Finding Main Idea of a Paragraph – Unlock the Secret

Finding main idea of a nonfiction paragraph is easy with the hamburger analogy. First, teach kids to find the topic sentence and supporting detail sentences. Second, explain that paragraphs may have conclusions. Finally, help students understand that writers add sentences to elaborate.

Ms. Sneed & Mr. Grow Review the Two Sides of Writing

Our favorite fourth grade teacher sat at the side table with her student teacher. “Let’s continue with our ELA block,” she said, “Yesterday, we discussed the two sides of writing. As you know, I like to remind my kids of the differences – all the time! So let’s review them.”

“Okay,” Mr. Grow replied. In his mind, he visualized the poster of the girl with her arms outstretched.

First he stretched out his right arm. “On this side, we have fiction, or literature. It tends to be expressive.”

Then he stretched out his left arm. “And on this side, we have nonfiction, or informational text. It’s informative.”

“Right. What can you tell me about the structure of each?”

“Fictional stories use a story arc. Conversely, nonfiction uses a hamburger-type format.”

Fourth grade students need to know about the two sides of writing! Fiction tends to be expressive and uses a story arc. On the other hand, nonfiction is informative and uses a hamburger structure.

Ms. Sneed Explains Finding Main Idea of a Paragraph

Ms. Sneed smiled. “Great! Next week, you’ll teach kids about finding main idea in informational text.”

Mr. Grow shifted in his seat. “To be honest, I don’t know how to teach this concept.”

“That’s where the hamburger analogy comes in. First, we’ll work with just one paragraph. Then we’ll scaffold to locating the central idea of longer essays.”

The Sample Paragraph

Ms. Sneed opened her laptop and pulled up a file named Nonfiction Paragraph Structure. Then she turned the screen toward Mr. Grow. “We’ll begin with this sample paragraph. Its short, straightforward structure makes a good starting point. Additionally, the topic sentence comes at the beginning.”

She read the paragraph aloud:

Hundreds of years ago, four writers recorded fairy tales. A Frenchman, Charles Perrault, wrote many well-known tales. In Germany, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm retold common folklore. Their collection was published in two volumes, in 1812 and 1815. H.C. Andersen, from Denmark, penned thousands of tales. Some examples are “The Little Mermaid” and “Thumbelina.” Because of these men, we can enjoy reading fairy tales today.

When finding main idea, start with a simple, straightforward paragraph.

Finding Main Idea, Supporting Details, and Conclusion

With a click of her finger, Ms. Sneed moved to a colorful graphic. “All forms and lengths of informational text can be organized with the hamburger analogy. Let’s explore each part for this paragraph:

  • The top bun illustrates the topic sentence. It expresses the main idea.
  • Burgers, or supporting detail sentences, provide the “meat” of the nonfiction paragraph.
  • At the end, the author many times adds a conclusion, or bottom bun.”

“Funny how such a simple model helps me understand,” Mr. Grow said.

Ms. Sneed nodded. “For fourth grade students, this sandwich model makes an abstract concept concrete. Fortunately, it’s really effective.”

The hamburger analogy helps kids pinpoint the topic sentence, finding the main idea. It is the top bun. The supporting details are the meat, and the conclusion is the bottom bun.
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Considering Extra Details in a Paragraph

Next, Ms. Sneed pulled up a page with two cheeseburgers. “As you know,” she said, “authors elaborate. In addition to the main idea and detail sentences, paragraphs have extra sentences. When you acknowledge this, kids see that some ideas don’t directly support the topic sentence. Here, for example, the author added information about collections of fairy tales by the Grimm brothers, as well as examples of stories written by Hans Christian Andersen.”

When kids understand that some sentences are strictly elaboration, finding the main idea and supporting detail sentences of a paragraph is easier.

Marking Up the Main Idea and Supporting Details of a Paragraph

Finally, Ms. Sneed pulled out a copy of the sample paragraph. “Let’s mark this up. Hopefully, this exercise will help kids connect concepts – without the hamburger.”

As she spoke, Ms. Sneed used a blue pen. “Notice that the topic sentence says that four writers recorded fairy tales. Let’s find them in the text: Charles Perrault, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and H.C. Andersen.”

Next, the teacher picked up an orange highlighter. “As we already said, the first paragraph is the topic sentence. Therefore, four writers recorded fairy tales is the main idea.”

Then she grabbed a blue highlighter. “So we delve into the text and find the four writers.”

Without hesitation, Ms. Sneed marked the sentences containing the authors’ names in blue. “Ah-ha! The supporting detail sentences!

“Once kids master finding main idea and supporting detail sentences,” Ms. Sneed continued, “summarizing is a no-brainer. Just look back and paraphrase.”

Mr. Grow stared at the page and shook his head. “It’s so clear to me now. Even without the model.”

Again, Ms. Sneed smiled. “The art of teaching,” she said. “First, teachers needs to clarify concepts in their heads. Second, they think of ways to convey the ideas to kids. Third, they communicate concisely. And voila! Learning occurs.”

Mr. Grow grinned. “It’s magical. Whenever you break down the lessons,” he said, “I get it. Then I can do the same for the students. This makes me enjoy teaching so much more.”

When finding the main idea of a paragraph without a graphic organizer, look for key words.

Finding Main Idea of a Five-Paragraph Essay

Over the next week, Mr. Grow’s students learned about finding main idea and supporting details. Soon, they could work independently. The analyzed nonfiction paragraphs about Charles Perrault, the Grimm brothers, and Hans Christian Andersen.

One day, their student teacher had a surprise for them. “Today, we’ll find the main idea of a longer nonfiction piece.”

When displayed the five-paragraph essay, one student shouted, “Hey! That has all of the paragraphs we’ve analyzed!”

“Yep. Actually, we use can use the hamburger model to analyze a longer piece too. See? The first paragraph introduces the topic. In it, you will find a thesis statement, which tells the main idea. Additionally, it contains the main details. In the middle, the burgers provide much more information about each support. Finally, the bottom bun concludes. Again, it restates the thesis and details…”

As his students nodded, Mr. Grow thought about their path to understanding. At first, kids need to work on single paragraphs. Only then can they tackle longer passages.

Once kids understand finding main idea in a single paragraph, it's time to move on to multi-paragraph informational essays.

Enjoy Teaching

Scaffolding helps kids understand concepts. Instead of jumping directly to long pieces, engage kids in finding main idea of single paragraphs first. You’ll be glad you did!

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