Why Main Idea is Not the Main Idea -- Or, How to Teach Reading Comprehension

Why Main Idea is Not the Main Idea -- Or, How to Teach Reading Comprehension

Tim Shanahan

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 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.

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