PS/IS 686 | Brooklyn, NY

301 Grapples With “Main Ideas”

In class this week we’ve been reading non-fiction and working with identifying main ideas. Unfortunately young readers often just skim non-fiction, looking for the facts that make them go “Wow!” and enjoying the wonderful photos. If we want them to be able to really learn from what they’re reading, though, they need to slow down and read more thoughtfully. Ms. Marcy and I are teaching the students to read a chunk of text (usually a paragraph), then stop and think about what the main idea is in that chunk.

Now, once you’ve learned how to spot main ideas, it’s relatively easy. But it’s not so easy for many third graders! They have to consider all the details that a paragraph has presented them with, and then think about which of those details is the “biggest.”  The biggest detail is the one that the other details give us more information about, the one that the “smaller” details help us understand. Sometimes the very first sentence in a paragraph will present you with the main idea – but not always! And sometimes paragraphs will have “wow” facts sprinkled into them, which can be really distracting when you’re trying to figure out what the one most important point is. IMG_0635

Organizing information in your mind helps you learn it  – and organizing it on paper helps you organize it in your mind. So we’re teaching the students to take notes as they read. We don’t just want them to laboriously copy facts, however. We’re teaching them to focus on the main ideas, to organize their thinking around those most important points. Each main idea gets a box put around it, and then the details that support it go underneath, each detail anchored visually by its own bullet point.


One aspect that we’re working on is the difference between a topic (e.g., gorillas’ bodies) and a main idea (gorillas’ bodies are adapted to their habitat). We’ll get there!

Here are some beautiful examples of clear boxes-and-bullets notes from today:


Saam’s work


Isabel’s work


Aidan’s work