Teaching Ideas for Topic, Main Idea, and Details

Teaching Topic, Main Idea, and Details

Main idea skills are crucial for strong reading comprehension. Many students struggle with these skills, but it doesn’t have to be that way! Here are some of the most effective strategies that I used to help my students understand these important skills. Follow along to learn how to make teaching topic, main idea, and details less of a struggle.

Scope of Main Idea Skills

Poster showing scope of main idea from kindergarten and 1st grade through 4th and 5th grade

First, let’s review how this skill looks in each grade:

  • Kindergarten & First Grade: Students identify the main topic and key details
  • Second Grade: Identify main topic and key details of multiparagraph texts –à Identify the main idea
  • Third Grade: Determine the main idea and supporting details
  • Fourth & Fifth Grade: Determine the main idea and supporting details to help summarize the text
  • Sixth Grade: Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details

It is important to see the entire scope of this standard so we can ensure we are building on the knowledge students already have. When dealing with students across multiple levels, you can use this scope to scaffold your instruction and get students to where they need to be.

It’s also beneficial to keep in mind the skills students will need in upcoming grade levels, so you can work them toward the increasing skill complexity accordingly.

Introducing Students to Topic, Main Idea, and Details Skills

The following activities are a great way to introduce topic, main idea, and details skills. Whether you are teaching Kindergarten or 5th grade, these activities will help your students grasp an understanding of main topic, main idea, and details. For Kindergarten-1st grade, I recommend spending more time on these activities; while for 2nd-5th grade, I recommend using these activities as a quick review and visual of the skill.

Keep in mind that it is usually more effective to work with students to determine the details first, then use those details to determine the main idea.

Mystery Main Idea Bags

Brown paper bag with writing that says "mystery bag" in black marker and a bucket, sunscreen, and a starfish laying outside the bag

With this activity, you will be teaching topic, main idea, and details through a representative medium.

Gather themed objects in a brown paper bag. Each object in the bag should represent a bigger theme. Here are some examples:

  • Beach: Seashells, Sand, Shovel
  • PB & J Sandwich: PB, Jelly, Bread, Plastic Knife
  • Winter: Hat, Gloves, Cotton Ball (to represent snow)
  • Golf: Golf Ball, Golf Club, Grass
  • Halloween: Candy, Mask, Pumpkin

Tell students that you have mystery main idea bags. You are going to pull out three objects, one at a time, to determine the topic of the bag. The three objects represent the details. Once you have shown all three objects, then the students guess the topic. It helps to tell students that the topic is a word or short phrase that tells us what the whole thing is about.

For 2nd-5th Grade you want to emphasize the difference between a topic and main idea. Work with students to use the topic to come up with a sentence that could explain the main idea. For example, if the topic is “winter” then the main idea could be “It is cold in the winter”. If the topic is “Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich”, the main idea could be “How to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

Mystery Main Idea Puzzles

Teacher listing details for large main idea puzzle that was printed and displayed on poster board.

Puzzles are another great way to illustrate topic, main idea, and details. To use the puzzle visual, I prepare a photograph from a magazine that represents a big topic or main idea that also has smaller pieces that could represent details.

Here are some ideas for photographs you could use:

  • Season
  • Holiday Scene
  • Place

Next, I cut the photograph into pieces showing each detail.

I tell students that we are going to do mystery main idea puzzles today. I will be showing them one piece of the puzzle at a time and their job is to determine what each puzzle piece (detail) is. Record the details as you put the pieces together.

Once you have the entire picture, ask students to determine what the whole puzzle is about. This represents the main idea.

If students need practice, or you would like preprepared puzzles, check out my Main Idea puzzles.

The visuals in this exercise will help your students grasp the concept of topic, main idea, and details. Once they understand the meaning of this skill, they are ready to practice in passages and independent texts.

Getting to the Nitty Gritty

When teaching topic, main idea, and details, it is super important to make sure students not only grasp these concepts but can apply the skills to their reading. At this point in the lesson, I like to reintroduce the skill with a main idea anchor chart. After reviewing the chart, I model reading a nonfiction passage that is blown up to chart-size.

Teacher pointing to an article about anaconda snakes that was printed out on poster board for a main idea lesson.

  • For 1st grade, the passage should be a short, simple, paragraph with a stated main idea. This is also a great place to start with 2nd grade to get some quick review in.
  • For 2nd grade, the passage should be a multiparagraph passage. The first time this skill is introduced, I recommend starting with a passage that has mostly stated, or obvious main ideas, then move to passages that do not have stated main ideas.
  • For 3rd-5th grade, the passage should be multiparagraph and include a mix of stated and not stated main ideas.

After modeling and practicing together, students should have plenty of background to try this skill on their own. They can practice with passages and nonfiction books.


If students are struggling, go back to reteaching and reviewing the skills from the previous grade. Using shorter, simpler texts is also beneficial to help students get their arms around a new skill. As students master simpler skills and texts, progress to more complex texts. To learn more about scaffolding reading passages, check out my blog post about teaching reading passages.

Main Idea passage with teacher holding article about the history of teddy bears

Looking for More?

If you are looking for differentiated resources that you can use for developing main idea skills, check out these 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th grade, or 6th grade reading passages or my Main Idea Task Cards for 2nd and 3rd grade.



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