When we teach children reading, it is not only about fluency but about comprehension.
The entry or key into real comprehension is called the ‘main idea’. Teaching students how to find the main idea in reading comprehension sounds so simple but it is sometimes the most difficult skill for students. Reading and writing go hand in hand. We need to write to understand how to read. We need to write to be able to read and understand about the structure of text.
What is the ‘main idea’? It is who or what the story is all about. This is the most important information. Identifying the main idea is one of the core teaching reading strategies for comprehension. In easy text, the main idea is easily recognisable as it will be explicitly stated or inferred. However, the more difficult or complex text inference is the critical component to higher-order thinking skills. This reading comprehension strategy requires many, many modeling opportunities.
When we teach the main idea the teaching needs to follow a specific sequence. Students need to be able to identify the key words or topic of the sentence, then a paragraph and finally a longer selection. They need to infer (assume, suppose) the main idea of the paragraph, recognise the explicitly stated main idea; recognise the relationships among main ideas in related paragraphs and in longer sections.
The first stage of recognising the main idea is to identify key words. This is literal comprehension. I will use a sample sentence to identify key words.
The bad boy was bitten by the big, fierce dog.
In this example, ask yourself the question, “What is the sentence about?” We answer ourselves with the words “It is about a bad boy.” Go further now and ask, “What about the bad boy?” The answer here is “He was bitten by the dog.” This seems very simple but many students cannot grasp the concept of the main idea. They need this simple step given to them. Mastery at the basic sentence level is essential before you start having expectations at higher levels.
Once a student has mastery of the basic sentence level, move on to identifying key words of the paragraph. Do not write out the words in the sentence. Just highlight or underline the important words and discuss their meaning within the paragraph. In elementary school, that is, Classes 1 – 5, students need to recognise and master the main idea and the key words. At this stage the main idea is invariably explicitly stated. Teach the students to say “What does the author say?” and, “Why does he say it?”
To further understand the idea of main idea in comprehension it is important that students know how to write a paragraph. This enables the understanding of the main idea to become crystal clear. Children learn to identify through doing. To help teachers to do this efficiently the following idea works:
Show the students a picture of traffic lights. Discuss with them what the colours mean.
Green means go, or start. Orange means prepare, or get ready. Red means stop. Now explain that these colours can be used in writing a paragraph. Show them an example of a basic paragraph structure that has green, yellow and red sentences. (Use coloured sketch pens and allow the students to use them.)
Look at the following sentence as an example.
Tortoises are very interesting animals. They live for a long time. They are mainly vegetarians. They are territorial. It would be great to have this extraordinary animal as a pet.
Discuss with the students how the first paragraph makes sense. Underline the sentence in green. Say the words “Green means GO.”
Explain that when you have a “GO” sentence it has to be powerful to get your writing going.
Going back to the example, underline the three middle sentences in orange. Say “These sentences are detail or example sentences. These sentences are explaining about the first sentence. These sentences support the beginning sentence. These sentences are telling us information about the main idea. These sentences tell us more about the green sentence and prepare us for the red sentence.
Red means stop. It means the end. However, you need students to look at their beginning sentence again and repeat it in another way to close up the paragraph. The closing sentence is like wrapping up a gift – it is the paper and string that ties it all together.
Do not introduce red until students are competent at basic green and orange. Their writing might not be exciting but the objective is to solidify organisation. Continue reading and underlining paragraphs with your students using green and orange until they show competency of basic paragraph structure. Use the whiteboard for the activity and have students sitting around you in a circle. Discuss the words and sequence with them. Get them to contribute original green and orange sentences.
This next step is called ‘modelled writing’. The teacher is in front of the class and doing all the writing. Students need to see it being done. Sit them around you on the floor; use the board or KG card as necessary. Discuss your thinking. Make your thoughts known to the students while you teach. For example I might say “Today, I want to write about what happened to me on the way to school. I need to make a web to sort myself out, and then I am going to put the words into sentences.” This is a specific skill lesson.
The key to good teaching is to assume the students are NOT following you. Tell them everything you are doing and why. It is not good enough just to watch you. Remember too – don’t let this lesson go on too long because small children have limited attention spans. Twenty minutes is fine for concentration. Modelling, done by the teacher, needs to be successfully understood before the next stage, which is ‘shared writing’.
Use this type of exercise at the beginning of a year with Class 3 students. As you write let the students hear you thinking. While using a green pen say, “This is my beginning sentence. I need to grab my reader. What colour can I use?” “Now I am giving details, what colour shall I use?” “Now I am wrapping up the parcel what colour should I use?” At this point the children should notice a predictable pattern in the paragraph writing: Green, Orange, Orange, Orange and Red.
When teaching paragraph writing use basic paragraph structures. Students should not be expected to suddenly write independently. They need to pass through the process of modelled and guided writing. After repeated lessons you, as their teacher, can get them to begin to write simple sentences. When they are ready, lead them through mind maps and webbing brainstorms. Show them the early stages of planning. When the main idea and paragraph structure is understood, the next stage to encourage is exciting details, to embellish their writing.
Effective teachers of reading have purpose built into their lessons. They know what they are trying to enable the child to achieve and how to accomplish this goal. They provide scaffolded instruction (predicting, thinking aloud, attending to text structure, constructing visual representations, generating questions and summarising). This type of instruction includes explicit explanation and modelling, combined with why and when it is useful.
Well designed teaching of writing tasks deepens children’s learning from text. Reading, writing and comprehension skills go ‘hand in hand.’