When students gain the capability of discriminating the main idea from a detail, they can use a three column system that categorizes “topic,” “details,” and “responses.” Alternatively, they could use an FQR worksheet.
These scaffolds explicitly categorize the information contained in the book and allow the student to reflect on the information being presented in the text. This supports executive functioning as well, in that there is a support system for noticing various aspects of a text and organizing them for the student to analyze.
Additionally, graphic organizers support a student on the autism spectrum’s ability to filter out extraneous information.
They “teach children to give the main topic more weight than secondary themes and secondary themes more weight than details” (Fein & Dunn, 2007, p. 178).
Graphic organizers support a student’s central coherence, as they lead the student away from unimportant details, to highlight what the main or essential ideas were in the reading.
Some graphic organizers that seem to work especially well are ones that scaffold students’ understanding of the difference between the main idea and the details that support it.
When I use this with students, I first read the “definition” of the terms: main idea and details. I share the “Ask Yourself” box next to help students know what questions we will answer by the end of our steps. I also draw their attention to the “Look for these Words” box, so that when we start to follow the steps, they can be on the lookout for any of those words.
Then we “Follow These Steps.” In a book that the students can write in, we use highlighters. In a regular book, we used highlighter tape. I think aloud as I notice words we were looking for and text that connects to our prediction.
At the end, I record our evidence from the highlighted parts of the book. Then, we return to the “Ask Yourself” questions to determine the main idea.
Most importantly, I explain that the topic (or title) of a book is not its main idea. It can be part of it, but the main idea is going to share more about why the author wrote the text.
With each practice, especially with other types of thinkers in our small group, I release more of the responsibility of noticing and answering to the students.
Finally, I have them practice “independently,” in strategically grouped pairs, then truly independently, by themselves.
Depending on the difficulty of the text, I might have to re-support a student in figuring out which portions of a text are key details versus just interesting information (see above), or re-model how to take the details and synthesize them into the main idea.
This type of protocol supports students in taking steps toward understanding how to identify the main idea.