Do you cringe when you start planning your nonfiction reading unit because you dread teaching topic verus main idea? You aren’t alone! This part of a nonfiction unit can be challenging for elementary students! Year after year, I had students struggle with finding the topic and main idea of a nonfiction text. In this post, I wanted to share some quick tips for teaching the difference between topic and main idea.
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What Went Wrong
When I first started teaching fourth grade, I would introduce topic and main idea and the students would seem to get it, but then they would go backward when they tried it on their own. They could usually identify the topic of the informational text. Where they had trouble was telling me the main idea about that topic that the author was trying to communicate.
So for example, if they read a page about cats, they could tell me the topic was cats. And then I’d ask what the main idea was and they would say “cats.” Or “stuff about cats.” Or “it was about cats.” But they weren’t telling me WHAT about cats the author wanted them to know.
On the other hand, sometimes I’d have a student who went too specific or too broad. He/she would latch on to just one tiny detail from the text or give me a whole summary of everything he/she had read.
Has this happened to you?! I figured out pretty quickly that my kiddos really needed scaffolded practice with the concept of topic vs. main idea to understand what these terms really mean.
The Difference between Topic and Main Idea
Here’s the bare bones of what I wanted students to learn:
- The topic is the subject of the text. It’s short and we can say it with just a word or simple phrase. It’s general.
- The main idea is what the author wants you to know about the topic. It’s a complete sentence that includes a whole idea. It’s the big takeaway that you learned from reading. It’s more specific.
A good way to model this is with a visual. A small sticky note will fit a topic and an index card can fit a whole main idea.
Activities to Teach Topic vs. Main Idea
So how do you get students to understand the difference? What worked for me was doing lots of differentiated activities. We started by looking at topic and main idea examples to see their format (one or two words for a topic compared to a whole sentence for the main idea). Together, we created topic vs main idea definitions and examples on anchor charts. We also sorted topics and main idea examples and matched examples to short nonfiction paragraphs.
They’d begin to see that they could probably tell someone the topic of a nonfiction text without having to read it. Clues like the heading or title, pictures, and bold print give it away. But they couldn’t tell someone the main idea unless they actually read the text.
It wasn’t until they really got the difference between these two terms that we would practice reading short informational texts and identifying their topics and main ideas (and supporting details). Everything depended on them first understanding what information I was looking for when I asked for the topic or main idea.
One way to reinforce the difference between topic and main idea is by using a simple graphic organizer. This is a great way to give them visual reminders that the topic is short (a simple word or phrase) and the main idea is longer (a complete sentence). It works nicely with any nonfiction text. Grab the graphic organizer below for free!
You can also differentiate for students who need more support by giving them the topic and main idea and having them label what each is (instead of coming up with them on their own).
I also like to give students several short texts that are all about the same topic but have very different main ideas. That’s another good way to reinforce that we need to read the text and figure out what the author wants us to learn.
You can also carry this idea over to writing workshop. Ask your students to all write about the same topic and then comparing their pieces to see how each writer came up with his/her own main idea about it. (P.S. I love using The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown as a mentor text.)
Lots of explicit, differentiated practice with topic vs. main idea was what really made the difference in my classroom. I hope you’ve found a few tips to help you reach those students who struggle with this skill as you teach a nonfiction unit! Leave me a note in the comments if you have other strategies that you love!