Determine the main topic of a text; Summarize a text (Inclusive Big Idea #2)

What are students learning?

Reading Informational Text

Grade 3: English Language Arts

Inclusive Big Idea #2: Determine the main topic of a text; Summarize a text

Standard: Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea. RI.3.2

How could I teach this?

Think about how instructional strategies and activities can give students multiple ways to engage with learning. One way won’t work for all, so how can you remove and reduce barriers for all students?

  • Graphic Organizer: List the topic of a text or multimedia and model how to take notes on the events and/or details that support the topic (e.g., the best time to plant pumpkins, how long it takes them to grow and ripen, typical sizes, uses). Providing an option to use graphic organizers with sentence starters may help students to record their ideas as they listen to the verbal conversation. Learn more about Graphic Organizers in this TIP Sheet.
  • Topic Board: Collaborate with students to identify pictures or digital representations of the topic(s) of a given text. Include illustrations or sentences from the text and events and details that support the topic. These can be added to a digital or paper-based topic board or graphic organizer.
  • Interactive Reading: Read or have students listen to a high-interest text. Model stopping at different points to record key details and respond how they support the main idea.
  • Group Think: Work with students to describe the topic prior to reading or listening to the text or multimedia. Prompt students to identify details that support the topic. This could include the title as the sentence, images, or other details from the text. Providing an option to use graphic organizers with sentence starters may help students to record their ideas as they listen to the verbal conversation. See this TIP Sheet for more information on Whole Group Discussions.
  • Think Aloud: To model summarizing, read aloud a book to the class, have students listen to audiobooks, or have students read them in pairs. Share how readers periodically stop and summarize what was just read using just one sentence (e.g., “That paragraph was mostly about _______”). At the end of the text, provide another summary of the entire text that focuses on the central message. See this TIP Sheet for more information on how to model using a Think Aloud.
  • GIST: GIST (Generating Interactions between Schemata and Text) is a strategy that asks readers to condense or summarize a text or other media by generating a brief summary in their own words. Students can use sentence starters or follow model answers to provide the GIST by identifying some of the main ideas or key details from a text. In longer texts, encourage students to stop every few pages and tell or document the GIST of what was read so far.

Don’t stop here! Remember to reduce barriers for all students.

Make reducing barriers a process - take a few minutes to think about your process! Is there a barrier related to:

  • interest or engagement? Think about how to incorporate student’s lived experiences, culture, and interests… 
  • background knowledge? Think about how to highlight key ideas and define key vocabulary… 
  • showing what they know? Think about having options for how they use learning tools and technology to communicate…

For example, one possible barrier is the amount of information that a student needs to hold in mind.

Ideas to reduce this barrier could include:

  • be aware of how much sensory input occurs at once, perhaps offer the option to use headphones
  • show examples and provide answers to check along the way
  • provide templates or graphic organizers
  • allow use of spell checks and other tools 

Use these Inclusive Strategies to help reduce barriers.

Tell me more about this Inclusive Big Idea (I need a refresher)

Brush up on the content of this Inclusive Big Idea. It will help you and your colleagues to understand and teach this content better.

  • The Big Idea: Determine the main topic of a text; Summarize a text
  • Tell me more about… Main Topic
    • The main ideas of informational text are the most important points that the author is trying to make about a specific topic. Identifying and categorizing main ideas within informational text is critical to success because it allows readers to prioritize information in a text. It provides the reader with a framework for understanding and recalling the important ideas in the text.
    • Teaching the Main Idea-- Continuum
      1. Identify the key words of a sentence
      2. Identify key words or topic of a paragraph
      3. Identify the topic sentence of a paragraph
      4. Recognize the explicitly stated point of a paragraph
      5. Infer the main idea of a paragraph
      6. Recognize the relationships among ideas in related paragraphs in longer selections
      7. Infer relationships among ideas in related paragraphs in longer selections
      8. Determine main idea or central message of an entire text.
  • Tell me more about… Summarizing Texts
    • When summarizing, readers reduce larger selections of text to their bare essentials: the gist, the key ideas, and the main points that are worth noting and remembering. Summarizing is an important skill for readers of all levels and abilities and goes beyond retelling to demonstrate a strong understanding of the text. Summarizing requires readers to comprehend, analyze, and synthesize ideas.
    • Good readers…
      • reduce the extraneous verbiage and examples
      • focus on the most relevant facts
      • find key words/phrases that capture the main idea of what was read
      • find the main ideas and the essential details that support the main idea


Looking for more suggestions? Target student common misconceptions, build on interdisciplinary links, and implement strategies and supports across multiple lessons or units.

Common Student Misconceptions

  • Main Idea: Students may have difficulty determining what essential information is. Students often misinterpret details as being the main idea and need to be guided to see the author’s overall point or the ‘big picture’. It is also important to note that the main idea is not simply what the text is about (e.g., informational text covering the discovery of electricity; Benjamin Franklin was key in its first applications, but he is not the main idea). When the main idea is known at the beginning of a text, it alerts the reader to upcoming information and helps them set a purpose for reading. This leads to a greater understanding of the text. Learning how to identify the main idea will help readers remember what they read and improve their comprehension.
  • Summarizing: Teachers sometimes mistakenly believe that students have the ability to determine what is essential within a text. Explicit teaching is often required for students to learn this skill.
  • Building Background Knowledge: Many teachers assume students already know about a topic based on their age or what they should have learned in a previous grade or class. When background knowledge is not built or activated, students will lack the schema to understand new material and may not effectively learn and understand the topic or concept.
  • Supporting Details: Not all information in text is considered supporting details. Authors sometimes provide additional details that are not essential to the understanding of the main idea.
  • Science & Social Studies: Once students can determine the main idea and key details of a text, ask them to apply this skill to their reading about the subject matter.

Everyday Connections

  • In the Cafeteria: Ask students to summarize their weekend activities when sharing with their peers, identifying the main idea and supporting details.

Explore other Inclusive Big Ideas to think about the content you are teaching. How can you connect what you are teaching now to what has been taught before or what will be taught in the future?

Other TIES resources:

Inclusive Big Ideas: Standards-based resources for inclusive classrooms | TIES Center

The Inclusive Big Ideas were adapted from resources created by the NCSC Project , a federal grant from the US Department of Education (PR/Award #: H373X100002), However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the US Department of Education and no assumption of endorsement by the Federal government should be made.

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