5 Ways to Teach Main Idea and Details to ELLs

5 Ways to Teach Main Idea and Details to ELLs

Finding the main idea and supporting details is a reading comprehension skill that students are expected to understand starting in kindergarten. By third grade, students are expected to do this with more complex texts independently. This can be a challenging skill for all students. For some ELLs, they have the added challenge of not yet reading grade level texts independently. Here are 5 ideas to support students learning about main idea and supporting details.

5 ways to teach main idea and details to ELLs


One simple way to introduce main idea and details is to have students sort words or pictures into categories. Have students come up with categories for each group and then an overall category for all of the groups. You can scaffold this activity by having the categories already available.

I created a set of main idea puzzles using a similar idea. In the center is the main idea (category) and the surrounding pieces are pictures that show the details.

Use Short Reading Passages

When students are practicing main idea and supporting details, it is helpful to give them repeated practice. Short reading passages allow them to identify the main idea and details in a text multiple times. For students that are reading below grade level you can either read the text out loud to them or use simple text that has this skill. It is good to give ELLs exposure both to text that they can read independently and grade level text.

Use Wordless Picture Books

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Wordless picture books are a great opportunity for students to practice speaking and/or writing skills as they are also learning about main idea. Using a wordless book gives student a chance to incorporate creativity into coming up with a main idea. As long as they can find supporting details, it is possible for there to be different ideas of what the main idea is. Students can work with a partner or in a small group to come up with the main idea and details of the story. I recommend first having the students look at the pictures and tell what is happening before having them try to come up with what the main idea is.

Some books to try out are:

I Walk with Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness– A girl faces bullying in her new school and another child learns how to help.

Pool– This book shows two children that are overwhelmed at a crowded pool. They find a place to escape through their imaginations.

Cut apart sentences

Cutting apart sentences gives students a hands on way to practice identifying main idea and details. Students read each sentence. First, they decide if it is the main idea. Then, they find the sentences that support that main idea. You can scaffold this activity by showing students the main idea and only having them find the details. This activity is one that you can create on your own by cutting apart sentences from a written paragraph to practice main idea and details.

I have a set of main idea task cards that would work well for this activity. Another place to find passages is on ReadWorks.

Use Sticky Notes

For longer texts, or those that you do not want to cut apart, sticky notes are a great way for students to record where the main idea and details are. Depending on students age and writing levels, you can either have them use full size sticky notes or smaller strips. They write down the main idea on one color. They they write the details on a different color. After that, they place the sticky note on the text where they found it. You can do a similar activity with sticky note strips. Students only mark where they find the main idea and/or supporting details. You can limit the amount of details students mark by giving a finite number of sticky notes to each student.

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