useful tips for teaching students how to find the central idea

Teachers, myself included, are always looking for better ways to support students in one of the most important tasks when it comes to reading – figuring out what the text is about. Identifying and communicating the central idea of any text is an essential skill. To outsiders, it seems so simple. But to ELA teachers? They understand how challenging it is for many students, especially as the texts get increasingly complex. Because ELA teachers have to teach this concept again and again, they are often looking for new ways to freshen up their lessons and keep students engaged and moving toward mastery.

If this sounds familiar, stick around for fresh tips and ideas for helping your students find the central idea of any informational text!

Tip #1: Connect the Main Idea to the Central Idea

use the terms main idea and central idea interchangeably

One way to set students up for success is to clarify terminology. The terms “main idea” and “central idea” are often used interchangeably. Letting students know this early on will activate prior knowledge since some students might have learned one term and not the other. It’s also important to continue to use them interchangeably, as students are likely to see them used both ways on state tests.

Tip #2: Ensure Adequate Background Knowledge

ensure students have adequate background knowledge about the topic before asking them to identify the central idea

Another way to set your students up for success (with any text and task) is to ensure that they have adequate background knowledge about the topic.

Earlier, I said finding the central idea is one of the most important reading skills, and it is, but it doesn’t operate in isolation. This Edutopia article shares a recent study with a group of Baltimore City teachers who wanted to improve students’ reading comprehension. In their work, they found how imperative it is that students have the necessary background knowledge in order to truly determine what a text is about.

One of my favorite ways to build background knowledge while working on a reading skill is through cross-curricular tie-ins. For example, if students are studying ecosystems in science or human impacts on the environment in social studies, there’s an opportunity to tie it into ELA, too. Using an immersive text set such as this one on bees is a great way to tap into and build on that content knowledge while working on identifying the central idea of a text. 

Another example is this text set on famous outlaws of the Wild West. While students may be learning about key historical figures in social studies, I might tie in some villains of the Wild West, like these famous outlaws.

It’s important to note that when you link into another subject, you aren’t teaching the exact same content but are simply tapping into that knowledge and either adding onto it or taking it in another direction. 

Tip #3: Use Varied Media to Practice

have students practice identifying the central idea with varied media

What else can be done to support students in honing their skills at identifying the central idea? Practicing with different text types is the answer! Use varied media like short films, including Pixar Shorts, commercials, and more. 

Here are 3 short films that my students love:

  • Knick Knack (1989) is about a snowman in a snow globe who is determined to escape, hijinks ensue! 
  • For the Birds (2002) features birds on a wire fighting for space, again, hijinks ensue!
  • Coin Operated (2018) spans 70 years in the life of one naive explorer.

These texts can help to build students’ confidence so that when they jump into a more difficult text later, they can tap into this previous (successful) experience.

Tip #4: Consider Framing the Central Idea as a Formula

give students a formula for the central idea

This is where math meets ELA… in the form of a formula! Teach your students the following formula:

Topic + Author’s Point = Main Idea. 

Breaking this down into a simplified formula can be more helpful rather than simply asking students to define the central idea. Instead, establish the topic by looking at the heading and examining the first sentence or paragraph. Then ask students to explain in just a few words what the author’s point is and what they are sharing about this topic. Voila, this will lead to the main idea!

Tip #5: Add Flair (& Relevance) with Central Idea Hashtags

Using hashtags to capture the central idea is an opportunity to tap into students’ knowledge and experience with the online world. Can students provide a list of hashtags after reading? Get them to try to come up with 3-5 that fit the text. You can also use this activity in reverse by providing 3-5 hashtags to get students to identify the main idea of a passage they’ve yet to read. Then they can read and decide whether these hashtags were accurate and if not, what they would suggest instead. 

have students capture the central idea in a series of hashtags

I hope these tips help you and your students as you continue to work on finding the central idea and key details. 

To help even more and get your students buzzing about finding the central idea in any text, feel free to check out my central idea lesson plans below. These resources will help your students with their skill development as well as engage them in fascinating content about bees and famous outlaws of the Wild West. 🙂

Happy teaching!