Reading - Determine Important Ideas

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Determine Important Ideas

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Victoria Davids
davids.victoria AT blvs DOT org

For years in schools, students everywhere have been asked to pick out the most important information when they read, to highlight essential ideas, to isolate supporting details, and to read for specific information. This is easier said than done. Readers need to know how to sift and sort information, and make decisions about what information they need to remember and what information they can disregard.

Determining important ideas and information in text is central to making sense of reading and moving toward insight in text. When teaching determining importance nonfiction text is normally used. Nonfiction is full of features, text cues, and structures that signal importance and scaffold understanding for readers. These features, specific to nonfiction, provide explicit cues to help readers sift essential information from less important details when they read expository text. Readers of nonfiction have to decide and remember what is important in the texts they read if they are going to learn anything from them. We need to explicitly teach readers how to use these cues to extract needed information.

When readers determine importance in fiction and other narrative genre, they often infer the bigger ideas and themes in the story. Getting at what's important in nonfiction text is more about gaining information and acquiring knowledge than discerning themes.

Nonfiction picture books and young adult magazines and newspapers fire students up, especially if text quality matches the compelling photographs, charts, and illustrations. There's nothing like a photograph of the jaws of a great white shark clamping down on the front end of a surfboard to spark students' interest in ocean life. Interesting authentic nonfiction fuels students' curiosity, enticing them to read more, dig deeper, and search for answers to compelling questions. When students read and understand nonfiction, they build background for the topic and acquire new knowledge. The ability to identify essential ideas and necessary information is a prerequisite to developing insight.

When teaching determining importance overviewing, highlighting text, and nonfiction features help students to determine important ideas and information while reading.


When students read nonfiction, they can be taught overviewing, a form of skimming and scanning the text before reading. Focus your lessons on the following to help students overview the text:

*Activating prior knowledge

*Noting characteristics of text length and structure

*Noting important headings and subheadings

*Determining what to read and in what order

*Determining what to pay careful attention to

*Determining what to ignore

*Deciding to quit because the text contains no relevant information

*Deciding if the text is worth careful reading or just skimming

A careful overview saves precious time for students when reading difficult nonfiction text. The ability to overview eliminates the need for kids to read everything when searching for specific information. Overviewing represents an early entry in the effort to determine importance. You can model these components of overviewing in your own reading and research to your reader.


To effectively highlight text, readers need to read the text, think about it, and make conscious decisions about what they need to remember and learn. They can't possibly remember everything. They need to sort important information from less important details. They need to pick out the main ideas and notice supporting details, and they need to let go of ancillary information. Encourage students to consider the following guidelines when they highlight, and you will need to provide explicit instruction in each of these points:

* Look carefully at the first and last line of each paragraph. Important information is often contained there.

*Highlight only necessary words and phrases, not entire sentences.

*Don't get thrown off by interesting details. Although they are fascinating, they often obscure important information.

*Make notes in the margin to emphasize a pertinent highlighted word of phrase.

*Note cue words. They are almost always followed by important information

*Pay attention to the vast array of nonfiction features that signal importance.

*Pay attention to surprising information. It might mean you are learning something new.

*When finished, check to see that no more than half the paragraph is highlighted. As readers become more adept, one-third of the paragraph is a good measure for highlighting.

Nonfiction Features That Signal Importance

When a word is italicized, a paragraph begins with a boldface heading, or the text says "Most important,...." readers need to stop and take notice. This may sound obvious, but it's not. Titles, headings, framed text, and captions help focus readers as they sort important information from less important details. Nonfiction is one of the most accessible genres for reluctant and less experienced readers because the feature scaffold the reader's understanding. A photograph and a caption sometimes synthesizes the most important information on the page, rendering a complete reading of the text unnecessary. Nonfiction features are user-friendly.

Fonts and effects Teachers can note examples of different fonts and effects, such as titles, headings, boldface print, color print, italics, bullets, captions, and labels, which signal importance in text. We need to teach students that font and effect differences should be viewed as red flags that wave "This is important. Read carefully."

Cue words and phrases Nonfiction writing often includes text cues that signal importance. Signal words, like stop signs, warn readers to halt and pay attention. Proficient adult readers automatically attend to these text cues. Less experienced readers don't. We need to remember to point these signal words out to readers. Writers choose phrases such as for example, for instance, in fact, in conclusion, most important, but, therefore, on the other had,and such as so that readers will take note. Standardized test as well are full of cue words, and familiarity with these signals may boost scores.

Illustrations and photographs Illustrations play a prominent role in nonfiction to enhance reading comprehension. Nonfiction trade books and magazines brim with colorful photographs that capture young readers and carry them deeper into meaning.

Graphics Diagrams, cut-aways, cross-sections, overlays, distribution maps, word bubbles, tables, graphs, and charts graphically inform nonfiction readers of important information.

Text organizers Teachers cannot assume that kids know concepts such as index, preface, table of contents, glossary, and appendix. When students are surveying different texts for information, knowledge of these text organizers is crucial for further research.

Text structures Expository text is framed around several structures that crop up in both trade and textbook publications and standardized test forms. Understanding different expository text structures gives readers a better shot at determining important information. These structures include cause and effect, problem and solution, question and answer, comparison and contrast, and description and sequence. If a student know what to look for in terms of text structure, meaning comes more easily. Grappling with nonfiction text structure and coming to understand it helps readers determine essential ideas.


Harvey, S., and Goudvis, A.,2000. Strategies That Work. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Ideas on how to teach determining importance:

response options for determining importance

Go back to the Comprehension Chart for other strategies a reader would use to solve comprehension problems or to deepen their understanding of a text.


If you know the reading level of your child or want to see what reading levels are in each grade please go to the Text Gradient Chart. You will also be able to check on the levels to find out the characteristics of each level and examples of titles that are found in that level.

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