You’ve landed here because you’re looking for main idea activities, right?

Well you’ve come to the right place!

Finding the main idea is a useful skill that students will use for life.  

When we quickly tell someone about a book we read, a show we watched, or a podcast that we listened to, we’re essentially speaking about the main idea. 

For elementary students, finding the main idea primarily focuses on finding the main point of an article, passage, essay, paragraph, chapter, section of a book, or even a picture.

In this article, I’m going to show you…

  • Tried-and True Main Idea Activities that I’ve Used with Success!
  • How to Differentiate Each Activity in order to Target All Learners’ Needs.
  • Tips to Further Extend the Learning.

These main idea activities are useful no matter what curriculum you teach because this reading skill naturally integrates with all content areas.

It’s important to note that building the skill of finding the main idea takes time; it’s an ongoing learning process. As students are exposed to and practice with a variety of genres within an appropriate range of reading levels, their skills will get sharper.

To support students in this progression, I’ve organized these main idea activities from beginning to advanced.

Each individual activity sets a stronger foundation for the next main idea activity.

This is key!

This progression of activities helps students develop the thought process and critical thinking skills needed to eventually be able to find the main idea when reading independently.

Of course, all of these main idea activities can be modified to be easier or harder depending on the needs and abilities of your class, but for this post, I’ve ranked them as mentioned above.

Main Idea Activities: Beginners

Main Idea Word Sorts

Word sorts are great for introducing or reviewing main idea.

You can do this activity as a whole class or in groups.

Here’s what you do…

  1. When planning, think about what main idea topics you want to focus on. Some simple examples include planets, pets, fruits, days of the week, sports, renewable resources, clothes, book genres, etc. The possibilities are endless! (Choose about 4-6 main idea topics.)

Make sure to choose topics with which your students will have some connection.  If they have some prior knowledge of the topics, they’ll grasp the main idea concept much quicker.

As an example, I’m going to choose these main idea topics…

  • Sports
  • Animals
  • Desserts
  • Clothes

(These word sort examples are super easy, I know, but I just want you to get the gist of the activity! 😉)

2. Now, with those main idea topics in mind, create about 6 detail cards for each main idea. Below you can see the examples I have for each main idea topic that I chose.

finding the main idea activities

Quick Tip: There are many places online to create and print word sorts (aka flashcards!) for free!

3. Next, make a copy of the sheet (above) for each student or pair.  Students cut the words and sort them on a columned graphic organizer or, if you’re a teacher minimalist like me, just have them record their sorting in their readers’ notebook.

4. As students sort, they decide the main idea of each group.

What’s important here is the conversation/discussion piece. As students sort, encourage whole class or group dialog about WHY they are sorting/categorizing a particular way.

How to Differentiate:

The above example is pretty simple, but this activity can be adjusted.

For advanced learners or older students who have a good main idea foundation (fourth and fifth graders), make the main idea topics harder by having ALL the core words connected to one theme (example: animals).

They’ll now sort based on types of animal or some other characteristics.

The word sort examples can be as nuanced as you like. This makes it more challenging.

On the contrary, your struggling learners may need more practice with basic main idea activity word sorts like in the example above.

Alternative Main Idea Activity for Beginners

If the above main idea activity doesn’t jive with you, try this one instead. It’s a bit more visual and also great for English as a Second Language learners.

Here’s how it works…

Write a group of words or collect a group of pictures to place around a concentric circle.

main idea activitymain idea activity

Students infer the main idea of the items, and write the main idea in the center of the circle.

Pretty simple, effective, and incredibly LOW PREP.

“Get the Gist” Main Idea Activity

Get the Gist is a classic main idea activity that requires readers to focus on the main ideas of a text without omitting key ideas.

One of the 7 thinking strategies for reading is synthesizing which is essentially collecting pieces of significant information in order to analyze and identify key elements.

This is a higher-order thinking skill that is greatly promoted using the Get the Gist main idea activity.

Here’s how it works…

  • Provide for students (or have them choose) a grade-level appropriate text selection to read.
  • After reading, they think about WHO or WHAT the passage or text is mostly speaking of.
  • Then they think about the key pieces of information about the WHO or WHAT.
  • Finally, students put all the pieces together to form a “main idea” statement that tells the “gist” of the selection. The “gist” statement has to be 10 words or less.

The 10 words or less part is challenging for beginners. But with modeling and practice, learners get better and better with this strategy.

I have found it to be super effective!

How to Differentiate the Get the Gist Main Idea Activity:

If your learners need scaffolding with identifying the key pieces about the WHO or WHAT, have them use the 5Ws + 1 framework for assistance.

Additionally, extend the “gist” statement to 20 words or less instead of 10.

It’ll look something like this…

Name that Character Trait

Main idea activities are twice as nice when they naturally teach other important reading skills, too~like inferring!

Sometimes, the main idea isn’t clearly stated, so readers have to infer based on clues.

Here’s how “Name that Character Trait” works…

  • Give each student a main idea graphic organizer.  
  • Provide three clues that are examples of a particular character trait.  Make all the clues related to one main event and character (see example).
  • Students then infer the main character trait. Again, the conversation/dialog that occurs during this process is very important. WHY was that particular trait chosen? The answer is in the clues (aka the details!).

finding the main idea activities

Encourage students to use a variety of words to describe Johnny, not just common, everyday words.

This is an important skill (word choice) and is one of the elements addressed in the six traits of writing framework.

What a great way to reinforce some writing objectives!

How to Differentiate:

Make the clues harder (or easier) and use a variety of character traits, not just traits with which learners are most familiar.

Making Headlines

Next on the list of main idea activities is one that incorporates magazines and newspapers, two genres that I don’t think students get enough exposure to these days.

Here’s how to do it…

  • Gather copies of kids’ magazines and newspapers. (Think Time for Kids, Highlights, and check your library for more options, etc.)
  • Get rid of the headings (blacken with a marker or xerox with the title covered).
  • In small groups, pairs, or individually, students read each article and come up with their own title for each one. The title must be logical and based on details from the text.

How to Differentiate:

For advanced learners, provide higher-leveled articles and/or have them work independently.

For struggling readers, have the titles provided in a separate pile.

They then match the headline with the appropriate article.

“Pin” the Title

Use visual images to help students find the main idea!

This activity is similar to “Making Headlines” but you only use images. It’s a really good activity for your visual learners.

Here’s what you do…

  • Using Pinterest or Google Images, project an image that is kid-appropriate. Make sure no titles are present.
  • Give three or four title options for students to choose from. They then decide which title to “pin” to the picture. (Only one title will be the correct answer).
  • Again, the discussion is key to deepening students’ understanding. Why is that title good for that image? What details are present in the picture to help me know that?
  • If you want to take things a bit further, print the photos and have the title options typed and cut out separately.

Students, in small groups or during literacy centers, can then literally “pin” the title on the appropriate photo.

If you have a corkboard wall or bulletin board, it would be perfect for “pinning”. 

Hands-on and quite engaging!

Quick Tip: Here’s a good main idea visual image presentation for you and your kiddos! Use it as a quick and simple introduction.

How to Differentiate:

For advanced learners, use images with less obvious meanings and/or make the answer choices a bit more “tricky” so that a higher level of thinking is needed to decide which title to “pin”.

For your struggling learners, keep the images a little more obvious and make sure the correct answer is clearly based on details from the image.

Graphic Organizers

This list of main idea activities wouldn’t be complete without graphic organizers!

At this point, if students have been successful with the previous activities, they should now be ready to tackle graphic organizers independently.

This is easy peasy to set up…

  • During independent reading time or as an assessment, students find the main idea (with supporting details) of a chapter, section, passage, etc.
  • They record the information on their main idea graphic organizer. There are tons from which to choose.

How to Differentiate:

There are a TON of main idea graphic organizers available online. From a pre-selected assortment, let students choose which organizer they use.

While your kiddos are working independently, conference and/or work with students who need extra support and guidance with any of the above main idea activities.

Making Main Idea Activities with Graphic Organizers More Hands-On

Graphic organizers work.

That’s why they’re so popular and used repeatedly in literacy instruction.

However, they can lack a bit of flavor.

So whenever possible, I like to give them a little twist and make them more hands-on and engaging.

Here’s an example…

Main Idea Mobile Activity

main idea activity mobile

Here’s one example of taking a simple graphic organizer and turning it into a more engaging main idea activity.

All that’s needed is a hanger, some string, and the templates.

That’s all, and kids really love it!

Main Idea Activities with Video

When your students are really ready to stretch their thinking, challenge them with main idea activities that involves excerpts from movies or educational videos.

The Get the Gist graphic organizers mentioned earlier are great for them to take notes as they view the videos.

Videos work well, but it’s best if you’ve determined beforehand a specific excerpt from the video which shows a clear main idea for students to identity.

This can be a bit time-consuming when it comes to planning if you’re not too familiar with the video content.

However, once it’s done, you’ve now got another main idea activity in your teaching toolkit!

A Few More Tips about Teaching Main Idea

  • Use a wide range of genres (fiction + nonfiction) and text levels to teach main idea. Readers’ theaters and comics are unique genres to explore with main idea.
  • Finding the main idea is an ongoing process.  So find ways to discuss finding the main idea during interactive read aloud whenever possible.
  • If your class needs even more support with main idea, make these activities part of literacy centers. The main idea word sort activity is great as a word work activity.
  • As a culminating project, have students create an original movie poster! The poster must SHOW the main idea of the movie (real or imagined) plus have an attention-grabbing title!

Wrapping Up

These main idea activities will have you kicking butt in the classroom and your students soaring in reading workshop.


  • If you want to take your teaching to the next level by strategically targeting more learning styles of your kiddos, incorporate some of these multiple intelligence activities.

Until next time…

Happy teaching and learning!