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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.

The following 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 sharpen.

To support students in this progression, I’ve organized these activities from beginner level to advanced.

Each individual activity sets a stronger foundation for the next.

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.

Note that all of these main idea activities can be modified to be easier or harder depending on the needs and abilities of your class.

Related: For ideas on assessing these main idea activities, check out our collection of quick and easy informal assessment ideas for elementary teachers.

Fun Main Idea Activities for Elementary Students

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…

  • When lesson planning, brainstorm a few general topics. Some examples include planets, pets, fruits, days of the week, sports, renewable resources, clothes, book genres, etc. Choose about 4-6 main idea topics.

Choose topics with which your elementary students have some connection. If they have prior knowledge of the topics, they’ll grasp the main idea concept much faster.

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

  • Sports
  • Animals
  • Desserts
  • Clothes

NOTE: These word sort examples are super easy so that you get the gist of the activity.

  • 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
  • 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 you can have them record the sorting in their readers’ notebook.
  • 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.

Main Idea Concentric Circles

The next main idea activity is a bit more visual and great for ESL 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 activity 4th grade
main idea activity 2nd grade

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

“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.

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.

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main idea activities elementary differentiated

Name that Character Trait

Main idea activities are twice as nice when they naturally teach other important reading skills 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 below).
  • 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).
main idea activity 3rd grade

Making Headlines

Next on the list of main idea activities is one that incorporates magazines and newspapers.

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 copy with tape).
  • 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.

Graphic Organizers

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

If students have been successful with the previous activities, they should be comfortable tackling graphic organizers independently.

How to use..

  • During independent reading or as an assessment, students find the main idea (with supporting details) of a chapter, section, passage, etc.

Main Idea Mobile Activity

main idea mobile

Here’s one example of making a simple graphic organizer interactive.

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

That’s all, and kids really love it.

Wrapping Up – Main Idea Activities for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Graders

These main idea activities boost reading comprehension and are easily differentiated.

Happy teaching and learning

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