Teaching Now: Determining the Main Idea of a Text

Aerial view of U.S. Capitol and crowd on the grounds of the east front of the U.S. Capitol, during the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, March 4, 1933

This is a guest post from Glenn Jensen, a national board certified U.S. and world history teacher at Kennedy High School in Chicago, Illinois. Glenn has developed an exercise that is a great way to begin analyzing primary source texts because it has students focus on what they know, what they can extrapolate from that knowledge, and how they can apply that knowledge to their own lives. Below he describes how he recently implemented the text analysis with his students; the activity, which meets CCSS anchor standards 2, 4 and 10, follows.

I asked students to read an excerpt from President Franklin Roosevelt’s first inauguration speech (you may also choose to read the text aloud). After they read the text, I gave them time to re-read the text and underline the five most important words. (If students are having a hard time selecting five words, you may suggest that they look for words that will answer the five Ws.)

When the students had finished underlining words, I asked for a volunteer to write five words on the board. I then asked other students to add to the list if they had different words. The list allowed me to quickly gauge that some of the students understood the passage—selecting words such as work, industrial centers, agriculture, government—and that others were missing the point—choosing words such as war and courageously.

As a class, we discussed the words listed and why some better related to the main idea of the text. Together, we came to a consensus on the five best words and circled those. I then asked students to write a sentence that tells the main idea of the passage using the five words they chose or the five circled words the class agreed were best.

Next I collected the students’ sentences and used a document camera to display them. We discussed the merits and weaknesses of these main ideas sentences eventually choosing, as a class, the best one. This discussion gave me another opportunity to check for understanding as well as an opening to provide explicit instruction on how to formulate a strong main idea sentence.

I wrote the best sentence on the board and asked students to rewrite that sentence using informal or street language. Creating these slang sentences allow students to relate historical texts to contemporary times while requiring them to climb to the top of the cognitive thinking ladder. The students also find this activity to be engaging and fun.

Here is what one class came up with for the Roosevelt speech excerpt.

Main idea sentence: “The government will try to improve the nation’s industrial centers, agricultural regions and banking services to overcome problems.”

Main idea sentence informally rephrased: “The feds are taking control of the factories and farms so people will get some bling.” “The government is puttin’ people back to work by telling farmers and CEOs what to do.”

This activity can be used with all types of primary source texts and is valuable to students at all levels. It helps developing students gain skills in the comprehension of historical texts and the summarization of those texts into a main idea. This activity also helps advanced placement students prepare to interpret and annotate primary documents on the AP exam.

Activity overview

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Americans elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president of the United States in the hope that he and the Democratic Party would improve the economy. The passage below is an excerpt of President Roosevelt’s first inaugural address on March 3, 1933. In the speech, Roosevelt outlines some of the steps he, in conjunction with Congress, will take to alleviate the country’s economic problems. Read the passage below carefully, then complete the three tasks. You may need to re-read the passage several times in order to complete the tasks.

Excerpt from President Franklin Roosevelt’s first inauguration speech

This Nation asks for action, and action now.

Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.

Hand in hand with this we must frankly recognize the overbalance of population in our industrial centers and, by engaging on a national scale in a redistribution, endeavor to provide a better use of the land for those best fitted for the land. The task can be helped by definite efforts to raise the values of agricultural products and with this the power to purchase the output of our cities. It can be helped by preventing realistically the tragedy of the growing loss through foreclosure of our small homes and our farms. It can be helped by insistence that the Federal, State, and local governments act forthwith on the demand that their cost be drastically reduced. It can be helped by the unifying of relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, and unequal. It can be helped by national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.

Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people’s money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.

Activity tasks

1. After reading the passage, underline the five most important words in it. (You may only choose words you understand; do not underline unknown words.)

2. Write a sentence that tells the main idea of the passage using the five words that you underlined.

3. Rephrase your main idea sentence using informal or street language.