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Main Idea vs Details


Students are confronted with an enormous quantity of information both in texts and in class, and they cannot possibly remember every fact. But many students are unsure which information they need to remember. Students need to be able to determine which ideas are central, which are details supporting central ideas, and which are irrelevant details.


Students who are able to distinguish between main ideas and details are able to focus on the information that is most important, and to learn and retrieve this information efficiently. They become more effective at both learning and studying, and they are able to organize information logically both in their minds and in their notes.

Content Area Adaptations 

Students must be able to distinguish between main ideas and details in every academic subject, but this skill is especially critical whenever students are processing large quantities of information or long and complex texts.

Learning Strategies 

  • Connecting
  • Determining Importance
  • Inferring
  • Questioning
  • Synthesizing

Common Core Standards 

  • CCRA.L.4
  • CCRA.L.6
  • CCRA.R.1
  • CCRA.R.2
  • CCRA.R.4
  • CCRA.R.7
  • CCRA.SL.1
  • CCRA.SL.2
  • CCRA.W.1
  • CCRA.W.2
  • CCRA.W.3
  • CCRA.W.8
  • CCRA.W.9

Content Areas 

  • ELA
  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies

Learning Strands 

  • Listening
  • Numeracy
  • Reading
  • Speaking
  • Writing

One-Sentence Summaries

In this activity, inspired by Burke’s The English Teacher’s Companion (1998), students will summarize main ideas and vital details in one sentence. There are five different types of one-sentence summaries: description, sequence, compare/contrast, cause/effect, and problem/solution. The purpose of the activity is to help students focus on the...

Lesson Plan Stages 

  • Investigation
  • Synthesis

Save the Last Word

In this activity, adapted from Short, Harste, & Burke’s Creating Classrooms for Authors and Inquirers (1996), students will read a text and select five statements that they think are important to discuss. On index cards, the students will write the statement on one side and then a comment on the other. In groups, students share and discuss...

Lesson Plan Stages 

  • Reflection
  • Synthesis


Summarizing is an important skill for initial consolidation of information, and for later review. Through the act of summarizing, students process information and make meaning of it as they make decisions about main ideas versus details, and as they restate ideas in their own words. When we teach students a structure and a method for...

Lesson Plan Stages 

  • Investigation
  • Synthesis