Note: This lesson is 1 of 5 lessons included in our "Key Ideas and Details Lesson 5-pack."
Prerequisite Knowledge: This lesson assumes that students are proficient in coding the text, using two-column notes, and identifying what a text states explicitly. Lesson on the first two skills are available in our "Literacy Skill Building Activities for Any Text" lesson pack and the third skill is covered in our "Close Reading and Text-Based Inferences" lesson.
Common Core Rationale:
CCSS Reading Anchor Standard 2 calls for students to “Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.” For Informational Text reading, the focus is on central ideas, rather than themes. Many middle and high school level teachers wrongly assume that main ideas and central ideas are essentially the same thing. This is inaccurate. Moreover, students cannot successfully determine central ideas unless they are proficient in determining main ideas. The progression of skills is outlined in the sequence of competencies found in Anchor Standard 2 as it moves up the grade levels. So, based on the current grade level you teach, your individual standard will focus on an aspect of this competency as it grows in complexity from grade K to grade 12.
In the early elementary grades, the nature of this work is on students identifying the main topic of a text and identifying the focus of individual paragraphs along with the paragraph’s key ideas and details. In upper elementary grades, determining main idea(s) in a text and explaining how the key details of the text support the main idea(s) becomes the focus. In the middle grades, students begin work on determining central idea(s) in a text and explaining how central idea(s) is/are conveyed and developed over the course of a text. In the high school grades, the emphasis becomes determining central idea(s) in a text and analyzing how it emerges and interacts with other central ideas within the text.
As is clear from the progression, students who have not reached a level of proficiency in an earlier stage of developing this competency are likely to struggle greatly in achieving the proficiency of a later stage. For instance, students who are unable to determine main ideas with independent proficiency will likely not experience success in determining central ideas. Therefore, you should use the CCSS progression as mapped out across the grade levels to help make decisions about how to differentiate for students with varying needs.
Value of Concept:
Reading to determine main ideas and central ideas is an essential skill in making sense of texts. Main idea and central idea work builds on the literacy skill of making conclusions about what a text states explicitly and implicitly (Anchor Standard strand 1), but also serves the next essential function involved in the bigger process of making sense of a text at deep and nuanced levels. Main idea and central idea work does this by helping to organize and differentiate all of the explicitly and implicitly communicated information we gather and text-based inferences we generate during the reading of a text into meaningful groupings.
If we do not organize to differentiate which ideas are the “bigger” ones and which ideas are the “smaller” ones that help support the bigger ideas, our brains become overloaded with the jumble of explicitly and implicitly communicated information in a text. The result is that we take very little understanding away with us. If you have ever witnessed students copying entire passages from books when asked to take notes about the main ideas, you are seeing the product of a lack of thinking to organize and differentiate ideas and information into groupings of main ideas and supporting details.
Main idea work and central idea work differ from each other in the following way. Main idea work concerns organizing and differentiating the information and ideas that are explicitly stated by the author. In other words, determining main ideas involves thinking about and working with only the information the author included in the text. Central idea work concerns organizing and differentiating information and ideas that are both explicitly stated by the author and inferred by the reader. Determining central ideas involves thinking about both the explicit and implicit information in the text to determine big ideas that are not explicitly stated but are supported by textual evidence found in the text. Central ideas in texts either may have been intended by the author (in an effort to lead readers to conclusions that the author purposely leaves unstated) or may have been unintended by the author but clearly emerge and become evident to the reader while thinking about the text.
Since main idea and central idea work are an essential step to thinking about a text and making sense of it at deep and nuanced levels, students will not be able to experience much success with later CCSS literacy competencies, which begin to delve into more complex and narrowly focused aspects of the text, unless they reach a level of independent proficiency with determining main ideas and central ideas.