Beacon Lesson Plan Library

What's the Big Idea? (Middle School)

Abby Hill


Students learn to identify the main idea in a reading passage by using a technique to eliminate unnecessary words that are not relevant to the main idea.


The student determines a text's major ideas and how those ideas are supported with details.

The student paraphrases and summarizes text to recall, inform, or organize ideas.


-4 reading passages at grade/student ability level
-Photocopy of each passage for each student
-Transparency of each reading passage for teacher use/demonstration
-One or more photographs, large enough for entire class to see as teacher displays
-Pre-determined questions/answers regarding details in photograph(s) described above
-Transparency of -Carving Steps- for use in Sessions 3 and 4
-Transparency writing pens
-Pen or pencil
-Teacher prepared quiz for Session 5 (based on Passage # 4), suggested: 5 multiple choice questions regarding the details of Passage 4, and for 8th grade, an additional short response requiring the student to write the main idea statement for the passage


1. Locate photograph to be used for Session 1.
2. Design questions (5 or 6) based on photograph.
3. Locate 4 reading passages (2 to 3 paragraphs each).
4. Make photocopies for each student of each passage.
5. Make one transparency of each reading passage.
6. Make transparency of -Carving Steps.- (See Procedures).


Day One
1.Review with students the concept of main idea in a story or other reading passage. Remind them that identifying the main idea means to express, in a few words, what the entire reading is about (The -Big Idea-).

2.Preface this activity by saying: “We determine the main idea every day, in everything we do, see, or hear - not just in reading or on a test. When we look at people, we -sum- them up, or when we watch a TV show or listen to music, we don’t remember every detail. We remember the most important parts – that’s main idea. Let’s practice finding the main idea in something that we see.- Explain the activity and begin.

3.Show the chosen photograph to the entire class for approximately one minute, making certain that every student gets an adequate look at it.

4.Take the photo away.

5.Ask students questions regarding the details of what they saw in the picture. “Where was this picture taken?” “Are there people in the pictures? What were they doing?”, etc. Through random, oral response, allow students to answer four to six questions. (Hint: Not only make certain the photo is large enough for everyone to see, but choose a picture that has lots of details, colors, and lively activity).

6.Now say, “See, you picked up a lot of the details in the photo. Now, let’s put them together to get the main idea in the picture”.

7.Re-show the picture to the class while accepting students' oral responses to what the main idea should be. (Hints: Make sure students don’t just repeat back the details, but take those details and develop a main idea statement. Also, stress to students that some details may not be that important to the main idea, and perhaps can be ignored. For instance, the boy's shirt color in the picture may not be relevant to the main idea. See rubric attached below for help in evaluating students' responses)

Day Two
1.Briefly review Day One’s photograph activity in finding details and main idea. Remind students how we just want to remember the most important parts of a picture, passage, etc.

2.Distribute photocopy of reading Passage #1 to each student.

3.Allow students adequate time to silently read Passage # 1. (See Preparation.)

4.When students are finished reading, place transparency of Passage # 1 on overhead projector.

5.Tell students that you are going to demonstrate how to -carve- a reading passage down to the details in order to determine the main idea. (Review concept of main idea as necessary.)

6.Direct students to follow along with you on their photocopy, doing exactly as you do.

7.-Carving Steps-: (It’s important to do steps in this order; also, these steps encourage the students to re-read the passage.)
a. Place a (/) line between each sentence. (This helps some students feel less overwhelmed with a big passage by chunking, breaking it down into smaller parts.)
b. Put an (X) over each -junk word- (words that are not pertinent to the main idea). Here are examples of -junk words-: in the a his her on and to I me of it.” (Others at teacher discretion.) (Hint: Students seem to enjoy -throwing out- words. Make this fun.)
c. Circle each important ‘leftover word’:
Proper names (words beginning in capital letters)
Words with more than four letters
Special punctuation: words in bold or italics (even if less than five letters), exclamation points, quotations, and headings.

8. After -carving- is complete (on transparency and students’ papers), lead students to look over the passage, noting only the words that are remaining.

9. Guide students to develop a main idea statement from the remaining words. Accept reasonable student answers and suggestions.

10. Students may keep marked reading passage for an example, if they desire. This item is not
submitted or graded.

Hint: Remind students that writing on and marking reading material is only acceptable in this setting, not in textbooks!

Day Three
1.Review Day Two’s activity, reminding about main idea, details, -junk words-, and -carving-.

2.Place -Carving Hints- transparency on overhead while discussing these concepts. Allow for student questioning and clarification. Leave transparency available for the next part of activity.

3.Distribute student copies of Reading Passage # 2.

4.Allow students time to silently read passage.

5.With -Carving Hints- transparency as a guide, direct students to now -carve- their passage down to the details on their own.

6.Once students are finished, place transparency of Reading Passage # 2 on overhead and demonstrate proper -carving- (or have transparency prepared ahead of time, depending on time constraints). Remind students how and why -carving- is done.

7.Allow students to share their thoughts on the main idea of this passage, using their -leftover- words as a guide.

8.Demonstrate on the transparency, or on the blackboard, the writing of a main idea statement (1-2 sentences), using all or most of the -leftover- words. -Junk- words can, of course, be added in order for the statement to be grammatically correct.

9.Direct students to write their own main idea statements at the end of the passage, on the photocopy, using teacher’s as an example.

10.Retrieve Passage #2 work from students for informal assessment. Offer feedback/suggestions to students as appropriate.
Day Four
1.Return Passage #2 completed activity (from Day Three) back to students, allowing for feedback.

2.Explain to students that the same procedure from Day Three will be repeated today, with a new passage (#3).

3.However, today they will work without teacher’s samples/examples. They may use their own work, if available, as a guide, at teacher discretion.

4.When complete, students will submit this activity for informal evaluation/feedback from teacher.

Day Five
1.Review concepts covered in Sessions 1 – 4.

2.Return completed Passage 3 activity (from Session Four) to students, allowing for feedback and clarification.

3.Direct students to then put away all guides, papers, etc. (no aids can be used for this final activity)

4.Distribute Passage 4 to each student.

5.Direct students to read the passage silently, then they -carve- passage to delineate details (according to previous days’ concepts) using a pencil and retaining completed passage on desktop

6.Distribute quiz.

7.Students complete and submit quiz for grading (Students may have reading passage available for review during assessment.)


Determining students' mastery will be based on informal assessment of daily work, classroom comments and participation, and a formal assessment in quiz format


Session One (picture activity) could be modified by listening to a short spoken passage (on tape or teacher-read), or by showing a quick video clip, and then asking students to identify details.

Attached Files

A 4-point scoring rubric for picture viewing/questioning activity.     File Extension: pdf

Return to the Beacon Lesson Plan Library.