You’ve landed here because you’re looking for finding the main idea activities, right?

Well you’ve come to the right place!

Finding the main idea is a useful skill that students will use for life.  

When we tell someone about a book we read, a show we watched, or a podcast that we listened to, we’re essentially speaking about the main idea. 

For elementary students, finding the main idea comes down to finding the main point of an article, passage, essay, paragraph, chapter, section of a book, or even a picture.

In this article, I’m going to show you…

  • 5 Awesome Finding the Main Idea Activities
  • How to Differentiate Each Activity in order to Target All Learners’ Needs
  • Tips to Further Extend the Learning

These finding the main idea activities are useful no matter what curriculum you teach because this reading skill naturally integrates with all content areas.

It’s important to note that building the skill of finding the main idea takes time; it’s an ongoing learning process. As students are exposed to and practice with a variety of genres within an appropriate range of reading levels, their skills will get sharper.

To support students in this progression, I’ve organized these finding the main idea activities from basic (#1) to more complex (#5).

Each individual activity sets a stronger foundation for the next main idea activity.  This is key!

This progression of activities helps students develop the thought process and critical thinking skills needed to eventually be able to find the main idea when reading independently.

Of course, all of these main idea activities can be modified to be easier or harder depending on the needs and abilities of your class, but for this post, I’ve ranked them as mentioned above.

Let’s Take a Look at These Finding the Main Idea Activities

Main Idea Word Sorts

Word sorts are great for introducing or reviewing main idea.

I recommend that you do this activity as a whole class or in table groups.

Here’s what you do…

  1. When planning, think about what main idea topics you want to focus on. Some simple examples include planets, pets, fruits, days of the week, sports, renewable resources, clothes, book genres, etc. The possibilities are endless! (Chose about 4-6 main idea topics.)

Make sure to choose topics that your students will have some type of connection with.  If they have some prior knowledge of the topics, they’ll grasp the main idea concept much quicker.

As an example, I’m going to choose these main idea topics…

  • Sports
  • Animals
  • Desserts
  • Clothes

(These word sort examples are super easy, I know, but I just want you to get the gist of the activity! 😉)

2. Now, with those main idea topics in mind, create about 6 example cards for each one. Below you can see the examples I have for each main idea topic that I chose.

finding the main idea activities

Quick Tip: There are many places online to create and print word sorts (aka flashcards!) for free! Just Google.

3. Next, make a copy of the examples sheet (above) for each student or pair.  Students cut the words and sort them on a columned graphic organizer or, if you’re a teacher minimalist like me, just have them write their sorting responses in their readers’ notebook.

4. As students sort, they decide the main idea of each group.

What’s important here is the conversation/discussion piece. As students sort, encourage whole class or group dialog about WHY they are sorting a particular way.

How to Differentiate: The above example is pretty simple, but this activity can be adjusted.

For advanced learners or older students who have a good main idea foundation (fourth and fifth graders), make the main idea topics harder by having all the words connected to one theme (example: animals).

They’ll now sort based on types of animal or some other characteristics.

The word sort examples can be as nuanced as you like. This makes it more challenging.

On the contrary, your struggling learners may need more practice with basic word sorts like in the example above.

Name that Character Trait

Finding the main idea activities are twice as nice when they naturally teach other important reading skills, too~like inferring!

Sometimes, the main idea isn’t clearly stated, so readers have to infer based on clues.

Here’s how “Name that Character Trait” works…

  • Give each student a main idea graphic organizer.  
  • Provide three clues that are examples of a particular character trait.  Make all the clues related to one main event and character (see example).
  • Students then infer the main character trait. Again, the conversation/dialog that occurs during this process is very important. WHY was that particular trait chosen? The answer is in the clues (aka the details!).

finding the main idea activities

Encourage students to use a variety of words to describe Johnny, not just common, everyday words. This is an important skill (word choice) and is one of the elements addressed in the six traits of writing framework. What a great way to reinforce some writing objectives!

How to Differentiate: Make the clues harder (or easier) and use a variety of character traits, not just traits that learners are most familiar with.

Making Headlines

Next on the list of finding the main idea activities is one that incorporates magazines and newspapers, two genres that I don’t think students get enough exposure to these days.

Here’s how to do it…

  • Gather copies of kids’ magazines and newspapers. (Think Time for Kids, Highlights, and check your library for more options, etc.)
  • Get rid of the headings (blacken with a marker or xerox with the title covered).
  • In small groups, pairs, or individually, students read each article and come up with their own title for each one. The title must be logical and based on details from the text.

How to Differentiate: For advanced learners, provide higher-leveled articles and/or have them work independently.

For struggling readers, have the titles provided in a separate pile. They then match the headline with the appropriate article.

“Pin” the Title

Use visual images to help students find the main idea!

This activity is similar to “Making Headlines” but you only use images. It’s a really good activity for your visual learners.

Here’s what you do…

  • Using Pinterest or Google Images, project an image that is kid-appropriate. Make sure no titles are present.
  • Give three or four title options for students to choose from. They then decide which title to “pin” to the picture. (Only one title will be the correct answer).
  • Again, the discussion is key to deepening students’ understanding. Why is that title good for that image? What details are present in the picture to help me know that?
  • If you want to take things a bit further, print the photos and have the title options typed and cut out separately. Student, in small groups or during literacy centers, can then literally “pin” the title on the appropriate photo. If you have a corkboard wall or bulletin board, it would be perfect for “pinning”.  Hands-on and quite engaging!

Quick Tip: Here’s a good main idea visual image presentation for you and your kiddos! Use it as a quick and simple introduction.

How to Differentiate: For advanced learners, use images with less obvious meanings and/or make the answer choices a bit more “tricky” so that a higher level of thinking is needed to decide which title to “pin”.

For your struggling learners, keep the images a little more obvious and make sure the correct answer is clearly based on details from the image.

Graphic Organizers

This list of finding the main idea activities wouldn’t be complete without graphic organizers!

At this point, if students have been successful with the previous activities, they should now be ready to tackle graphic organizers independently.

This is easy peasy to set up…

  • During independent reading time or as an assessment, students find the main idea (with supporting details) of a chapter, section, passage, etc.
  • They record the information on their main idea graphic organizer.

How to Differentiate:  There are a TON of main idea graphic organizers available online. From a pre-selected assortment, let students choose which organizer they use.

While your kiddos are working independently, conference and/or work with students who need extra support and guidance in finding the main idea.

A Few More Quick Tips

  • Use a wide range of genres (fiction + nonfiction) and text levels to teach main idea. Readers’ theaters and comics are unique genres to explore with main idea.
  • Remember, finding the main idea is an ongoing process.  So find ways to discuss finding the main idea during interactive read aloud whenever possible.
  • If your class needs even more support with  this skill, make these activities part of literacy centers. The main idea word sorts could be part of your word work activities, too!
  • As a culminating project, have students create an original movie poster! The poster must SHOW the main idea of the movie (real or imagined) plus have an attention-grabbing title!


I hope these finding the main idea activities are helpful to you and your students!

Until next time…

Happy teaching and learning!