Getting the Author's Purpose and Main Idea

Explicitly teaching how to communicate the main idea is possible with when you know the author's purpose. I teach my students that there are three basic reasons why an author wants to write: to inform, to persuade and to entertain. They must pick one of these, even though an author can give information in an entertaining way, or even persuade us to change our habits by giving us information in an entertaining way. However, for children who have weak writing skills, they are often most happy to have a 'formula' upon which to be successful. They will add the extra information orally when they have become familiar with this type of scaffolded answer. This method gives students with special needs confidence to participate in discussions about the author's purpose, the main idea and a succinct way to start summarizing a book, movie, article, or even paragraph!
Sheet from Ms. Miller's Munchkins


So, think of how this would help a student to focus on thinking about the main idea and the author's purpose.

1. What is the topic of this book?
2. Why did the author write this?
3. What are the main question words answered about the topic?

____(author's name)_____ wrote ___(title)_____ to (inform/persuade/entertain)___ us about  _____(subject)___ and how/why/what/___

For example, here are some samples that my students wrote or shared orally.

"Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat to entertain us about a cat who did not like to try strange foods."
"E.G. White wrote Charlotte's Web to persuade us that friendship is important, even if your friends are very different from you."
"Ashlee wrote her paragraph about what she did on the weekend because she wanted to inform us about her gymnastic class."

As students in our school district often have questions on main idea and summary, I taught them to read and think about the passage, find the main idea question through this method and then use the same answer to start their summary. We kept a poster up in the classroom, that had the model answers.

This method allowed students to become familiar with author's purpose. In tying the topic to a what/when/who/how/why question, the child has to think more deeply about what he or she has read.

Remember, some kids will get the main idea quickly, and without this explicit teaching or in using a formula. But, this certainly helps those kids understand their own thought process, or metacognition. And for our students with special needs, having an entry point to this difficult concept leads to success.
What a great way to sum up a program you are watching with your child!

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