The Main Idea Strategy That Will Help Students Win Big



If you teach upper elementary, you’ve probably had the pleasure of trying to teach students the difference between the main idea and the topic of a text. 

Have you ever asked students what the main idea was, and they responded with “animals” or “weather?” Did you then slowly walk back to the front of your classroom and up to the whiteboard because you knew you had more work to do? I can say I’ve been there before! I feel ya!  

I have a strategy for teaching main idea that will help students MASTER this skill!


Click here to view the Main Idea Print & Digital Unit for 4th & 5th Grades!

This post includes: 

  • an anchor chart
  • a strategy for teaching main idea 
  • teaching ideas
  • resources to help your students become main idea experts
  • a freebie that you will want to download and use tomorrow (link at the bottom of this post)

Anchor Chart


The Strategy:

When teaching main idea, relate it to a moving box. 

When we move, we label moving boxes because it helps us know what contents are inside. Once the box is open, the items inside may all be different, but they will all belong in the same room. 

For example, if the box is labeled “kitchen,” you may find wooden spoons, a cupcake pan, mixing bowls, a measuring cup, and sprinkles. When relating this to reading, the box’s contents are the supporting details of the text. 

When we combine the supporting details, we can determine the text’s main idea. Therefore, we’re able to label our box. 

Here’s how to clear up misconceptions about main ideas and details: 

A common problem in upper elementary is that students will frequently choose a supporting detail as the text’s main idea. 

To remedy this issue, let’s revisit the items inside the moving box.

We had: 

  • wooden spoons
  • a cupcake pan
  • mixing bowls
  • a measuring cup
  • sprinkles

If a student accidentally chooses a supporting detail as the main idea, it is the equivalent of the student saying that “spoons” should be written on the moving box’s label. When this happens, we can refer back to this analogy and ask the student if labeling the moving box “spoons” would make sense.

Is everything in that box a spoon? No. What about labeling the box “utensils?” Would that work as the main idea for our box? No, because not every item in the moving box is a utensil, either. 

Instead, we need to ask the student to broaden their thoughts. We need to combine the supporting details to find a better “label” to write on our box. If we can determine the overall point of the items in the box, we will be able to find the main idea.

Once we reanalyze the supporting details (or, in this case, the contents of the box), we can determine that we can write “kitchen – baking supplies” on the box’s side to better understand the moving box’s main contents.

Thus, the more specific we are about the main idea, the better we will be able to communicate it with others.  

Differentiating Main Idea and Topic for Students 

Be sure to emphasize that the topic and main idea are different. 

Although a moving box may have “kitchen” written on its side, it provides a better picture of what is truly inside the box when “kitchen – baking supplies” or “kitchen – pots and pans” is written on the box. This signals to students that the main idea should be MORE than just one word. 

When we write “kitchen – baking supplies” on the box, we know that the box belongs in the kitchen, and we also understand what cabinet those supplies will go into because we have a longer phrase that tells us what items are inside. 

Using a label AND a phrase on the side of a moving box signals to kids that the topic and main idea are, indeed, different. One is short and sweet, and the other gets the point across. 

Teaching Ideas

To teach or reinforce this skill, I suggest using Main Idea Bags. The reason I choose bags over boxes is simply that they’re smaller, more compact, and can easily be packed away each year. 

Within each main idea bag, I place four items or four pictures of items. Students must examine the items as contents, or in this case, supporting details. Students will determine what label, or again, in this case, what main idea should be written on the outside of the bag. 

Here’s an example: 

Inside the bag, students find a carrot, a glove, a button, and a picture of a top hat. 

Students must work together to determine the main idea of the bag. If successful, students will most likely come up with “how to build a snowman” or something very similar. 

Here’s how to do this activity with no prep and no cleanup: 

In my Main Idea Print & Digital Units, this activity is included as a Google Slides activity. Each slide contains four photos, and the students must determine the main idea. 

Main Idea Bags

This activity is great for virtual or hybrid teachers because there is zero prep, and it doesn’t require the distribution of materials! 

This activity is included in BOTH the 3rd Grade Main Idea Print & Digital Unit AND the 4th/5th Grade Main Idea Print & Digital Unit. 

Main Idea Resource Suggestions: 

Don’t have time to plan out and find teaching materials for your main idea unit? Need main idea intervention materials ASAP? I have a resource I want to recommend to you that will save you tons of time. 

Main Idea Print & Digital Unit for 4/5th Grades

Main Idea in Print and digital for 4th and 5th Grades by The Teacher Next Door

This unit includes: 

3 Main Idea and Supporting Details Color-Coding Passages:

  • Hippopotamus
  • The Lunar New Year
  • The History of Chocolate

3 Main Idea, Supporting Details, and Summary Passages:

  • Castles
  • The Golden Gate Bridge
  • Disneyland’s First Day

3 Main Idea Passages with Multiple Choice Questions:

  • Bald Eagles
  • Hammerhead Sharks
  • The Pyramids

3 Main Idea Matching Worksheets:

  • Pandas
  • Amelia Earhart
  • The Revolutionary War

Student Activities: 

  • 32 Main Idea Task Cards (Google Forms)
  • Main Idea Bag Activity with Picture Cards (Google Slides)
  • Main Idea Sorting Game (Google Forms)
  • 10 Graphic Organizers (Google Slides)
  • 10 Anchor Charts

Need similar activities, but at the 3rd grade level? I have that too! 

Main Idea 3rd Grade unit in print and digital will help your students truly understand the main idea

Have a classroom full of various different learning levels? Check out this Print & Digital Main Idea Differentiated Unit

Main Idea Differentiated Bundle for 3rd - 5th Grades

Freebie Alert! 

If you need a FUN and ENGAGING activity to review main idea with your students, I have a free print & digital game for you! Click the picture to download your free game, and check out the video below to learn more about using digital reading games in your classroom! 

4th and 5th Grade Free Main Idea Print and Digital Game

FREE Main Idea Reading Center for 4th and 5th Grades


The Teacher Next Door - Creating upper elementary resources that target standards for busy teachers


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The Teacher Next Door - Creating upper elementary resources that target standards for busy teachers

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