“Why do I loathe main idea?”

Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

I received this email this morning from one the best literacy teachers I know:

“Why do I loathe main idea?”

What a great question in the age of common core instruction.

My first thought was main idea — or central idea as the CCSS calls it  — is such an overused term. I am sure there are teachers who have file drawers full of worksheets on finding the main idea and providing three supporting details. Or, as we like to say these days, “identify supporting text evidence.” I don’t think it matters whether you call them supporting details or text evidence. We could argue questions of nuance between details and evidence, but all we would really be doing is arguing jargon, not literacy.

Then, I thought a little more on the subject and wrote back,  “[finding main idea] can justify a very surface reading of the text sometimes. We’re teaching kids, ‘All you need to know is the main idea and a couple pieces of evidence.’ We aren’t digging deep.”

That’s what rung the bell on this question.

My friend responded, “You miss so much when you’re only looking for the main idea.”


I just finished thumbing through one of my all-time favorite  essay collections, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. Like any favorite book, my copy is a tattered paperback barely held together at the binding with Scotch tape. To read those essays, “to get the main idea” would be a travesty. Fulghum conveys so much through his tone and writing voice. You would miss all that. You might believe you did learn everything you need to know in kindergarten.

Would you read Tuesday’s with Morrie just deeply enough to get the main idea? Would you skim The Last Lecture, just for the key points? Get just enough from the text so you can summarize it in a properly structured paragraph with a topic sentence, five supporting sentences, and a closing sentence. Such tasks are an injustice to the literature, and to the reader.

Okay, in the name of fairness and accuracy, the CCSS says that students must analyze the development of central ideas and themes in the text.

Let’s think about that. Let’s analyze it.

Analyze is a word we educator’s love because it occupies a high ranking on Bloom’s taxonomy. The problem becomes when we try to define and apply the term. I remember once asking a group of teachers in a workshop to define the analysis. I got a lot of responses that sounded like, “Well, um, it’s when you…um…” Then a stream of gibberish and jargon spewed forth. After the session, I concluded the most common definition of analyze was: students can recall and repeat an explanation that the teacher provided in an earlier lesson.

Analysis is not a process that just happens in a student’s head because you tell them to do it. Analysis requires a protocol, a procedure, an algorithm, a model or a method. Our brains don’t come pre-programmed for analysis…or for reading comprehension at any level. We learn to analyze.

It’s vital for literacy teachers to be introspective and reflective about how we construct meaning on every level when we read. Let me ask you this question: What’s your analysis protocol for the central idea? What activates the protocol during your reading process? When you read a piece of literary non-fiction, when does the main idea light start to blink on your mental dashboard?

The room grows very quiet. A cricket chirps.

I don’t mean to be unduly facetious about this, although I find it hard to keep the sarcasm out of my tone as I write on this subject.

Fine models of analysis that builds and deepens comprehension exist. Check out Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst; Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives, by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey; Deeper Comprehension, by Kelly Gallagher; and, What Readers Really Do, by Dorothy Barnhouse and Victoria Vinton.

Teachers can model and guide students through thoughtful text analysis using models like these. From that thoughtful analysis, students will be able to explain the central ideas and support their conclusions with their deeper understanding of the text.

We must recognize that finding main idea and supporting details is a bi-product of a thoughtful comprehension process.  It should never be the entire purpose of reading. The main reading task always remains the same: comprehend fully and comprehend deeply. Comprehension is not a divisible, segmented process when it occurs in the reader’s mind. We should not chop it up for classroom use or standardized tests.

Reading is an act of exploration. The reader must enter the book with eyes wide open. Like Lewis and Clark traveling the Missouri River, the reader’s mission is to notice and catalog everything and to create a complete and accurate map of the territory. You don’t just look for the mountains. You don’t just look for the forests. You study the moss on every tree.

Like all journeys of exploration, reading is an open-ended experience. You don’t know what you will find until you see it. And you might miss if you are busy looking for something you think you have to find.

“You miss so much when you’re only looking for the main idea.”

Chasing the SKILLZ

This just doesn’t seem to want to go away. Invariably I will sit in a meeting or workshop with other teachers and administrators discussing a reading related topic: lessons, assessment, reading in the content classes, etc. I will present ideas for reading strategically and critically using Kylene Beers, Robert Probst, Cris Tovani and Kelly Gallagher as my sources for evidence and inspiration. I will quote Richard Allington, Tom Newkirk, and Russell Walsh.

“We should have students annotate their thinking with an article of the week,” I might suggest. “Then, we need teach them how to use signposts to think their way through a novel.”

Of course, I will go on to explain how those ideas work, and on a good day I might even be able to connect it all to close reading and the Common Core State Standards.

I will get some nods and a few affirmations before someone will ask:

“What about the SKILLZ? How are students going to learn the SKILLZ?”

Notice the spelling. It’s important.

When I think of reading skills, I think of decoding, phonemic awareness, and phonics. I think about the reader’s eyes and their ability to track across the page. I think of the skills necessary to recognize the words and connect them together fluently so the reader’s brain can comprehend the images, ideas and messages in the text.

Those are reading skills.

The SKILLZ my colleagues talk about are a different animal altogether. They want to know how we are going to teach kids to find the main idea, look for author’s purpose, or recognize cause and effect. The list is longer than that, but you get the idea. Sometimes they even confuse skills and SKILLZ with literary devices like plot and setting.

The reason for the confusion is obvious. For decades, educational publishers have packaged these SKILLZ in materials and disguised them as reading comprehension.

Now, before I give you the wrong idea, let me say this: readers should be able to find the main idea of a passage. They need to be able to infer the author’s purpose. They ought to be able to figure out the causes and effects of an event described in a text.

It is just that those aren’t exactly reading skills. More properly, they are post-reading skills. Those understandings are the bi-product of properly applying the actual reading skills and thinking strategies that build comprehension. I spell them out as SKILLZ  because that is how publishers mislabel them in their materials.

When we talk about cause and effect or author’s purpose, we aren’t talking about a level or type of comprehension. We are talking about a type of comprehension question.

Comprehension questions are good things. We need them for formative assessment. However, we have to understand their place. Comprehension questions can only follow attempts to build comprehension.

When my colleagues talk about the SKILLZ, what they mean is, “How are we going to teach students to answer these kinds of questions.” (Too often, that translates to, “How are we going to teach the types of questions that might end up on a standardized test?”)

Here’s the problem with centering reading instruction on the SKILLZ: you end up putting the questions in front of the understanding, rather than after the understanding where they belong.

In other words, you end up chasing comprehension rather than building it.

And too often we fail to catch what we chase.

That’s true for reading comprehension. That’s true for test scores. That’s true for our tails.