Three Hands-on Activities for Teaching the Main Idea of a Story

Being able to successfully identify the main idea in a paragraph or passage is an essential reading skill. It is the first step on the path to reading comprehension. Think about it. If a child can read all the words in a story but can’t understand what the author is trying to say, then the meaning of the words has been lost.

If you’re looking for ways to begin teaching the main idea, here are three easy exercises you can use which will help your child build this important reading-comprehension foundation.

Idea 1 –  Model the idea while reading

The main idea is an abstract concept, and children, especially the youngest ones, often think in very concrete ways. An abstract concept may be difficult for them to understand, no matter how carefully the definition of main idea is explained.

One way to help a child grasp the concept is to simply model it when you are reading together. As your child reads aloud – or as you read a story to her – discuss the different terms. Say things like, “I can tell from the title of this story that its topic is monkeys.” Or, “This sentence is very important. It tells us the main idea of this article.” Once your child begins to understand the different concepts, stop frequently while reading and ask her questions such as, “What is the main idea of the paragraph you just read?” or “Can you find the main idea and supporting details in the passage we just finished?”

Make sure that you discuss all the important terms related to main idea – topic, theme, topic sentence, supporting details – and how they relate to one another. The more you discuss these terms while using real-life reading examples, the more concrete they will become for her.

Idea #2 – Make a map

One way to implement main idea practice in a very concrete way is to have your child draw a map while she is reading.

Provide her with a large sheet of drawing paper so there is plenty of space to work. As she reads each sentence in a paragraph, have her write it on the paper and draw a circle around it. Doing this with colored pens or pencils will make it more fun. Once she has all the sentences on the paper, have her read each one again. If she thinks the sentence stands alone, have her leave it alone. If she thinks it gives supporting details about another sentence, have her draw an arrow from the supporting sentence to the one it supports. When she has done this with every sentence, a pattern should emerge. The one sentence with the most arrows pointing to it will most likely be the one that contains the main idea.

Idea #3 – Offer a little gift

Another very concrete way to approach the concept of finding the main idea is to give your child a little gift.

Beforehand, choose a small treat or toy you think she will like. Put it into a small box – or even into two or more nesting boxes. Nestle it into some brightly colored tissue paper, then wrap it with gift wrap and tie it up with a bow. While your child opens – and enjoys! – the treat, take the opportunity to define the main idea for her. As your child opens the package, point out how pretty the wrapping paper is and how bright the ribbon. Comment on how fun it is to dig through the colorful tissue paper. After your child reaches the treat inside, you can ask, “What was the most important part of this gift? Was it the gift wrap? Was it the bow?” Of course the answer will be, “The treat inside!” You can then point out how opening a present is just like reading a story. There are lots of pretty details in a story that support the main idea, and they can be fun to read, but the main idea is what we really want to find.

Be patient as you help your child with this complex concept. Finding the main idea in a reading passage can be difficult – sometimes even for adults! The main idea in a story is not always obvious, and it can be easy to confuse it with concepts like theme and topic. So, let your child know that what she’s doing will take some work. But, because being able to find the main idea while reading leads to better reading comprehension, it’s well worth the effort.

Looking for more resources?  K12reader offers thousands of worksheets around different reading topics. Here are some main idea worksheets you might like to use in your classroom or at home:

Main Idea Activity Grade Range
Storms K – 3rd Grade
Carnivals K – 3rd Grade
Spots the Barn Cat  K – 3rd Grade
Anne of Green Gables 2nd – 5th Grade
Planets 2nd – 5th Grade
Jungle Book 2nd – 3rd Grade
The Meerkat 2nd – 3rd Grade

Looking for more?  Check out all of our Main Idea Activities. Want more reading skills practice for your student?  Visit and their printable Main Idea Reading Passages.