Main Idea, Details, and Summary – the Difference
When teaching students about the main idea(s), details, and summary, I use a wet sponge illustration. A wet sponge holds the story or passage, which includes the main idea(s), details, and summary. Squeeze the water, the details from the sponge. Then the main idea(s) is left, which helps compose the summary.
Just a note, there could be one main idea or more than one main idea in a story. If students are locating the main idea on every page, section, or just one for the entire book, it makes a difference for students to know what’s being identified. It is essential to be specific about the main idea(s) being located.
It is so important that students know the difference between the main idea(s), details, and summary of a story or passage. These are three different skills, and students confuse these skills quite often.
Main Idea “Get the Gist”
The main idea consists of approximately 10 or fewer words. A catchy way to teach students the main idea is a strategy called “Get the Gist.” This process helps students to discover the main idea and then write a statement in a few words, preferably 10 words or less. Students have to answer two questions to conclude the main idea and condense the idea to 10 words or less. Question 1: WHO or WHAT is most important about this passage? Question 2: What is the most important idea about WHO or WHAT? [Intervention in School and Clinic, Volume 45, Number 5, pgs. 268-9, May 2011]. The main idea doesn’t include all the summary nor the details of the story. It is responding to these two questions and formulating a sentence that answers these two questions. This skill takes practice. Implement the free template with students to strengthen their capability of concluding the main idea.
Details are those added ideas that support the main idea to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. Writing details uses our five senses, such as see, hear, feel, taste, touch. Also, details include our feelings. It’s the details that make the student’s story their story. Including more information using figurative language such as similes and metaphors is a great way to make the writing descriptive. Also, teach students to add exciting, meaningful details rather than boring ones.
The summary is telling someone just enough about the main events/points of the book or passage to hook them to want to read the book. It is a good, short retell. I tell my students that a summary [elementary level book] is approximately 30 words. We count 10 words for each component – the beginning, middle, and end using our ten fingers. Thirty words is not a “reading rule.” Still, it gives students the idea that a summary is longer than identifying the main idea.
Fill a bucket with water and dunk a sponge in the bucket. Students watch this demonstration as you do it. Let students know the purpose of this illustration is to teach the difference between the main idea(s) and details of a story. Ask students to give the main facts and details about the passage. Write their responses for the class to see. Keep the two [main ideas, details] separated when writing on the board. Every time a reply is given, students determine whether it is the main idea or detail. If a response is a detail, squeeze a little water out of the sponge. Continue to do this until all details are squeezed out. A relatively dry sponge with its main idea(s) is left.
The order of teaching the difference between main ideas(s)/details and the summary is up to you. If the book is short, either skill can be taught first. If the book is longer, it’s better to teach the skill of the main idea(s) first since these ideas compose the summary.
Tips to Remember
Practicing the skills multiple times eventually leads students to conclude that the main idea is far fewer words than a summary. One point to make is that the summary and the main idea are not the takeaway value nor moral of the story/passage. The takeaway value or moral of the story/passage is what the story/passage teaches as far as a lesson we can learn. Sometimes it is called the central message. The central message is different than the main idea or summary. Fables are great reads to teach the moral of a story.
Between the two skills, summarizing is usually easier for a student to learn verses formulating the main idea. Most likely, the reason is that a summary is more concrete, and the main idea is difficult to conclude when it is abstract. Also, it takes practice for students to condense the main idea to 10 words or less. Determining the main idea is stating back the WHO or WHAT and their most important idea. Remind students that a summary is not reading back portions of the book. Giving a summary is sharing the main idea(s) in our own words.
Using graphic organizers, proper modeling procedures by the teacher, and giving students tons of practice are the best ways for students to learn these reading skills. Begin with many scaffolds in place. Use simple texts that have apparent answers when introducing the skills. Gradually remove supports as students become proficient. Thinking aloud is the only way students should participate. This way, wrong thinking can be immediately corrected rather than become cemented in their minds. Try using this template below to teach the main idea. Consistent implementation goes a long way with students capturing a skill.
Simple Example of Teaching Main Idea and Details
Let’s start at a very concrete level for me to model. I pick a simple topic. For example, I’ll choose the topic “Rainbows.” Now I’m going to write about rainbows. Rainbows appear in the sky after a rain. They are beautiful! They have so many colors. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet are their colors. I remember their colors by remembering a silly name, Roy G. Biv. I learned this fun strategy when I was a kid, and I will never forget it. Now I circle (really couldn’t in this example but would if teaching it) the main topic [which is rainbows and remember their colors] and underline all the details [which are the items I underlined]. Once this is done, students can see the differences between the main idea of the passage and its details.
Next, I determine the main idea by using the main idea template. I ask myself two questions. Question 1: WHO or WHAT is most important about this passage? Rainbows. Question 2: What is the most important idea about WHO or WHAT. I remember the colors by a silly name. Now I combine these two answers to formulate the statement in 10 words or less. I remember the rainbow’s colors by a silly name.
Now the student’s turn. First, students pick a topic and write a short blurb about it. Second, circle the main idea and underline the details. Third, use the main idea template to formulate the statement. And presto! Students are learning!
Sweet Teaching Moment
Here’s a sweet little story I want to share with you since it has to do with this topic of summarizing. Years ago, I was teaching a summary, and I asked what did summarize mean. One little first grade girl raised her hand and said, “Summarizing is something you do in the summer.” I loved it! It was such a sensible answer!
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