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Comprehension: Intro
Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Why Main Idea Is Not the Main Idea — or, How Best to Teach Reading Comprehension

Focus on summarizing, text structure analysis, and paraphrasing — those skills require more integrated thinking about a text’s content.

Teacher question

You say that we cannot successfully teach comprehension skills like main idea. But our standards require that we teach main idea, and our state tests ask main idea questions to assess whether our students are accomplishing that goal. I don’t get it, your advice on this is not helpful.

Shanahan’s response

For years, comprehension skills like “main idea” were taught by having kids read texts and answer main idea questions. The idea is that question-answering practice will improve the ability to answer the kinds of questions the students are practicing with. Often the question types themselves have been labeled as comprehension skills and, as everyone knows, practice is a great way to learn skills. Some of these supposed skills include main idea, supporting details, literal recall, comparison/contrast, drawing conclusions, inferencing, and so on.

There are still scads of books and programs aimed at just such pedagogy — that present brief texts accompanied by questions of a particular type so kids can do that kind of thing over and over. Many schools have even developed their own pools of such items to prepare kids for standardized tests — hoping to make kids better at answering such questions.

Learning outcomes show a pronounced lack of sympathy for such teaching. Dolores Durkin (1978-1979) long ago classified it as assessment rather than instruction.  

Studies show that question types do NOT distinguish different kinds of comprehension (ACT, 2006; Davis, 1944; Eason, Goldberg, Young, Geist, & Cutting, 2012; Kulesz, Francis, Barnes, & Fletcher, 2016; Muijselaar, Swart, Steenbeek-Planting, Droop, Verhoeven, & de Jong, 2017; Spearritt, 1972), which means practice with answering specific kinds of questions WON’T have a specific impact on reading comprehension. There is certainly nothing wrong with asking questions about what the kids have read, just don’t expect such practice to exert much impact on the ability to deal with specific question categories, nor even to have any impact on reading comprehension. It just doesn’t work that way.

This problem is quietly acknowledged by reputable test makers who appropriately do not report performance on different types of comprehension questions — they don’t because they can’t honestly do so.

Those are the facts, ma’am.

However, main idea is an interesting case in point because everyone seems to agree on the importance of main idea in comprehension. Everyone!

And, yet I don’t believe that main idea is the main thing in reading comprehension, and it appears that much of the teaching of this is wrongheaded.

People don’t even agree on what a main idea is. Different studies and programs use different labels and have different ideas as to what those labels describe: topics, important ideas, central ideas, themes, and idea-most-referred-to are all thought to be main ideas (Williams, 1988). One study reported nine different conceptions of main idea (Moore, Cunningham, & Rudisill, 1983), and studies of instructional programs show similar inconsistencies (Afflerbach & Walker, 1992; Jitendra, Chard, Hoppes, Renouf, & Gardill, 2001). Apparently, the different labels can even lead to different responses on the part of the question answerers (Butterfuss, McCarthy, Orcutt, Kendeou, & McNamara, 2023). If you ask the “main idea question” in different ways, you get very different responses.

That’s problematic, but it isn’t the main problem here.

No, the main problem is that — for the most part — studies show that just having students read texts and answer main idea questions does not consistently or significantly improve main idea identification or reading comprehension (e.g., Sjostrom & Hare, 1984; E. A. Stevens, Vaughn, House, & Stillman-Spisak, 2020; R. J. Stevens, Slavin, & Farnish, 1991; Stoeger, Sontag, & Ziegler, 2014; Taylor, 1986; Toonder & Sawyer, 2021).

One reason for this failure is that figuring out main ideas is not very skill-like. Test your students’ ability to answer main idea questions and you’ll get different results depending upon the text. The ability to determine a main idea is affected by text type (narrative, exposition), text structure, the explicitness with which the idea is stated, the length of the text, the amount of topic knowledge possessed by the readers, and any and all these variables may interact with each other making it even more complicated (Afflerbach, 1990; Hare, Rabinowitz, & Schieble, 1989; Pressley, Ghatala, Woloshyn, & Pirie, 1990). It is hard to provide a skill-like response in that complicated a context.

Given that, it’s not surprising that the tests used by researchers to evaluate main idea interventions tend to be “over-aligned” with how the students were taught. Outcome assessments may use texts and tasks so like the training that it isn’t clear whether students mastered a skill or just got used to the lessons. That may be why, in many of the studies, the trained kids improved on main idea tasks with no benefit to their reading comprehension!

Nevertheless, several of the experimental instructional regimes have managed to accomplish improvements in both main idea performance and reading comprehension. But instruction that invests heavily in question-answering practice can take no comfort in these results. In many of the studies in which the intervention succeeded, the control groups were the ones that received the question-answering practice. Oops!

What are the takeaways from this diverse collection of studies?

One thing that is clear is that the successful interventions provided considerably more thorough and more extensive main idea instruction than the questioning schemes usually do. Often the successful teaching was explicit, took place daily for considerable amounts of time, and continued across several weeks.

The most effective instruction went far beyond question-and-answer practice. These interventions didn’t emphasize main idea as, as they did a comprehensive understanding of the texts, with main idea as just one element in that. The main idea is really not the main idea.

Three kinds of instruction paid of the most: summarizing, developing an understanding of text structure, and/or paraphrasing (Brown & Day, 1983; E. A. Stevens, Park, & Vaughn, 2019; Zhang & Wijekumar, 2023).

Main ideas unify the parts of a text (so summarizing and text structure make sense) and the successful restatement of a paragraph or text (paraphrasing) will necessarily capture the main idea, but along with other key information, as well.

I’ve come to believe that the difference is that main idea questions steer students into thinking about a specific fact in a text, while these three instructional emphases — summarizing, text structure analysis, paraphrasing — require more integrated, extensive, and thorough thinking about a text’s content; hence the power to improve reading comprehension.

Also, some of the more successful schemes provided students with guided practice in analyzing structure and formulating paraphrases with systematically varied texts.

Teacher guidance matters because it provides timely explanations of why certain responses are sound and offers support for re-analysis of the text when necessary — this is teaching, not practice in responding to faux assessments.

Varying the texts is important because text plays such an influential role in determining how well readers can summarize, paraphrase, or analyze structure. Concentrated practice with one or another kind of text should help students to learn how to deal successfully with the relevant text features, and then over time, the types of text can be varied so that students gain insights about how to adjust their efforts Baumann (1984) had students work with texts that had explicit main ideas and then shifted to those that did not. I would add another step of then working with a more mixed collection.

If you are serious about teaching students to comprehend better (and to master the kinds of “skills” cited in your state standards), knock off the question-answering practice and teach students how to comprehend better. Asking lots of main idea questions won’t cut it.

One more valuable bit of advice:

The texts that schools usually use for specific comprehension skill practice tend to be vapid, sapid, stupid, and wasteful (no, these are not four of Santa’s reindeer or Snow White’s dwarves). Reading comprehension should be taught with texts worth reading — texts from which we want students to gain knowledge. Kids need to learn how to summarize texts using an author’s organizational plan and how to translate text information into their own words, but they need to do this while trying to gain worthwhile knowledge from the texts they are reading during this work.

Getting the main idea should not be the main idea. Students do better when reading goals are more demanding and more integrated.


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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
December 4, 2023