Topic, Main Idea, and Details

ice cream sundae

The three dreaded pieces of a reading assignment to any student. Most students take a stab at a word in the first sentence to find topic and main idea and then pick something from the middle for a detail. There’s a 50/50 chance they will get partial points using that strategy. Well, hold on to your hats; I have a better way.

I attended another professional development class from my favorite source for good reading strategies– KUCRL. This time, I got some tips for helping students identify topic, main, idea, and detail.

  1. To find the topic of a paragraph or article, use the sentence prompt, “This paragraph/article is about _____.” The one or two words that complete the sentence is the topic. If a student is still lost, the topic will often appear in the title and/or first or last sentence of the paragraph, so look there while using the prompt.
  2. To find a main idea within a paragraph, locate the topic first. Then ask yourself, “What does this paragraph tell me about the topic?” Insert your topic at the end of the question. The answer to your question is the main idea.
  3. To find important details, use the main idea. Ask yourself, “What is specific information about the main idea?” Insert your main idea at the end of the question. The ideas that answer the question are the key details.

Read the paragraph and give it a try.

perfect ice cream sundae paragraphTopic: This paragraph is about ice cream sundaes.

Main Idea: What does this paragraph tell me about ice cream sundaes? This paragraph talks about sundae ingredients. The main idea is ice cream sundae ingredients.

Details: What is specific information about the ingredients? Key details are ice cream flavors, sauces, and different kinds of toppings.

These prompts help with standardized test preparation for reading comprehension. They also work well when looking for the important “stuff” while reading textbooks. Finally, this is a great way to pick out the essential information in any non-fiction reading assignment. It provides a structured way for students to weed out non-important details and zero in on the meat of the text in order to take notes for research projects or preparing for class discussion and tests.

If you are looking for teaching materials that help with these skills, visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store to purchase activities that reinforce reading skills like topic, main idea, details, and paraphrasing.

Ready to Research?


Each year, I approach my 4th grade non-fiction research unit with equal parts excitement and dread. I am excited because along with my students, I always learn something new about an American business founder. I dread the unit because it involves a research paper, and it takes all of my teacher super powers not to jam a child into his locker when he looks up at me and says, “I’ve read EVERYTHING and there is no information about Henry Ford.” Fortunately, I also teach common prefixes, so I can calmly remind the student that REsearch means search again.

research folder for students

Coaching these kids through their first research essay is a good thing, and they acquire so many skills because of it. As much as the process pains me, I repeat it every year. I have used this research system with 4th grade, 6th grade, and 9th grade. It works for every age on any topic in almost every subject area.

Prepping the Research

Before letting kids loose on the Internet to find facts, focus on some sub-topics. In my classroom, students write 3-5 open ended questions they will try to answer. Parents, if you are working with a child at home, brainstorm some sub-topics to give the research a direction.

  • An opened ended question is one that requires multiple sentences to answer. Instead of asking, “When did Ruth Handler sell the first Barbie doll?” ask, “How did Ruth Handler get the idea for a Barbie doll?”
  • Use the 3-5 questions or sub-topics for research. Now, every time a student opens an article, he will be trying to answer one of his questions. Rather than writing random facts, students are actively searching for information that is related to a specific idea about the main topic. In addition, the questions provide key words to help narrow Internet searches and make the research more efficient.
  • The idea is that a student tries to answer all of his questions with one source. Then, the child tries to answer the same questions with a new source. Repeat with a third source. If the child is getting the same information in all 3 sources, it is reliable information. If a student can’t answer any question, he moves on to a fourth source… or a fifth. I have been known to repeat the fact that websites and reference books will not have big red arrows and highlighted words pointing to the exact information someone might need. A student might have to summarize, interpret, and infer reading material. The information will not be provided in the same tidy way as a textbook.

student ben and jerrys research folder

The Research Folder

Create a way for students to contain all of their information, so it does not get lost traveling from school to the locker to home.

  • Give students a manila folder with pockets to hold notecards. Seal business envelopes, cut them in half with a paper cutter, and glue them to the envelope. I also print a short list of Internet reference links and sample bibliography formats, which we glue to the folder as well.
  • Students write each question or sub-topic on one pocket. Any time a student finds a fact related to one question, they write the note on the notecard and store it in the appropriate envelope. Now all related notes are grouped together in a handy carry case.

research folder A notes

Sources and Bibliography

This is very difficult for my students since it is their first serious attempt at a bibliography. Having the pre-printed bibliography page with samples pasted to the manila folder helps.

  • As students take notes, they must record the source at the same time. Do not put a source away (or click it closed) without writing the information needed for a bibliography.
  • Code all notecards from one source with some sort of symbol or letter. All “A” cards would relate to one source. Or, all cards with a star would relate to one source.

research folder bibliography

Taking Research Notes

I have to model note taking for my students, and we practice before the project starts. You may not have to go through this step, but it is still a good idea to give some reminders about note taking. I have a few rules I ask the kids to follow.

  • Never write more than one line at a time. This reduces plagiarism since students can’t copy large chunks of text. They must summarize and re-word to fit information into one line at a time.
  • Never write a word on a notecard you do not understand. Look up the unfamiliar word, write a synonym, or explain the word.
  • Avoid Wikipedia if at all possible. Anyone can post information on Wikipedia, so it is not always reliable. Kids like to go there first and then quit. I tell my students that Wikipedia is off limits (audible groans detected immediately).

research folder A notes2

Preparing the Research Paper

If students have sufficient notes, the paper is easy to organize.

  • If students are taking notes related to the questions or sub-topics, notes will be organized and ready to be translated into paragraphs as part of an essay. The organization happens while researching rather than having to sort notecards later and hope that central ideas emerge from the pile of notes.
  • Create an introductory paragraph using the open ended questions or subtopics. Those ideas become the body sentences for the first paragraph.
  • Notes from the first pocket will create the 2nd paragraph that follows the intro and so on.
  • If any extra fun facts are collected, incorporate those into the first or last paragraph.
  • This is a good time to practice or introduce Transition Words

research sample paragraphs

My system is by no means foolproof, but it is more efficient than the way I learned to prepare a research paper. To purchase my Non-Fiction Business Unit with the full research paper directions CLICK HERE.

research folder notecards in pocket