Finding the Central Idea of a Text for Elementary Students

With modeling and support, students work to determine the central idea of first a section of a Newsela article and ultimately of an article
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Finding a Central Idea
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About This Strategy

While it is vital for students to be able to determine the central idea of a text in order to comprehend the text, it is often a skill with which so many students struggle. In this strategy, students practice finding the central idea of a section of an article first, and they use titles and subtitles to help them find the central idea as well. Students identify the topic (a word or phrase) of the text and then the central idea (by thinking about what the author is saying about that topic). Then the teacher provides whole class and small group mini-lessons to target specific skills that students need and provides individual feedback to students about their progress. Students ultimately work up to determining the central idea of the article as a whole.

Before Reading Implementation Steps

Teacher Preparation and Planning:

  1. Create, edit, or assign a Newsela Text Set that relates to the current unit. Students will likely need several articles with which to practice determining central idea. For help finding, creating, or editing Newsela Text Sets, visit the Newsela Support Center that is linked in the resources below.

  2. Choose a Newsela article to use for modeling.

Student Preparation:

  1. Share the Newsela article title that will be used for modeling with the students, and ask them a series of questions to help them think about the topic of the article before reading it and to help them better understand central idea. Here are example questions for the Newsela article "Bodies of Water: Lakes," which is linked in the resources below.

    • What do you think this article will be mostly about?

    • Do you think that this article could talk about rivers? Why or why not?

    • Do you think that this article could talk about saltwater lakes? Why or why not?

    • What other kinds of information might the author include in this article to support the main idea?

    • Which of the following statements is more likely to be the central idea of this article: "Some lakes were formed when glaciers melted" or "Lakes can be found throughout the world and are an important source of freshwater for people"?

  2. Determine a definition of central idea with students, and create an anchor chart together that includes the definition and what to look for in a text in order to determine its central idea. A sample anchor chart is included in the resources below.

During Reading Implementation Steps

  1. Display the anchor chart to be used as a reference.

  2. Copy the Newsela article used in the Before Reading Implementation Steps so that each student may have a paper copy.

  3. Cut the article into chunks - each section of the article should be one chunk. Some teachers may choose to leave the section titles with the chunks so that students can use the titles to help them determine the central idea, and some teachers may wish to remove the titles for their students. If removing the titles, teachers may want to number the sections to help students be sure that they are looking at the correct chunk.

  4. Distribute the first chunk to the students, and read it together. Referencing the anchor chart, model how to determine the central idea of the first chunk.

    • Share one word (or phrase) that tells what the section is mostly about, and then share a sentence that tells what the author says about that word (or phrase) in the section. This is the central idea.

    • Fill in the graphic organizer for the first section. A sample graphic organizer is included in the resources below, as well as a completed graphic organizer for the article "Bodies of Water: Lakes."

After Reading Implementation Steps

  1. Have students continue reading the article, one chunk at a time. They should complete the graphic organizer as they read. Some teachers may need to model another section or sections with the class, some may allow the students to work with a partner, and some may ask the students to finish individually to gather baseline data on how students are able to determine the central idea.

  2. Collect graphic organizers as students finish, and review them, sorting them into piles of proficient, developing, or beginning level performance. From this data, form small groups for additional support and practice that will meet during the following class session. Students who are successful in identifying the central idea of the sections of the article may move to the next step. For students who need additional support to identify the central idea of the sections of the article, consult the section, "Additional Practice and Lessons on Finding Central Idea."

  3. Once students can successfully identify the central idea of sections of an article, they are ready to synthesize these central ideas in order to determine a central idea of the entire article. Talk with students about how they can use what they have already done in determining the central idea of the different sections of the article to help them. An anchor chart with some key ideas is included in the resource section below. This synthesis is a higher-order thinking activity and will likely require teacher modeling at first.

  4. Another idea would be to use a modified version of the notetaker handout now that students are looking at the article as a whole. A sample Central Idea Synthesis organizer is included in the resource section below.

Additional Practice and Lessons on Finding Central Idea

Some students may be proficient with central idea at this point, while others may need additional support. Meet with small groups of students who need more support, and consider using an "I Do, We Do, You Do" model to help them.

Implementation Steps:

  1. Read through a Newsela article (or a section of an article) together, and model how to determine the central idea.

  2. Discuss how looking at titles/subtitles, pictures, and key words can help determine the central idea, and highlight some of these clues using Newsela Annotations while reading.

  3. Then fill in the Central Idea Notetaker handout as a group.

  4. Repeat these steps, this time with a "We Do" approach. Ask students to tell you what to highlight as you read, and then ask them about the central idea and how they know. Fill in the handout together again.

  5. Have students complete the activity one more time independently to assess their progress.

  6. Throughout this process, provide individual feedback to students based on your observations of their work.

Extension Activity: Backwards Design Writing Task

For students who still struggle, consider a backwards design approach. Since the reading-writing connection is so strong, students may benefit from starting with a central idea and then planning an article based on that central idea. Consider the following steps as you work with the students to fill in the planning sheet and then write an article together.  A sample planning sheet for this activity is included in the resource section below as well as a completed example for the topic "school."

Implementation Steps:

  1. Work with the students to choose a topic for an article. This should be a topic that students are quite familiar with - school, a sport or hobby, an animal, a particular vacation spot, etc.

  2. Decide what to say about the topic. What will the article be mostly about? This is the central idea.

  3. Brainstorm subtopics that relate to the chosen central idea.

  4. Model writing a short introductory section to the article.

  5. Discuss the first subtopic with the students. Ask them what specific things they would include in the section. Have them share their ideas orally.

  6. Ask students to work with a partner to write a section about one of the subtopics. Remind them to keep the central idea in mind and to be sure that everything that they are writing supports that central idea.

  7. As students work through the above steps to write an article that relates to their chosen central idea, they may begin to see why a central idea is necessary and how having a central idea can help their writing. This may then transfer to their reading so that they are better able to identify the central idea of an article that they read.

Recommended Newsela Texts or Text Sets

Text Set Title: Pollution and Its Harmful Effects

  • Grade Level: 4-6
  • Content Area: Science

Text Set Title: U.S. Civil War

  • Grade Level: 3-6
  • Content Area: Social Studies

Text Set Title: A Mile in Our Shoes: Groundbreaking Women

  • Essential Questions:
    • Identity: What do these stories show about the experience of being female? What other words might the individuals here use to describe themselves? What experiences do you share with individuals in this collection?

    • Diversity: How are the individuals in this collection different from each other? What successes and challenges are unique to people in this group? What perspectives are missing from this collection?

    • Justice: What are some challenges that affect individuals in this group that others might have a hard time understanding? What do you think others can do to understand the challenges these individuals face? What are some assumptions that people might make about individuals who identify with this group? How might stereotypes negatively affect individuals who identify with this group?

    • Action: What can communities do to support individuals in this group? What can you do?

  • Grade Level: 3-6
  • Content Area: ELA, Social Studies

Teacher Tips

  • It may take more attempts than you would expect for students to become adept at determining central idea. Have plenty of articles in your Text Set - and plenty of copies of your graphic organizer!

Consulted Resources

In developing this strategy, the resource linked below was consulted.