November 25, 2015

The Main Idea About Main Idea (Part 2)

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In yesterday’s post, we discussed how multiple choice questions that ask students to arrive at a main idea force children to return to the text and, because the work feels forced, it is often rejected by children. However, returning to a text to find evidence and synthesize information and deeply understand what it is about is important for one’s overall enjoyment of the text, not to mention that is required with the Common Core. Therefore, figuring out new ways of getting kids to return to a text and figure out the main idea without growling and grumbling about it seems pretty important.  How might we get them to do this? What if we didn’t force them, but invited them?

Back in October, when we were nicknaming and assigning an image to each of the standards, we found ourselves having fun. We actually enjoyed  rereading each of the standards trying to picture what image we should use and how to sum up the heart of each anchor in just a few words. As we did this, it occurred to us that we were working with a complex text to figure out main idea–and enjoying it.  So we wondered, what would happen if we did something similar with students? Would they like it, too?

We decided to try it with a group of fourth grade teachers reading an article about the Iroquois Nation of Native Americans.  The article talked about things like how the Iroquois dressed, what they ate, where they slept, how they protected themselves, and what their government was like. We charged them with figuring out which of the following images went best with each section of text:

You’ll notice that we didn’t look for pictures of moccasins or corn or a Long House, the images above are metaphoric and require that students think about the main idea of each section of text.

When we did this activity, 100% of the students were engaged.  Nobody said, “I hate this, this is boring,” in spite of the fact that it was challenging.  We heard animated discussion about what the lock could possibly have to do with this and then collective “ahhs” at the realization that perhaps it represents the section of the text that discusses the fortresses they built that’s about protection.  Students wrestled with which section of text the chain link represented.  Was it the part about how the Indians worked together or was it the part that discussed periods of war and peace?

Rather than forcing students to return to the text to answer a question that they may or may not get correct, this activity invited students to take a second look and consider the big picture of each of the sections of text they read.  As we’ve shared this activity with teachers, we’ve intrigued many who have in turn shared that they’ve tried doing the same using different texts and different images.  Many have lamented that the search for metaphoric images is time consuming, which has made us wonder if one set of images could work for most texts.  While we are still trying these out in many classrooms, we’d like to share them with you to use with your students. Let us know how these images work in your classroom!!

Reading Lesson Images


  1. Hmmm….I’m wondering if sets of images might be different depending on the types of text we read and even, within departments. This has me thinking. Thank you for sharing! Great strategy…..

    • Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris says:

      If you try it out with different sets of images in different content areas, let us know!

  2. So I am very intrigued by this article and am wondering what the Iroquois Indian story looked like! The whole concept of teaching metaphors by pictures is fabulous. As students continue on, I wonder how well they could do this on their own!

    Whether we are using Bloom’s or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, this is so much better than a multiple choice item.

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