The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Finding the Main Idea

Determining the main idea of a text is one of those crucial skills related to reading comprehension that we learn in fourth grade. It is a topic we have touched on throughout the year, but today I wanted to make a major focus on this, using explicit and implicit details as the foundation.

This is not anything new to my fourth grade classroom, but it was something new for us this year. (For example, you can read what I’ve done in the past here, here, and here.) As I have done in the past, I used one of my all-time favourite authors as the basis for our discussion: Dr. Seuss. His stories are wonderfully simple on the surface but have deeper meanings that make them valuable for children and adults alike.

To start the lesson, I introduced the key words and asked the students if they knew what they meant. A few had an idea of what it meant for something to be explicit, such as it being “right there” or “very clear.” I gave an example of a parent giving explicit directions to take out the trash or make the room. Implicit was a little more difficult for them to articulate. So I gave another example from home: a student gets home and her mom asks her to “keep an eye” on her little sister. What does that mean? One student said, “It means to watch her.” To which I responded, “Okay, so you are watching your sister as she climbs up on the roof and jumps off into the snow with an umbrella, thinking she can fly. You did what your mom asked, right?” I was immediately corrected and told that you have to make sure that your sister is being safe. I asked how they knew that. When someone else explained that it is known because you understand what your parents mean, I pointed out that this is an example of drawing inferences by using implicit details. The class then articulated that implicit details are the ones that you understand from context without being told directly.

This was a literacy lesson, though, so I then tied it to the book we are using for our read aloud: Hattie Big Sky. I askec for examples of explicit details from the story. Some of the ones students gave were the name of the main characters (Hattie Inez Brooks, Perilee Mueller, Rooster Jim, Traft Martin, etc) and key details from the plot (Hattie inherited her uncle’s Montana homestead claim, she writes letters to her friend Charlie who is serving in the army in France, Hattie owes $220 for fencing supplies that her uncle bought on credit). Then we tried to tease out some of the implicit details: Hattie’s relationship with Charlie seems to be more than just friends, Hattie’s thoughts on the value of friends and loved ones over everything, etc.

I made a point of differentiating between the plot, which uses explicit details (characters, setting, what happens first, second, third) and main idea, which uses implicit details to express the author’s message (sometimes called the lesson or moral of the story). We finally got to Dr. Seuss and discussed the plot and main idea of well-known stories such as How the Grinch Stole ChristmasHorton Hears a Who, and The Lorax. After doing all this, the students got together in their reading groups and worked on writing summaries and identifying the main idea of their respective books: The Watsons Go To Birmingham–1963Heaven, One Crazy Summer, and The Hundred Penny Box.

I feel that most of the students have quickly grasped these concepts. We will more on them more throughout the week and then build on these concepts throughout the year. We will also look at the difference between the main idea of a work of fiction compared to the main idea of a nonfiction text. (There are, of course, similarities, too.) All things considered, I feel like today was an excellent start to what will be a common theme in my classroom!


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