A picture of a mystery bag central idea activity with text overlay. Text reads "how to teach main idea and supporting details in upper elementary."

How to teach main idea and supporting details in upper elementary

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If you have ever found yourself sitting at your desk, scratching your head, and trying to figure out how to teach main idea and supporting details to your students, you are not alone. Main idea is one of those skills that seems so simple to us but can be a huge hurdle for our students. After a lot of trial and error, I feel that I have finally come up with a plan on how to teach main idea and supporting details that actually works for my students. So if you are looking for simple and effective ideas on how to teach main idea and supporting details, you have come to the right place. 

A picture of a mystery bag central idea activity with text overlay. Text reads "how to teach main idea and supporting details in upper elementary."
Looking for ideas and strategies on how to teach main idea and supporting details in upper elementary? Then keep reading!

Why teach main idea and supporting details?

Have you ever wondered why we must teach our students how to identify main idea and supporting details in their reading? Well, the answer is quite simple! Figuring out how to identify main idea and supporting details will help our students focus on the important stuff and ignore some of the fluff. 

When we read, we must be able to zero in on the important information. If not, we can become distracted or overwhelmed. As adults, we often do this naturally, but our students need to be explicitly taught this skill. If not, they will become distracted by the “shiny objects” in the text and won’t be able to gather the information that really matters. 

A picture of four fun ways to teach main idea and supporting details in upper elementary
Finding fun ways to teach main idea and supporting details will help with engagement!

Best strategies for teaching main idea and supporting details 

As I said previously, figuring out how to teach main idea and supporting details was not an easy task. As a new teacher, I assumed students would just “get it” because “it’s easy.” But I was quickly hit in the face with the sudden realization that for many of my students, understanding exactly how to identify the main idea and supporting details of a text was a big ask. 

I quickly had to pivot and come up with fresh new strategies on how to teach main idea and supporting details in a way that made sense for my students. Here are some of the strategies that have become a huge part of my teaching repertoire. 

Introduce the skill first without a text

Whenever I am teaching a difficult reading skill, such as teaching students how to identify the main idea and supporting details of a passage, I like to begin without a text. The truth is that not all students in our classrooms are on the same reading level. Not all students in our classrooms can read on grade level. By removing the text, I can level the playing field. 

But how can we introduce a reading skill without any text? I like to use hands-on activities that will help students “see” how that reading skill applies in real life, even when they are not reading. 

Think about this for a second! Most reading skills can be applied to our daily lives when we are not reading. When our students grab their lunch boxes after you asked them to line up, they are inferring that it is lunchtime. When they tell their friends about the new movie they watched last night, they are summarizing. When they sort their food in the cafeteria into a “yummy pile” and a “yucky pile,” they are using main idea and details

How to teach main idea and supporting details with the mystery bag activity 

This is my favorite group activity on how to teach main idea and supporting details. My students always have a blast and don’t even realize they are learning. This is the perfect activity for those of you who follow the 5E’s instructional model. Here is how it works:

  1. Divide students into groups of 3 or 4; 
  2. Give each group a brown paper bag filled with items that are related in some way;
  3. Ask students to open the bag, remove each item, and determine what the “topic” of the bag is based on the items. The “topic” is the main idea. 

Picture of mystery bag central idea activity.
This mystery bag central idea activity is the perfect way to introduce this skill to your students.
Things to consider when using this activity:
  1. Modeling is key! On day one, I have my own mystery bag. My students help me figure out the overarching “theme” of my bag using the details which are the items inside the bag. We discuss and record their ideas. 
  2. Don’t try to trick them! Come up with main ideas for each bag that can be easily identified. We are just introducing the skill. We will dig deeper once they have a clear understanding of it.
Some ideas for mystery bags are: 
  • Crafting bag – add items such as pencils, crayons, scissors, glue sticks, and colored paper; 
  • Dental hygiene bag – add items such as toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, and mouthwash; 
  • Beauty bag – add items such as make-up, nail polish, and hair accessories; 
  • Beach trip bag – add items such as shovels, pails, beach toys, sunscreen, and sunglasses 

Create an anchor chart with your students

When discussing how to teach main idea and supporting details in upper elementary, we cannot leave out the use of anchor charts. Anchor charts are a staple in my classroom! We want to create a record of our students’ learning. Anchor charts become a tool students use for reference throughout the entire school year. 

I am personally awful at creating anchor charts on the spot, so I always go for printable anchor charts. Over the past few years, I created my own printable charts. Most printable charts already available on the market are completely filled in. I don’t like that! The anchor charts I created have “fill in the blank spaces” so I can add all the important information WITH my students. After all, it is not an anchor chart unless your students are actively participating in creating it. If you are like me and can’t create anchor charts on the spot to save your life, click here to see the ones I have available. I have them in English and Spanish. 

Picture of an anchor chart and interactive notebook to be used during a lesson on main idea and supporting details.
A perfect lesson on main idea and supporting details should include visuals and a mental model. The mental model helps students remember what the skill is and understand how to use it when they are reading.

Use a mental model 

One of the key tools in my arsenal of how to teach main idea and supporting details is to use a mental model. With my anchor charts, I always include a mental model that will help students visualize whatever reading skill I am teaching. When I teach main idea, there are two mental models I like to use: the ice cream cone and the desk. 

Which mental model should I use?

In the beginning, I suggest you choose one mental model and stick with it. They are both great models, in my opinion, so choose the one you think will resonate better with your students. You can add the second one later if you want to. What we don’t want is for students to become overwhelmed with too many options. 

Why should we use mental models?

I like to use mental models whenever possible because they help students remember what they have learned and understand the concept a little bit easier. Mental models are like analogies. They help you explain an abstract concept, such as main idea, in a concrete way. 

How to teach main idea and supporting details using text features

One of the main benefits of it is that text features can help students determine the main pieces of information in a text. 

Teach students to think about each text feature, and what they are adding to the text. What ideas are they supporting? What do they all have in common? How do they all relate to the same topic? 

Earlier in this blog, we talked about how keeping students focused on the important information is key to determining the central idea of a text. Generally, authors use text features strategically to draw attention to the key information in the text. Therefore, it is only natural to teach our readers to pay attention to those features. 

I have written an entire blog post about how I teach text features to support students’ reading comprehension, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. If you would like to read more about it, you can click here. 

Picture of four strategies to teach main idea and supporting details.
Want to learn some new strategies to teach main idea and supporting details? Well, you came to the right place! These tried and true strategies will help your students master this skill in no time!

Important details VS. interesting facts 

Ugh! Yet again, we keep going back to the same problem! If you want to know how to teach main idea and supporting details in just a few sentences, this is it right here! Unless our students can zero in on the important information and ignore the rest, they can’t identify central idea. 

The hard part is, our students are drawn to the interesting facts. That is usually what they remember. So we must teach them that, although those facts are interesting, they are not important because they do not directly support the central idea. 

How in the world do we do that?

Again, I will go back to mental models and real-life applications. Whenever we are faced with having to teach a complex, abstract skill, we must find a way to make it concrete. I have written an entire blog post about teaching students to determine importance through real-life application. Click here to read about the strategies I use to help my students nail this skill. 

Best activities for teaching main idea and supporting details 

Now that we have discussed some of the best strategies on how to teach main idea and supporting details, let’s talk about some activities. 

Personally, I don’t introduce these activities until my students have at least some understanding of central idea. This is why I outlined the strategies first. The strategies help me with how to teach main idea and supporting details. The activities give my students the opportunity to apply what they already learned. 

Guess the heading activity to identify the main idea of a section

This is a great way to ease students into identifying central ideas. It is usually one of the first central idea activities my students complete on their own or with a partner.

For this activity, students will come up with titles and headings for a magazine article based on the central idea of the text and the central idea of each section. If you need some suggestions for great classroom magazines in English and Spanish that you could use for this activity, check out this blog post. 

  1. Choose a magazine article with at least three headings
  2. Blackout the headings with a black Sharpie
  3. Students read the text and come up with headings for each section based on what they are mostly about 
  4. You can provide extra support or differentiation by giving options they can choose from. 

Picture of a central idea activity for upper elementary.
This central idea activity is easy to plan, but more importantly, it is highly effective!

Use a paragraph sort 

This is my favorite activity on how to teach main idea and supporting details. It requires a lot of critical thinking and leads to amazing discussions. It is also a great way to tie reading and writing together. For this activity, I always have my students working with a partner. 

  1. Give students a central idea sentence (topic sentence)
  2. Give students strips of paper with sentences on them. Some sentences support the central idea statement while others do not. 
  3. Students must decide which sentences support the central idea.
  4. Then, they must decide the best way to organize those sentences to maintain a nice flow. (This part is optional. If your students are not ready for it, just skip to the next step.)
  5. Students reread the paragraph to make sure all details support the central idea. 
  6. You can provide extra support or differentiation by telling students how many details belong in the paragraph and how many don’t belong. 
  7. Take it a step further by asking students to look at the sentences they did not use to determine if those have a common central idea. 

Picture of one of the main idea activities described in the blog post.
This is one of the most impactful main idea activities I have ever used with my students. It requires a lot of critical thinking to be able to identify only the details that directly support the central idea sentence.

Use graphic organizers to practice identifying the main idea and supporting details

This should come as no surprise. Using graphic organizers (ideally with the mental model you taught earlier) is a great way to get students to dissect a text and really focus on its important parts. 

There are so many ways you can use these graphic organizers in your classroom:

  • Read a text as a class and complete a graphic organizer together
  • Divide students into groups of 3-4, give them a text and let them complete a graphic organizer together
  • Give students a partially filled-in graphic organizer. For example, if you give them the details, they must find the main idea. If you give them the main idea, they need to identify the supporting details. 
  • Give each group a different text. Ask them to fill out the supporting details but leave the main idea section blank. Students from other groups will try to determine the central idea based on the supporting details. 

Make sure you model to students how to complete the graphic organizer before assigning any of these activities. This is why I always recommend beginning with a whole group activity. 

Picture of a main idea graphic organizer with a paragraph about why graphic organizers are important when teaching a reading skill or strategy.
Main idea graphic organizers like the one in this picture are very versatile because they can be used with any text.

How to teach main idea and supporting details: Final thoughts

There you have it! My favorite strategies and activities on how to teach main idea and supporting details in upper elementary. Don’t forget to check those anchor charts I mentioned earlier in this blog post by clicking here. Which strategy or activity will you be trying first? I would love to hear about it in the comments. 

As always, happy teaching! 

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Hi, I'm Rebeca!

I help upper elementary dual language teachers with resources and ideas that promote bilingualism and biliteracy.  

Learn more about me and how I can help you here.

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