Why Can’t Teachers Just Teach in a Way Kids Can Understand? Suggestions for Teaching Main Ideas

By Jeanette Gordon, ELL Outlook™ Contributing Writer

As an educational consultant, I am forever indebted to Miguel. The first time I met him was at a Summer Olympic-type athletic competition for migrant students. I was teaching high school ESL, and he was in the eighth grade. It was evident that he had been drinking alcohol before coming to the event, and it was even more evident that his teacher, at least a foot shorter than he was and somewhat intimidated, had just about had enough of him. She told me Miguel couldn’t read or write in Spanish or English and that his discipline was terrible. She advised that I refer him for special education right away because he was “worse” than his brother. I had his brother, a 20-year-old diagnosed as Educable Mentally Handicapped. After challenging adjustments for both of us, he was making exciting progress.

I told Miguel that I would be his teacher the following year and that I was looking forward to having him in my ESL and sheltered content classes. I did let him know that I would expect school-appropriate behavior. The first day of class, Miguel was lying on the floor kicking his feet. I remembered his teacher’s comments and considered concurring with her appraisal until I realized that he was just checking out my reaction. As I began to work with Miguel, I discovered that he was bright. He just hadn’t learned to read or write through the instructional methods he had experienced up to that point. He taught me more than any other source about how to teach students with limited or no literacy skills. It seemed that whenever he had an “aha” moment as a learner, I had an “aha” moment as an educator. It was Miguel who taught me that if I first teach an understanding in a concrete, visual way, it is markedly easier for students to progress to related literacy tasks.

One day I was explaining English conventions of expository writing. I started by comparing the expository structure of English with that of some other languages (Kaplan, 1966). I wanted my students to realize that writing in a new language may not always follow the conventions of their home languages. I drew illustrations to represent various cultural differences and “walked” the patterns as I briefly explained them. Then I introduced the linear, straight-ahead style we use in English. I explained that in expository writing we introduce the main idea and support that idea with details and examples. To conclude, we restate the main idea in a new way.

Suddenly, Miguel interrupted, “Oh, no! Is this main idea and supporting details?”

I was surprised and pleased that he knew those words. “Why, yes,” I replied.

“I don’t want to do that,” he said with such vehemence and finality that it was obvious he was committed to his declaration.

“It sounds to me as if you’ve had some bad experiences with main ideas and supporting details,” I said. “Why don’t you tell us about that?”

“Every day, every day in junior high we had to read a . . . a. . . what do you call it?”

“A paragraph,” someone volunteered.

“Yeah, that’s it, a paragraph. We had to read a paragraph, and then we had to find the main idea and the supporting details. I failed it every day. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

I thought about that and recognized that he certainly had well-founded reasons for his objections. Obviously a different approach was needed. I decided to use a picture to teach the concepts. Holding up a picture, I asked him, “What is the main idea of this picture?”

His exasperated response, “I told you. I don’t know main idea!” forced me to recognize that he really had no idea what he was being asked to do in a literacy task.

I began anew, “I’m sorry. If you were going to tell us in just one sentence about this picture, but you wanted us to see the whole picture in our minds, what would you say? Pretend we can’t see the picture. We see it only through your words.”

“Teenagers are having a party.”

“Great, that one sentence communicated the main idea. I know people are having a party. I also have a good idea of who is having the party. For example, I’m not seeing a child’s birthday party in my mind. Now tell us about the party. What details are important? What would you say to help us know important information about the party?”

Miguel was very expressive orally and had no difficulty describing in detail what kind of party it was, who was in attendance, and what they were doing.

After his very supportive description, I queried to prompt reflective thought related to details that would not have supported the main idea. “You didn’t say anything about the picture on the wall or the lamp. You talked about the kids dancing, singing, and playing the guitar. You talked about the food on the table. Why didn’t you tell us about the picture and the lamp? I think they look very nice.”

He seemed annoyed by such a suggestion and countered, “Why would I talk about the picture and the lamp? They have nothing to do with the party! I’m just telling you about the party.”

“Oh,” I said, “you just told us the main idea, ‘Teenagers are having a party,’ and then you told us the supporting details that gave us more information about the party. You didn’t talk about anything else that didn’t support the main idea. Miguel, I think you’ve got it!”

Miguel sprang from his seat, feet wide, fists punctuating each phrase, “You mean, that’s it, that’s main idea and supporting details? For heaven’s sake, why can’t teachers just teach in a way kids can understand?”

I accepted his question as a valid critique about what is happening to so many students like him. However, what surprised me most was how many other students began commenting on how long it had taken them to figure out main idea and supporting details. I suddenly realized that introducing concepts and skills first in ways that did not require literacy skills could benefit many of my students.

Miguel was a teacher’s treasure chest-that is, of course, if one were willing to do the work required to search for that hidden treasure. Once he realized (much to his surprise, I might add) that I had every intention of teaching him, and that I really did expect him to learn, he would challenge me to do just that. Whenever he didn’t understand something in class, he would blurt out, “I don’t get it. Teach me in a different way.” While admittedly that can be annoying, it didn’t take me long before the question paramount in my mind as I prepared my lessons was, “How can I teach this idea or concept in a way that Miguel will understand, and at the same time keep others interested and challenged?”

I have been working as an educational consultant serving linguistically and culturally diverse learners for almost 16 years, yet whenever I prepare a sample lesson, Miguel is still in my mind. During my planning, I always imagine him in a mainstream classroom with a wide range of learners. So many teachers today are challenged by very heterogeneous classes. Many serve English language learners and special needs students in classes along with other students performing at and above grade level. There is no magic pill, and teaching requires great dedication and insight. I have found, however, that when all students are first engaged in challenging tasks that do not require literacy skills, everyone benefits from the concrete examples and increased oral language. Miguel did graduate from high school and was never referred for special education placement. I also fought to keep him out of the “low track” classes in the school at that time because I feared he would revert to nonproductive behaviors. His growth was remarkable. My growth because of him became a critical part of my success as a teacher and as a consultant. Thankfully, Miguel will be forever on my mind.

Ideas for Teaching and Practicing Main Ideas and Supporting Details Prior to Typical Literacy Activities

  1. Promote higher-order thinking, interest, and retention by teaching the concept of main idea at the analytical level. Bruner’s Concept Attainment model (Brunet, Jarrett, & Austin, 2003/1986) is a good way to do this. In this model, the teacher gives examples and non-examples of the concept being taught, placing the examples in one group and the non-examples in another group. Students analyze the examples to determine their common characteristics. Once they understand the characteristics, they want a name for the concept. Teachers can teach colors, shapes, parts of speech, word order, sentence types, and many other concepts using this strategy. It is highly effective for English language learners because if a teacher can create comprehensible examples, students are able to learn the concept before they could understand an explanation. Here is an example of how the Concept Attainment model can be used to teach the concept of main idea:
    1. The teacher prepares cards with examples and non-examples of main ideas, each with a corresponding picture.
    2. The teacher asks students to choral read a main idea and says, “This is a yes.” S/he then puts the main idea with its picture and places the yes examples on one side of the board.
    3. The teacher asks students to choral read a topic, and says, “This is a no.” S/he matches it with the appropriate picture and places the no examples on the other side of the board. The “no” side can get progressively more difficult to distinguish from main ideas. For example, use topics first, then details, finally sentences that are too general or sentences where a pronoun is used for the subject of the sentence.
    4. As students figure out the characteristics of a yes, volunteers generate their own yes and no examples for one of the pictures. As the activity progresses, students can consult with each other to help all students figure out what is required of a yes. Once they are able to identify the characteristics, the concept is labeled. In this case, the yes examples are main ideas. Students can then copy the characteristics of a main idea and some of the examples. Students can also collaborate to change any no to a yes.
  1. Use the cooperative structure of Numbered-heads-together to practice a concept.
    1. Teams number off (preferably in teams of four).
    2. The teacher asks a question, and team members put their heads together to discuss and answer the question.
    3. The teacher calls a number. The student with that number in each team stands, and each team representative shares the answer from his or her team. This cooperative structure is appropriate for any difficult or multi-part question since students have the opportunity to cooperate on the answer. It is often used for extended-response answers. In those instances, each student standing would share only part of a long answer.
      Here is an example of how Numbered-heads-together can be used to practice the concept of main idea.
      1. After the teams have formed and numbered off, the teacher asks students to look at a picture and reach consensus on the main idea of the picture.
      2. The students whose number is called stand, and each shares the main idea suggested by their team. This can be done orally, but the teacher may record the answers. The students can also write their answers on a transparency strip to share with the class. When the answers are recorded, it is easy for students to compare the main ideas and to evaluate them.
      3. In this instance, it would be a good idea to refine students’ understanding by doing Numbered-heads-together again to discuss which idea listed is the best main idea. The ability to identify the “best main idea” is a common question on standardized tests, and is often very difficult for students.
      Below are sample responses stating the main idea of one of the pictures in a sequence of pictures about building a house. In this example, students would first discuss the main idea of the sequence: Specialized workers collaborate to build a house. The teacher would model for one of the pictures before students would collaborate on the assigned picture. After each team representative shares the team’s main idea, students would then identify the weaknesses and/or strengths of each. The italics below show sample observations.
      Building a house.
      This is not a complete sentence. Main ideas must be a complete sentence. It is also too general.
      People work together to accomplish a task.
      This is a deeper understanding or big idea, but it is not the main idea of the picture. It is too general.
      They are building the foundation of a house.
      This is a complete sentence and creates an image. However, don’t use the pronoun “they” for the subject in a main idea sentence.
      A man is using a circular saw to cut the boards.
      This is a supporting detail, not information about the whole picture.
      Workers are building the foundation of a house.
      This is a good sentence, but we can see too many possibilities. Are bricklayers building the foundation?
      Carpenters are getting ready to pour the cement for a house.
      We know who is doing the work, and we think we can see what they are doing, but the picture in our head may not match the real picture. The cement truck isn’t there yet.
      Carpenters are preparing the structures where the cement for the foundation of a house will be poured.
      This sentence creates an accurate image of the picture.
      Teachers or students can then often provide even more precise vocabulary since the picture makes the meaning of the new terms comprehensible.
      Example: Foundation builders are building the form where the cement footing for the foundation of the house will be poured.
  1. Use different forms of sentence sorts related to pictures to practice the skill. For example:
    1. Students match main ideas with the correct pictures. Challenge: Include in the sentence sort some non-examples that are related to the pictures but that don’t reflect characteristics of main ideas. Students would need to exclude those non-examples.
    2. Given strips of sentences from a paragraph about a picture, students decide which sentence is the main idea. Then they identify and sequence the supporting details and the conclusion sentence. If desired, add additional sentences that are related to the picture but that do not support the main idea, and that students would need to omit.
    3. Students collaborate with teammates to create similar sentence sorts describing pictures for other classmates to match or arrange.
  1. Ask students to describe their own actions during classroom activities by stating the main idea and supporting details. After they can identify the main ideas and supporting details in pictures and in their own concrete settings, they are ready to perform similar literacy tasks. As with all literacy instruction, begin with visual support, then progress from simple to more complex literacy levels. Continue to use cooperative structures to model new tasks prior to independent practice.
    Most teachers have ample resources for practicing these skills through reading and writing tasks. Unfortunately, too often these tasks are isolated activities in workbooks and on skill sheets. It is far more interesting and typically more beneficial to teach skills in a meaningful context. Remember that all literacy tasks need to be developmentally appropriate. When instruction begins with concrete examples of the concepts being taught, more students can be successful in a literate context.
  1. After students are comfortable with the concept of main idea, have them follow the same procedure for summarizing related main ideas into a statement of deeper understanding. These understandings (often called overarching understandings or big ideas) provide generalizing statements about what students have learned or understand that go beyond the specific topic. For example, given multiple pictures of people working on a task related to community needs, generalizing statements of understandings/big ideas might include:
    1. People in a community work together to help meet their needs and desires.
    2. People often hire specialized workers to perform tasks that require specific skills.
    3. There is a process for making things and ways to improve the process.
    4. Measurement enables people to duplicate products and promotes quality.

Big Ideas From This Article

Here are some of the deeper understandings or big ideas that this article hopes to promote in the minds of readers:

  • The more we know and respect our students, the easier it is to teach them.
  • Higher-order thinking and student engagement promote comprehension and retention.
  • Scaffolding learning from concrete examples to progressively more complex tasks enables students to understand a concept before they are asked to apply that concept.
  • Developmentally appropriate modeling and meaningful practice promotes skill development.
  • Literacy skills are an extension of oral language and build upon related prior knowledge.


Beneficial links to Web sites that provide more information related to the strategies suggested in this article follow:

Bruner’s Concept Attainment Model:
http://olc.spsd.sk.ca/DE/PD/instr/strats/cattain/. See the home page of Online Instructional Strategies for additional beneficial resources.

See Cooperative Structures: Examples, Roles, Comparative Matrix for information on this structure and others at the following link: http://www.thecenterlibrary.org/cwis/cwisdocs/coopstructures.pdf. This document, created by the author of this article, summarizes structures from Spencer Kagan and provides support. For original resources, see the Kagan Online Magazine, which offers free subscriptions that provide information on Spencer Kagan’s Structural Approach to Cooperative Learning. This site includes links to Kagan’s products and training resources:http://www.kaganonline.com/Newsletter/index.html.

For support on understandings, often called big ideas, see the Understanding by Design Exchange site: http://www.ubdexchange.org/ and view the resources in Phase I.

See http://www.netvouz.com/jgordon for the author’s favorites.


Bruner, J., Jarrett, J., & Austin, G. (2003/1986). A study of thinking. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction

Publishers. (Original edition published 1986 by John Wiley & Sons.)

Kaplan, R. B. (1966). Cultural thought patterns in intercultural education. Language Learning, 16, 1-20.