Teaching Learners How to Identify an Unstated Main Idea

Of course, most of the time there is no topic sentence, and the reader must infer the main idea. Here are some ideas for teaching learners how to identify an implied (unstated) main idea.

Make a map of the paragraph, leaving the center bubble empty, and writing each idea or piece of information in a separate bubble. Compose a sentence that applies to all the bubble elements and "pulls them all together." Write the sentence in the middle bubble.

Try this three-step procedure (Hancock, 1987):
  • What is the topic of the paragraph?
  • What is the author's purpose in writing about the subject?
  • To define, explain, or describe something?
  • To persuade the reader to agree with an opinion or to take some kind of action?
  • To criticize or defend a person or action?
  • Given the purpose, what is the author trying to make the reader understand about the topic? (If the author is defining something, what is the definition? If the author is trying to persuade, what is the primary argument?)
In working with beginners, you may need to begin by teaching the underlying skills. Composing a main idea statement requires learners to generalize; they must discover what a series of facts or ideas have in common and then choose language that expresses this common theme. You might start with simple tasks, as in the next suggestion.

Generalizing: The underlying skill

Write a series of simple narrative paragraphs in which one person is described as doing several things. In each sentence the person is doing something else. The task for learners is to state the main idea. You give explicit directions: Name the person and tell the main thing the person did in all the sentences.

"Tom cooked two eggs. He poured orange juice into a glass. He put cereal into a bowl. He poured milk into a bowl."

Main idea: Tom made breakfast. (Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1997, p. 249)

When learners are able to do this, make the task a bit more complex by creating sample paragraphs in which different persons do different things. The learners must then decide on a general term to describe the people as well as the actions (Carnine et.al.).
Other approaches to summarization. The summarization studies reviewed by the National Reading Panel used variations of so-called "rule-based procedures" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-93; Duke & Pearson, 2002). The example below is a procedure for summarizing a paragraph (McNeil & Donant, as cited in Duke & Pearson).

A rule-based procedure

Rule 1: Delete unnecessary material.
Rule 2: Delete redundant [repetitive] material.
Rule 3: Compose a word to replace a list of items.
Rule 4: Compose a word to replace individual parts of an action.
Rule 5: Select a topic sentence.
Rule 6: Invent a topic sentence if one is not available.

Of course, to know what is unnecessary the reader must already have at least a sense of the main idea of the paragraph, so you might want to have learners create paragraph maps first and/or work with a partner to think through the decisions to delete material. See Appendix D for an example of this procedure.

The GIST procedure
GIST, which stands for Generating Interactions between Schemata and Texts, is another summarization strategy (Cunningham, as cited in Duke & Pearson, 2002 and in Allen, 2004). GIST calls for readers to begin by summarizing the first sentence of a paragraph using no more than 15 words. Then they read the next sentence and create a summary of the two sentences. Proceeding in this way with each sentence, they end up with a summary of the whole paragraph using no more than 15 words.

GIST may be adapted for longer selections and more advanced learners by working with paragraphs instead of sentences. They compose a one-sentence summary of the first paragraph, then do the same for the second paragraph, and then combine the two summaries into one sentence. Working one paragraph at a time in this way, they end up with a short summary of the entire selection.

Summaries of longer texts
More advanced learners may develop both reading and writing skills by composing summaries of a textbook chapter or other lengthy text. A rule-based approach for creating written summaries is suggested below (Sheinker & Sheinker, as cited in Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1997, p. 327).
  • Skim a passage.
  • List key points.
  • Combine related points into single statements.
  • Cross out least important points.
  • Reread list.
  • Combine and cross out to condense points.
  • Number remaining points in logical order.
  • Write points into paragraph in numbered order.
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