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This Week’s Episode: How to Identify the Main Idea, Key Details and Summarizing

So far in this series we have focused on answering questions, sequencing, describing, and story retell with our preschoolers. We continued to build on these skills and focused on how to use explicit instruction to target narrative generation with our early elementary students and our later elementary students. 

This week we’re going to wrap up our series on narratives with a unit for our older students, and this differs from what we’ve done in the last few weeks because we tend to shift more towards expository text — especially if they have a solid understanding of the story grammar framework.

This age group spends less time with narratives and more with those expository texts, so we really want to work on: identifying the main idea, key details, and learning how to summarize.

Solis et al. (2011) indicate that teaching sixth through eighth-graders with LD, how to summarize and find the main idea is an effective strategy to help improve understanding of the text.

These skills are really important not only for school work or studying to pass exams — but for real-world milestones like passing a driver’s test, understanding directions in a manual, or onboarding at a new job.

Setting them up for success starts now. Let’s get to planning, shall we? 


Scaffold instruction, model use of strategy, use graphic organizers, and give students ownership (Pyle et al., 2017).
Read the text, use self -monitoring tools, and use explicit instruction (Solis et al,. 2011).
Scaffold finding the main idea of a text (Stevens et al., 2019).

Here’s what we discussed:

[8:35] Therapy Ideas for Step 1 (Pre-Story Knowledge Activation)
[9:19] Therapy Ideas for Step 2 (Reading)
[9:30] Therapy Ideas for Step 3 (Post Story Comprehension)
[10:10] Therapy Ideas for Step 4 (Skill Practice)
[11:25] Therapy Ideas for Step 5 (Parallel Story)

Want to hear more about this topic? Click here to see this month’s content!

Links Mentioned

– The SLP Now One-Page Literacy-Based Therapy Unit Planner
– ReadWorks Article: Vitamin G for Your Mind
– SLP Now Membership
– May Therapy Plans
– Targeting Grammar with Literacy-Based Therapy: Preschool, Early ElementaryLater Elementary, and Secondary
– Targeting Vocabulary with Literacy Based-Therapy PreschoolEarly ElementaryLater Elementary, and Secondary

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Now we get to dive into something a little bit different for our older students, because with our older students, we tend to shift more towards expository texts, especially if they have a good understanding of the story grammar framework. They're really bombarded with expository texts throughout the school day and less so with narratives. So by teaching them how to identify the main idea, how to identify key details, teaching them how to summarize, those are skills that will be incredibly important as they move forward. Whether they're trying to pass their driver's test, or pass a social studies exam, or understand directions in a manual, or when they're starting a new job, these are skills that are incredibly important.
So instead of narratives, we're going to be focusing on summarizing for these students. And as I already alluded to, identifying the main idea and key details is one example of a goal. Another goal is to summarize the text. And Solis et al. from 2011 indicate that teaching sixth through eighth graders with LD, how to summarize and find the main idea is an effective strategy to help improve understanding of the text. And if they can learn to summarize and find the main idea of any given text, that could potentially have a very significant impact.
So what we're talking about today, we're discussing how to start targeting these skills using another ReadWorks article. Again, this is available for free at And the title of this article is Vitamin G For Your Mind, and just about the need for vitamin G. It's a little bit of a sciency article. So let's just dive in to our plans and I have a couple strategies that we can use. So Stevens et al., 2019, share a way to help us scaffold finding the main idea of a text.
So the question that I can ask is who or what is this section about and what is the most important idea about the who or what. And then I'm teaching the students to write the gist of the answers to those questions. So I thought that was a really helpful way because when I'm talking to students about identifying the main idea, a lot of times they'll say, "Well, the main idea is the first sentence in the paragraph." And then they just recite that. So I think these questions are super helpful in breaking that down. And being able to identify the main idea and really understand the main idea, I think is a huge step in the right direction. So just to recap, we want to know who or what the section is about and the most important idea about the who or what.
So that's how we can scaffold finding the main idea. And then just like who or what, and then the most important idea, and then kind of synthesizing that and finding the gist of that. And if our students struggle with this, we can remind them to go back to the text, especially if we start with an article that's a little bit more understandable and simple, that might be a good way to scaffold it as well. But just to have them go back to the texts, identify the who or what and the most important idea. And then there's also some cool research on reminding them to look at the text structure and teaching them the structure of the text. There's some really cool research out there. And like, for example, if it's a problem solving passage, the main idea will tell us the problem and the solution for that problem.
So if we can say, "Oh, this is a problem solution passage." So I need to know what the problem is and the most important thing about that problem is the solution. So I need to know the problem and the solution, and that'll give us the main idea. So I think that's a really cool way, like by teaching the text structures, we can set them up for success and give them additional strategies. And yeah, this study found by using this approach students were better at stating the main idea and understanding different text structures. So some other strategies that we can use. So when we're reading the text, and this kind of like goes along with what Stevens et al., 2019, what that article said, but we can highlight what's most important and then just work on expressing that in a shorter form.
So that's, instead of writing the gist, like expressing it in a shorter form might be another to say that, if students don't understand writing that gist. We can also help students use self-monitoring tools. So maybe after they read a paragraph, can they check-in with themselves to make sure that they understood it? And we also want to make sure that we're using explicit instruction. So I think the Stevens et al. article gives a really nice way to set that up. So we can model asking ourselves these questions, like who or what was this about? What was most important about that who or what? And so we'll model that and think out loud and model our thinking as we're identifying the main idea of a section or a paragraph or an article. And then we want to give students feedback as they're doing this on their own.
So have them read a section and ask them to kind of talk about what they think the main idea is, and if they need support with that we can kind of give feedback on, "Oh, so it sounds like you identify the who, but what's most important about that?" So just giving them feedback, really specific feedback to help guide them towards the main idea. Or if they did it perfectly, we can give them specific feedback there like, "Great job. You identified the what of that section and what's most important about that." And so we can just identify what they've done and what they need more support with. And then just providing them with tons of opportunities for guided and independent practice. And next month, we'll be talking all about curriculum-based therapy and how to kind of start, because when I teach about this, I think it's really helpful just to take one text and use it across multiple groups.
It helps you learn the strategies very quickly and it gives you some confidence in the different evidence-based strategies. But once you get comfortable with this, I like to challenge SLPs to incorporate different elements of the curriculum. So whether you're just simply selecting articles that are related to what they're discussing in the classroom, or if you want to take it a step further and really can set up strong communication with your teachers and pull in articles that they're actually using in the classroom, or even just using their textbook, whatever they happen to be like, "What are you reading in science today?" It can be as simple as that. But I think starting with like when you're first implementing this, you want to be able to put together some ideas. You want to read the texts before, so you can come up with some strategies. But once you get really comfortable with this, you can pull pretty much any text and implement these strategies.
And at that point, you would have gotten lots and lots of practice. And so it's easy to adjust and implement these strategies with pretty much any text. But anyway, that was a little bit of a tangent, let's get back to Vitamin G For Your Mind, this article that we're using. So again, to recap we're targeting identifying the main idea, identifying key details, and then summarizing the text. So for step one of the framework, we'll do some pre-story knowledge. We might just walk through the article. This one has nice headings and we might say, "Okay, so what is vitamin G?" What do the headings tell us? What do we think this will be about?" And we might just take a guess at what the main idea is and what we think will be most important. And maybe it's just questions at this point like "What questions do we think this article will answer?"
And we can do a KWL chart too, what we know, what we want to know, and then as we read, we can fill out the L like what we learned, but that can be a great pre-story knowledge activity, because then we can figure out if we need to do any additional pre-teaching. And then first step two, we would dive into actually reading the text. And then for step three, we would dive into some comprehension activities. So this really depends on where the students are, but we might ask literal and or inferential questions. And then we would also start diving, like we would start diving into all of the summarizing skills. And again, using that scaffolding procedure if needed, to help the students identify the main idea and to identify the key details. I really like using a graphic organizer, that makes it easier to kind of process all of the elements.
And, yeah, so that's what we would do for step three. And then for step four, we would be able to work on all of their other skills. And maybe in step three, we just focus on filling out the summary. And then after we've done all of our grammar and vocabulary practice, we can revisit the summary and make sure that we're including our new vocabulary and our new grammar. If we're working on compound and complex sentences or sentences with multiple clauses, we can expand that and include what we've learned. And then give the students the opportunity to practice like actually telling that summary and summarizing out loud. I think that's a great way to continue developing those skills. So for this example, we would just simply summarize the article. We could create a little video or create an animation to help us remember what the article was about.
And then again, still practicing our summarizing skills, integrating all of the grammar and vocabulary skills that we've targeted throughout the unit. And if you want more ideas for grammar or vocabulary, head back to previous months episodes for more details. And so that's what we would do for step four. And then for step five, this is typically the parallel story section, but I think it's a really great opportunity to take things a step further. So if we read an expository text and assuming it's something that's just largely informational, I think it's fun to explore different text structures.
So maybe we read this article about vitamin G and then the students can work on creating like a persuasive text or maybe we can read two articles about the same topic and then compare and contrast, but just diving into some of the different structures that they're using in the classroom. And that can be a cool way to talk about the different structures that they might encounter throughout their time in school and just give them additional strategies to navigate that. So, yeah, that's what we've got for this unit. And that's a wrap for all things narratives and summarizing, and we'll see you next month when we start sharing ideas for curriculum based therapy and really taking all of the things that we've learned over the past several months and taking it to the next level.


Hi there! I'm Marisha. I am a school-based SLP who is all about working smarter, not harder. I created the SLP Now Membership and love sharing tips and tricks to help you save time so you can focus on what matters most--your students AND yourself.

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