How to find the main idea

Finding the main idea in a reading passage is one of the most important reading comprehension skills.  Because of that, questions about the main idea repeat on the SAT and ACT and on almost every reading test from second grade through college.  So how do you find the main idea?

In a one-paragraph passage, the main idea is almost always stated in the first sentence, called the topic sentence.  A student can figure this out because the rest of the paragraph contains details about that first sentence.

Some students think a main idea and a topic are the same thing.  Wrong.  A topic can be stated as a single word or a phrase, but a main idea can be stated only as a complete sentence.  For example, a topic might be “dogs,” but a main idea might be “Boxers are the best dogs,” or “Dogs need to be bathed every week,” or “Dogs come in all sizes.”

If a writer begins a paragraph with a hook, the main idea might not be in the first sentence.  It might be in the second sentence.  Or it might be in the last sentence where the writer repeats the main idea to be sure the student has found it.

Another place to look for the main idea is in the title or headline.  Sometimes the title or headline contains hooks to lure a student to continue reading.  But many times they identify the topic, and sometimes they state the main idea.

As students read longer passages, they should still expect to find the main idea in the beginning paragraph.  However, it might be found routinely in the last sentence of that first paragraph.  The earlier part of the paragraph introduces the topic of the passage, but the main idea is stated in the last sentence of that paragraph.  Many writers repeat the main idea—not in exactly the same words—in the conclusion.

Look at the first sentences in the body paragraphs.  Those first sentences should be backing up an idea.  Many times that idea is stated in those sentences.

In longer passages, a strong clue to the topic is a word or phrase or its synonyms which are repeated more than any other idea in the passage.  For example, “Water pollution,” “river trash,” “ocean dead spots,” and “toxic runoff” all are types of water pollution.  These words tell the topic, but they don’t tell the main idea.  But with the idea of water pollution, students can go back to the first paragraph and the last paragraph to narrow in on the topic sentence.

Another way for young children to identify the main idea is to ask questions:

  • Who is the passage about? No one in particular?  Then keep looking.  But if it is a particular person or group whose name is repeated, the main idea probably has something to do with them.
  • What is the passage about? Every passage is about something.  Put into your own words what the passage is about.  Now go back and see if you can find evidence backing up your conclusion.
  • Are there numbers in the passage? If so, numbers about what?  Numbers usually back up or prove something.
  • Do illustrations give a clue?  Sometimes art can help a young student figure out the topic.  Knowing the topic, a student can look in the usual places for the main idea.

Sometimes a writer talks around a topic, implying a main idea without stating it, at least at first.  The writer does state the main idea eventually, but it might not be where you expect.

Why is identifying the main idea so important?  As a student grows older, he or she will need to learn more and more from what he or she reads, and less and less from what a teacher says.  That student will need to be able to identify quickly what the main idea is in order to make sense of an article or book or research paper.  When a student does research, he or she will need to be able to analyze information to see if it is relevant.  The most important skill to do that is to identify the main idea.



Teach 16 consonant sound-letter associations first, not vowels

If you are teaching your child to read, and you wonder what letters to begin with, choose the 16 consonants that almost always make the same sound at the beginning of English words.  Those letters are b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, t, v, x, and z.

Why these 16?  These sound-letter pairings follow one-to-one logic.  A d always sounds like a d when it begins a word.  An r always sounds like an r when it begins a wordLater your child will learn that certain letters can represent more than one sound (all the vowels, for example) and that certain sounds can be represented by more than one letter (the z sound can be represented by z and s, for example).  That can be confusing.

But for now, as your child learns to read, sticking to one-to-one relationships gives your child confidence.  An m always sounds like an m.  A k always sounds like a k.

Start with sounds that have meaning to children.  If your child’s name is Marco, start by teaching the letter sound m, and tape Marco’s photo on an Mm card to hang on the refrigerator.  If your dog’s name is Bandit, tape Bandit’s picture to a Bb card.  However, don’t use pictures of words beginning with blended sounds (br as in Brian) or digraphs (sh as in Shelly).

Teach children to pronounce the sounds of English

Before children learn their letters, be sure they can pronounce the sounds of English distinctly.  There are 48 sounds of standard American English, although regional dialects might include more or fewer sounds. The 48 single, distinct sounds are listed on the chart below.  Say those sounds and then ask your child to repeat those sounds.

You might wonder, “Is this really necessary?” Yes, it is. Almost always, you will encounter a sound that your child cannot hear or say properly. Let the child listen and repeat the sounds correctly until you are sure the child can hear and say the sounds. You can do this with a child as young as two. Only when the child can hear and say the sounds is it time to associate sounds with letters.

48 distinct sounds in standard American English:


Children learn sounds from big to small

children pronouncing elephantLittle children who are learning about sounds in words move from larger units of sound—phrases and words—to smaller units of sound—sounds within words and syllables.  Adults hear “On your mark, get set, go,” but a two-year-old hears “Onyourmark, getset, go.”  Children need to hear distinct sounds within words and to reproduce those sounds properly before they start pairing sounds with letters.

For this reason, most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  In some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

A good example of this is when children learn the ABC song.  Most three-year-olds can start the song with A-B-C-D. . .E-F-G-. . .H-I-J-K .  But when they get to L-M-N-O-P they sing L-um-men-oh-P or M-uh-let-O-P.  They don’t hear L-M-N-O as distinct sounds.

I still remember the day when I was in first grade when  my teacher taught my class the words of and the.  I thought, wow, those are two different words.  I didn’t know that.  I thought ofthe was a single sound.

Most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  For this reason, in some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

What can you do to help your child hear sounds more clearly?  Speak distinctly.  Slow down.  Face your child and let her watch your mouth when you talk.  When you hear her slurring sounds together which should be pronounced separately, don’t correct her but instead repeat the sounds properly.

While we’re on the subject of hearing words correctly, children will subconsciously learn the rules of grammar without instruction.  A four-year-old might say, “Mommy goed to the store,” properly making the verb past tense by adding the d sound to the end of the word without realizing go does not follow the rules.  Or he might say, “I amn’t done yet.”  He is learning contractions, not realizing that am can’t be contracted in the negative form.  Or a child might say, “Her said so.”  Objective pronouns are learned before subject pronouns.

To correct these mistakes, repeat what the child says correctly without comment on the error.  When the child hears words said properly enough times, he or she will say words that way too.


Defining basic terms used to discuss reading

When you are learning how to teach your child to read, you need to familiarize yourself with a few  words.  If you read widely about reading, you will encounter these words all the time.  But even if you don’t, understanding them will make reading instruction easier to follow.


One such word is “phonemes.”  The smallest sounds we utter are called phonemes.  About 48 such small sounds exist in standard American English. These sounds are not letters; they are sounds to which we pair letters in order to read and pronounce sounds.  Some words such as eye have one phonemes (a long ī), but most words have two or more phonemes.  Snow, for example, has three (s, n, ō).  Putting together phonemes to form words is an important reading skill. 


Another important word is “phonics.”  Phonics means combining phonemes to form words.  For example, the phonemes b, ă, and t combine to form the word bat.  250 letter patterns represent the 42 to 44 phonemes in American English.  Most children cannot figure out phonics on their own. They need instruction to match a phoneme to a letter or to a pair of letters.

systematic phonics instruction

Systematic means that concepts are taught in a particular order.  For example, phonemes which are always represented by a single letter such as b are taught before phonemes which are represented by more than one letter such as th.  Short vowel words such as cat are taught before long vowel words such as bike. 

For more details on the sequencing of learning sounds, go to  While you are there, check out 1) the list of read-aloud books that emphasize sounds, and 2) activities you can do with a child who is learning sounds.


A vowel is the primary speech phoneme in every syllable (one vowel phoneme for one syllable).  Vowel phonemes are made by the mouth without any blockage by the tongue or lips. Short vowel phonemes are the vowel sounds in Pat, Ben, Jill, Tom, and Bud.  They are sometimes represented by a curve over the vowel.  Long vowel phonemes are the vowel sounds in Kate, Eve, Mike, Joe, and Lou.  They are sometimes represented by a straight horizontal line over the vowel.  Other vowel sounds are also represented by a, e, i, o, and u, and by combinations of these letters.  W and y can also be vowel phonemes in combination with other vowels or alone as in cow and by.

short and long vowels

Short and long are a traditional way to describe certain vowel sounds.  Short vowel sounds can be said quicker while long vowel sounds take a fraction of a second longer to pronounce.  In recent years, the terms closed and open are used the same way to mean, respectively, short and long.


A consonant is a speech sound made by partially blocking the air as you breathe out.  Most phonemes are consonants, but they cannot be pronounced without connecting them to vowels. American English includes the consonant phonemes b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, and z. 


Syllables are units of sound containing one vowel phoneme and usually one or more consonant phonemes.  Mitten has two syllables:  mit and tenRobotics has three syllables:  ro, bo, and tics.

Knowing these terms gives you a basic vocabulary enabling you to follow instruction about reading.

Check your child’s prereading skills before teaching her to read

The place to start teaching reading is by assessing her prereading skills.  This is easy.  Hand your child a picture book upside down with the back cover facing up.  Watch what happens.

Does the child turn the book over so the cover is right side up?

Does the child open the book with the bulk of the pages near her right hand?

When the child turns the pages, does she turn them from front to back?

Ask the child to point which way the words are read.  Does she point top to bottom?  Left to right?

Ask the child where the cover and back page are.  Where is the title?

If your child can answer these questions correctly, she knows basic pre-reading skills for the English language.  If she cannot answer these questions correctly, teach her. 

How?  Read often to your child and point out these basics.  You could also play games by holding the book upside down, or by beginning to read from the last page, or by looking at the back cover and saying, “Is this where we begin?”  If your child corrects you, she has absorbed these pre-reading skills. 

If you read to your child in two languages such as Chinese and English, or Arabic and English, make sure your child understands these skills as they apply to English.  Some languages do not follow the English language pattern.  You might want to stop lessons in the other language for a few months until the English pattern is established.

How to teach a child to read

When my older son neared the end of first grade, his teachers told me he would need to repeat because he could not read.  What!  I couldn’t believe it. I phoned my brother, a special ed teacher, and he said, “Relax. You can bring him up to grade level if you work with him all summer.”  He recommended I buy Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolph Flesch, a then out-of-favor approach to teaching reading using phonics. My brother said to turn to the word list at the back of the book and start there.  I trusted my brother, bought the book, and worked with my son every day.  He hated the lessons—lists of progressively more difficult words—but in September he started second grade reading on grade level.

Thus began my interest in how to teach reading.  Time and research have proven Flesch and my brother right.  A systematic—not random—phonics-based approach yields the best results in teaching children to read.  Even so, today many teachers do not teach reading using phonics.  And as a result, many children fail to learn to read.

If your child has been left behind, or if you want to be sure that never happens, this blog is for you.  In coming weeks I will advise parents and teachers of beginning readers

1) how to teach reading skills by sounding out letter patterns, and

2) in what order to teach those letter patterns. 

If your child already knows how to read some words, you can assess his or her skills by using the word lists below to know where to begin.

These lessons start with one sound represented by one letter, a simple yet reliable decoding system.  While these lessons introduce the most common letter patterns of English, they do not introduce them all.  That is not necessary.  As children read widely, they encounter new letter patterns which they figure out from context clues, by asking questions, or by using a dictionary.

If you choose to supplement the ideas in coming lessons with lessons from reading sources like Why Johnny Can’t Read or Explode the Code (both good), their lessons might not sequence letter sounds or letter patterns in the same order as I do.  That is because reading experts do not agree upon a single sequence for teaching reading.  The sequence I will use here extends the one-sound, one-letter pattern as long as possible, reinforcing what seems logical to little children.

IMPORTANT: Beware of any reading advice which encourages your child to guess at words, a strategy that can lead to lifelong reading problems.  Instead, ask your child to sound out words based on the rules of phonics.  That leads to reading independence.

Phonics assessment

The following words are listed in the same order as the lessons I will share in coming weeks.  If your child can read some words, and you wonder where to begin teaching her phonics, ask her to read these words in order.  When she starts making mistakes, stop her and turn to my corresponding lesson.  Proceed from there.

bad, hem, fit, don, pug, am, if, lass, jazz

lock, Mick, bills, cliffs, mitts, catnip, Batman

grand, stent, frisk, stomp, stuck

chuck, shun, them, branch, brush, tenth

star, fern, birds, fork, purr, actor, doctor, victor

muffin, kitten, collect, pepper, gallon

complex, helmet, falcon, napkin, after

tantrum, muskrat, constant, fulcrum, ostrich

skate, bike, Jude, mole, dare, shore, tire, pure

need, cheer, aim, hair, bay, pie, boat, oar, Joe, low, soul

fruit, few, child, blind, fold, colt, roll, light, high

earn, worm, rook, pool

fault, claw, all, chalk, Walt

boil, so, pound, down

comet, dragon, liver, salad, denim

total, ever, student, basic, demon, vital

apron, elude, Ethan, Owen, ideal, usurp

inside, nearly, absent, unicorn, degrade, tripod

advance, offence, fence

gripped, planned, melted, batted, handed

sweeping, boiling, thinning, flopping, biking, dating

rapper, saddest, finer, bluest, funnier, silliest

easily, busily, massive, active, arrive, wives

keys, monkeys, armies, carried

action, section, musician, racial, crucial, nuptials

brittle, pickle, carbon, dormer

parcel, decent, gem, urge, badge

lose, sugar, nature, sure

graph, Phil, then, moth

bomb, thumb, gnat, gnome, high, sign

whip, whirl, echo, ghoul, knee, knob

could, calf, folk, hustle, listen, wrist

alone, bread, bear, chief, young, squaw, swan, waltz, word

decision, exposure, gigantic, polarize, occupant, quarantine

Do your kids have time to read?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children today spend an average of seven hours a day using electronic equipment for entertainment purposes.  Seven hours!  That includes TV, iPads, computers, phones and movies.  Seven hours!

I know a mother of young children who has banned all electronic equipment—except when used for homework assignments—during the school week.  On weekends her children can watch for a half hour on Saturdays and a half hour on Sundays.  Now when her second grader is bored, he picks up a book, sometimes reading to his younger sibling.

How much electronic equipment is recommended, according to the AAP?

  • Under 18 months—none
  • 18 to 24 months—up to an hour a day with parental involvement
  • 2 to 5 years—up to an hour a day
  • 6 years and older—unspecified, but a family media plan is encouraged.

If your child has enough time to watch TV or to play video games, he has enough time to read.  The first three weeks might be hard on you and him as he withdraws from electronic media and switches to reading.  You might need to read to him, or to read every other page, or to sit at his side while you sort laundry and listen to him read.  But if you do, eventually he will understand that reading is the new normal and that whining and pouting will get him nowhere.

If you are a working parent, and you come home tired, I sympathize.  Keep your eye on the long-term goal:  a well-educated child whose mind is not addicted to anime or to cartoons.

Encouraging your child to read is one of the best things you can do for the overall success of your child.

Ready for kindergarten? Or not?

As another school year starts, many parents wonder whether their child is ready for kindergarten.  What should they consider?

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

Age is an important consideration.  Years ago, the “old wives” rule was that if the child could put her hand over her head and touch her opposite ear, she was old enough.  The rule has some basis in fact since toddlers cannot touch their ear this way and almost all six-year-olds can.

But age cannot be the only factor.  These days, cut-off dates and birthdays should be considered.  If the cut-off date is September first, and the child has a summer birthday, the child will be one of the youngest in his class.  He might have classmates who are a whole year older, a whole year bigger, a whole year more experienced in living.

Intellectual development should be considered.  If you have been told by your child’s pre-K teacher how smart she is, or how eager she is to answer questions, then she may be ready to start kindergarten even if she would be one of the youngest students.  What was her parents’ achievement in school?  If they skipped grades or graduated salutatorians, there’s a good chance the child inherited high intellectual abilities.

Physical height should be considered.  If your child is tall for his age, then starting school when he is younger might make him feel more comfortable since some of his older classmates will be near his own size.

child kicking soccer ball

The activity level of a child should be considered.  If a child is calm and reserved and can sit still for a half hour at a time, he might be ready to receive instruction even if he is young.  If he is hyperactive with a short attention span, probably he should wait. 

The length of the school day should be considered.  Some younger children can last a half day but grow cranky and uncooperative in a full-day session.  If the program is a full-day one, does the school offer nap times?

The child’s fine motor coordination should be considered.  Can the child hold a pencil and trace lines with it?  Can she button her coat?  Can she wipe her bottom when she uses the toilet?

The child’s interest in academics should be considered.  Does the child enjoy recognizing letters, making letter sounds or even reading small words?  Can the child add small numbers or use manipulatives to figure out subtraction of small numbers?

The child’s pre-K teacher’s recommendation should carry weight since that teacher has seen the child “in action” in a school setting.  So should the evaluation of a kindergarten teacher at the beginning of a school year.  A few days after my son began kindergarten, his teacher begged a classmate’s mother to keep her son home for another year. Her son was not ready, said this experienced teacher.  He could not follow directions.  He could not sit still for more than a minute or two.  He cried at being aroused from his nap.  His only interest was the playground.  The mother sent him anyway.  He repeated kindergarten.

If your child has started kindergarten and comes home happy each day, congratulations.  If not, or if you have doubts, contact the kindergarten teacher to get her assessment.  Kindergarten, first, and second grades provide the foundation of your child’s education.  You want to get it right.

Ask children to use body language and gestures to learn

When my one-year-old son was still mostly pre-verbal, I “read” to him books about a baby doing the simplest of tasks—jumping, crouching, and clapping, for example.  Each time I turned the page, I asked him, “What’s the baby doing?”  He would act out the drawing—jumping, crouching low and applauding—all without words.

child making letter T with his body

My son was engaging in the world of books long before he had verbal vocabulary to explain what he saw.  He used what he had—the gestures, the motions of his body—to “say” what he saw.

Another time, I worked with a third grader who had excellent verbal fluency, but she could not read.  We worked on phonics, and she slowly acquired skills to take apart words into letter sounds and to assemble letter sounds into words.  She was an excellent actress, so when she would learn a vocabulary word, she would act it out—standing, moving about the room, using her whole body to memorize the meaning of a word.  I was flabbergasted.  And when she came upon a word she had previously acted out, she would go through the same motions—this time sitting in her seat—to remember what the word meant. 

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter L

Working with these children opened my mind to using gestures and body language to learn.  These  allow a child’s thinking to progress even when he doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain what he is thinking.  Or sometimes he does have the vocabulary, but it is quicker to respond with gestures than to recall the appropriate words.  What is “slope,” for example? Doesn’t lifting a hand and sliding it downward on a diagonal show understanding?  What is “ferocious”?  If a child bares her teeth and makes a growling sound, doesn’t she show that she knows that word?

Large numbers of children in preschool and in the primary grades are kinesthetic learners.  Yet teachers rarely call upon these children’s body language and gestures to help them learn.  With a little imagination, it’s possible.  Three students stand in a row, holding hands.  One student lets go.  Three minus one equals two.  A child curls herself into the letter “C.” Another creates a big “O” with her arms.  A third stands tall and stretches out both arms into a “T.”  They move close together.  “COT.”  Three students act out “ice” by hugging and not moving.  Three more act out “water” by making swimming strokes.  Three more act out “steam” by dancing rapidly.

Performing to learn takes time, yes.  But it’s also fun.  It engages students.  It uses many of the senses.  It works.