Quick Tip Tuesday: A unit about finding the main idea

In Test Talk: Integrating Test Preparation into Reading Workshop, authors Amy Greene and Glennon Doyle Melton show teachers that they don’t have to choose between best practice teaching and test preparation. In this Quick Tip, you can follow Glennon as she begins a unit on finding the main idea of a story and see how she weaves test preparation into her reading workshop.

It’s mid-October in Glennon’s third-grade reading workshop. The class has just completed a unit of study about recounting the plot of a text. Today the students will begin a unit about finding the main idea in fiction. The children are gathered at her feet, listening intently to their third Patricia Polacco book of the week, Thank You, Mr. Falker (1998). It is the story of a girl named Tricia who moves to a new school and struggles to learn to read. The students alternate between listening to Glennon read and reflecting on the text with a partner when she stops to ask discussion questions. After she is finished reading the text, Glennon draws a chart on the board and titles the first column Plot and the second column Themes/Main Ideas. She reminds the students that plot is the set of events that happen in a story or passage and can be found right in the text. She asks the students to recount the plot of Thank You, Mr. Falker to her, and she records the events in sequential order in the first column.

Glennon then turns her attention to the second column and connects students’ background knowledge to the new concept by saying, “Since you are experts about finding the plot of a text, today we are going to move ahead and start learning about another very important part of a text called the main idea or theme. The main ideas are the big ideas or lessons that the author wants us to think about and learn from his or her text.

“This is a really important skill to have because it helps us understand and enjoy our reading, and it is also a skill that the SOL will test you on at the end of the year. Let’s figure out how to find the main ideas together. Remember when we studied finding the plot of a story or a test passage? Can anyone think aloud with me about what you do when you have to find the plot of a passage, like on the SOL?”

B.J. raises his hand and says, “I just start at the beginning and try to think of everything that I read. It’s really easy.” “Finding the plot is pretty easy, isn’t it? To find the plot of a text, we simply recount the events that the author included in the text. But finding the main ideas is trickier because they are not usually written right in the text. We have to read and then use our schema with the text to infer the main ideas. We have to think about the characters and their feelings more. How do you think Tricia felt when her mom told her they were moving?”

Ahmed raises his hand and says, “I think Tricia felt scared that her new class would make fun of her because she doesn’t know how to read.” Glennon has modeled quality talk all year; she teaches her students to speak in complete sentences and support opinions with evidence from the text. The other students nod in agreement with Ahmed’s thought and Glennon records his comment in a notebook.

Next, she rereads a passage in which a bully named Eric is teasing Tricia about her difficulty with reading. She pauses to say, “Turn to a partner and discuss your thoughts about the way Eric is behaving toward Tricia.” After the students have discussed, she rereads the last page of the book and says, “Talk to your partner one more time about what you think Patricia Polacco would want her readers to learn from this book.”

During each of the partner discussion times, Glennon circulates among her students and records their ideas in her notebook to be used during the next part of the lesson. Glennon directs the students back to the chart at the front of the room. She writes the word fear in the Main Ideas column and says, “Ahmed’s idea was that Tricia was afraid that her new class would laugh at her. Does anyone have a connection with that?” Glennon’s first unit of study this year was about becoming better readers by making connections to text.

Giselle responds, “I have a connection with that. I know how Tricia felt because I was scared when I came here from my country. I didn’t think anyone would speak my language.” Glennon writes fear of being different on the chart paper. “I heard Nancy tell her partner that Eric was jealous of Tricia because Mr. Falker seemed to like her drawing,” Glennon adds. She writes the word jealousy on the chart paper and asks, “Who can connect with jealousy?” “I felt jealous when my baby sister was born. I felt like my parents would forget about me,”says Rokshar. Other students show their connections to Rokshar’s comment by nodding.

Michael raises his hand. “I think it is cool that Tricia can’t read but can draw really well, and Eric can read but can’t draw well,” he says. Mark agrees. “Yeah, everyone has things they are good at and things that they need help with.” Glennon writes strengths and weaknesses on the chart paper. Then Glennon asks, “What do you think Patricia Polacco wants us to know or learn about life from her book Thank You, Mr. Falker? What were the main ideas in the book? Use our list and the text-to-self connections you made while we read to help you.” Students partner-talk and then share ideas such as fear, family love, and learning not to give up.

Glennon concludes by connecting their ideas and discussion to the test once again. At the bottom of the chart, she creates a multiple-choice question in the same format the SOL uses.
Which is NOT a main idea in Patricia Pollacco’s Thank You, Mr. Falker?
A fear
B jealousy
C strengths and weaknesses
D sportsmanship
Glennon encourages the students to use their test-taking strategies to navigate the question, and, after they have answered, she asks, “Why is it important to be able to find the main ideas in a text, beside the fact that it will be on our SOLS?” The class giggles and Bo Hyun raises her hand. “Because reading a story is sometimes like learning a lesson,” she says. “If you can’t find the main idea, you don’t get the lesson!”

Glennon reinforces his thinking. “That’s so smart! When readers read fiction and test takers read passages, they can’t just read the text. They have to use their schema and their hearts to decide what the author wanted them to learn or think about. Sometimes tests call this the main idea or theme. We’ll learn more about this tomorrow.”

Add comment November 30th, 2010

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