Your Reading Comprehension Toolkit: Determining Importance

We've all had a whole group discussion about a book go a course.

Imaginations wander, amusing side stories are shared, and before you know it, your students have masterfully sidetracked your entire lesson. Instead of struggling to refocus them, help your students notice that they've wandered by turning their tangent into a teachable moment. Explain that having conversations about books is all about staying focused on the most important parts. do you help students to know what the most important information is?

Well, it depends on what you’re reading.

For fiction, it’s important to pay attention to the main characters, the settings, the characters’ relationships, the problems or conflicts in the story, and how the characters try to solve those problems.

On the other hand, for nonfiction (books about real people, places, things, or events), it’s important to determine the topic of the text, the main ideas about the topic, and the most important details. It’s also important to focus in key vocabulary words.

Books and Paired Lesson Plans to Help You Teach Students to Determine Importance

You can help your students practice determining importance with lesson plans and activities to pair with the following read alouds. Or, if you're looking for ideas to pair with any text, scroll down - we've got three easy activities you can use to help students pinpoint important information in any text they wish to read.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka

The cover for the book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs takes the classic tale of the Big Bad Wolf and turns it on its head. In this version, the wolf tells the story from his perspective as a wrongfully punished criminal.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is a smart choice for readers who are becoming more sophisticated at determining importance while reading. Readers will need to recognize how the text structure and character descriptions in this version tell us something new and important about this classic story.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

The cover for the book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
Sylvester is a young burro who enjoys collecting unusual pebbles. One rainy day, he finds a magic pebble that can make wishes come true. Sylvester wishes many wishes, but one wish has unexpected consequences for Sylvester.

The level of detail present in this story makes it a good choice for readers who are learning to determine importance. Students will need to decide which events and details are most important to remember in order to retell and identify the author's purpose.

Are You a Snail? by Judy Allen

The cover for the book Are You a Snail?

This charming nonfiction book covers all things snails—what they eat, where they live, and why they are slimy.

The determining importance lesson plan for Are You a Snail? encourages readers to stop throughout the text to notice interesting facts, ask questions, and to reflect on the most important facts and ideas to remember from the text as a whole. Some of the important facts students will learn to identify include facts about a snail's tongue and the dangers snails face.

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman

The cover for the book Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace is the story of a girl with a wonderful imagination. Grace loves stories. She loves books, and movies, and even listening to the stories her grandma tells. But what Grace loves most is acting out the stories she hears. Grace is also a girl who refuses to let other people tell her what she can and cannot do.

Use this determining importance lesson plan and set of resources to support readers as they identify important characters, events, and emotions that impact Grace throughout the story.

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin

The cover for the book Snowflake Bentley

Snowflake Bentley is a captivating children's book written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, based on the true story of Wilson Bentley. The book celebrates the remarkable journey of Wilson Bentley, a curious and determined young boy who becomes fascinated by the intricate beauty of snowflakes. Despite facing challenges and skepticism from others in his pursuit, Bentley dedicates his life to capturing snowflake photographs. Through his relentless efforts and passion for nature, Bentley becomes the first person to photograph individual snowflakes, revealing their unique and breathtaking designs. This inspiring tale encourages young readers to follow their passions, embrace curiosity, and appreciate the wonders of the natural world.

This lesson plan encourages readers to stop throughout the text to notice interesting facts and determine which are important to remember after reading.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee By Philip C. Stead

The cover for the book A Sick Day for Amos McGee
Amos McGee is a busy zookeeper who visits each of his animal friends - on time, every day. One day, Amos McGee wakes up sick and stays home in bed. His animal friends are worried about him so they take the city bus to visit Amos. Philip C. Stead's pacing and Erin E. Stead's quiet illustrations make this timeless read aloud one students will want to revisit again and again.

Determining what is most important in a story is a strategy every good reader should practice. Students will have fun stopping on the pages indicated in this minilesson to find the parts that matter most. The included practice pages will provide students with the opportunity to write about the details they think are most important to remember about the friendship between Amos and the zoo animals.

Three Ideas to Help Students Determine Importance with Any Book

Do a Big and Tiny Sort

After reading, draw two circles on the board or a piece of chart paper. Label the first circle "Big Ideas" and the second circle "Tiny Ideas". Then invite your students to brain dump. Ask them to write something that they remember about the text on a sticky note. Go around the room, asking each student to read their sticky note. As a class determine whether or not the information is a big idea or a tiny one. Post the sticky notes in the correct circle.

Beginning readers may struggle with this concept. If your students seem to think that everything is a big idea, try to prove the importance of the information with the following line of questioning:

  • Is this fact part of the problem, solution, or plot?

  • Is this fact part of the main idea?

  • Is this fact part of what I need to remember?

When students take the time to question whether or not facts and ideas are actually an important part of the text, they will begin to apply critical thinking skills to their reading.

Give Students the “Up or Down” Challenge

This activity works really well with nonfiction. Here's what you do:
  • Draw a Topic, Main Idea, and Detail Tree on the board

  • Write information from the text on sticky notes.

  • Read the sticky note and place it somewhere on the chart

  • Ask students if the sticky note should move up, down, or stay where it is

  • Move the sticky note according to the student's direction

  • Continue adding sticky notes and moving them up or down until all of the information is organized correctly

You should end up with a flow chart showing the topic at the top, the main ideas in the middle, and the details at the bottom.

Give Students a Metaphor for the Different Levels of Information

This activity works best for visual learners. Help students to understand the different levels of information in a text by giving them a visual reference tool.

For example, you might compare topic, main ideas, and details to the sky: The sky is the topic, the clouds are the main ideas, and the raindrops are the details. A plate of cookies could serve as another metaphor. Explain that the plate is the topic, the cookies are the main ideas, and the chocolate chips are the details.

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