffy, G. (2009).  Explaining reading:  A resource for teaching concepts, skills, and strategies.  New York, NY:  Guilford Press.
  • Zwiers, J. (2010). Building reading comprehension habits in grades 6-12:  A toolkit of classroom activities.  Newark, DE:  International Reading Association.