Ohio Resource Center
Strategies:  Browse Reading Strategies

Determining Importance

by Paula Guisinger
  What is determining importance?
Determining importance is the ability to get to the heart of the text. What are the most important ideas or information in this reading? What should I remember? According to Harvey and Goudvis, determining importance is "making sense of reading and moving toward insight" (p. 118). Since 90 percent of what adults read is nonfiction, this discussion on determining importance will focus on informational text.

In order to determine what is important and worth remembering, students need to understand both the external and internal text structures in informational text. External text structure, such as a table of contents, headings, charts, and guide questions, provides organizational aides to facilitate reading. Students need to learn how to utilize these structures to determine what the most important information is.

Internal text structures level the information in the text. The most important ideas are at the top level, the next level supports these ideas, and the bottom level provides the supporting details for each idea. Struggling readers need to know this hierarchical relationship to determine how text structure will help them determine what is important in their reading. Teachers need to help all students understand how to use internal text structure to comprehend and retain the material that they are expected to learn.

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  Where is determining importance discussed in the Ohio Academic Content Standards?
English Language Arts

Standard: Informational, Technical and Persuasive Text
Grades 4–7
  Benchmark A. Use text features and graphics to organize, analyze and draw inferences from content and to gain additional information.
  Benchmark C. Explain how main ideas connect to each other in a variety of sources.
Grades 8–10
  Benchmark A. Evaluate how features and characteristics make information accessible and usable and how structures help authors achieve their purpose.
Grades 11–12
  Benchmark A. Analyze the features and structures of documents and critique them for their effectiveness.

Standard: Writing Process
Grades 5–7
  Benchmark A. Generate writing topics and establish a purpose appropriate for the audience.
Grades 8–10
  Benchmark A. Formulate writing ideas and identify a topic appropriate to the purpose and audience.

Social Studies

Standard: Social Studies Skills and Methods
Grades 6–8
  Benchmark A. Analyze different perspectives on a topic obtained from a variety of sources.
Grades 9–10
  Benchmark A. Evaluate the reliability and credibility of sources.


Standard: Mathematical Processes
Grades 5–7
  Benchmark A. Clarify problem-solving situation and identify potential solution processes.
Grades 8–10
  Benchmark A. Formulate a problem or model in response to a specific need or situation, determine information required to solve the problem, choose method for obtaining this information, and set limits for acceptable solution.

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  How does determining importance support reading comprehension?
In determining importance, readers identify important ideas and facts, enabling them to mentally organize and thus more easily comprehend the essence of what they are reading.

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  What activities support students in determining importance?

Two-Column Note Taking
Many nonfiction texts are written with headings. These headings usually reflect the main idea, and the text supplies the details that flesh out the main idea. Modeling how to read a nonfiction article using a two-column note-taking technique can help students see this structure and determine the important ideas.

In modeling the technique, first read each heading and section to decide if the heading reflects the main idea or if you need to restate it. Then write the main idea in the column headed "Heading" or "Main Idea." Next, read the section and list the details that support or explain that topic or idea.

Emphasize to students that support and explain are key words to keep in mind. Details that support or explain are the important details. List the important details in the "Notes" column. Start with well-organized material, and have the students practice this skill before moving on to more challenging materials.

Topic (or title of article or chapter): Ancient Rome
Main Idea Notes (Important Details)
Building and Technology
  1. Excellent builders
  2. Roads—some Roman roads still around
  3. Bridges and aqueducts to carry water—some still around
  4. Plumbing—underground sewers
  5. Mills to grind grain
  1. Fertile land
  2. Olives important crop
  3. Honey
  4. Sheep for wool and making cheese
  5. Goats and pigs
  6. Oxen for plowing and pulling heavy wagons
Markets and Sellers
  1. Goldsmiths—made objects out of gold
  2. Butchers
  3. Bakeries
  4. Fruit
  5. Flowers
  6. Oil
  7. Wine
  8. Fish tanks that held fish—some fresh water, some salt water
  9. Some shops in buildings with five floors
  10. Slaves shopped for rich people

A template for this graphic organizer is available for your use.

In this activity, students identify the main ideas in a series of "coming-to-a-consensus" processes (Beers & Howell, 2003).
  1. Have students identify individually the three most important things (three main ideas) they learned from the text that they read. They should list them on a piece of paper.
  2. Pair students to share their most important information (main ideas) and come to a consensus about the three most important pieces of learning (main ideas), again listing them.
  3. Then have each pair join with another to form a group to discuss their findings and again come to a consensus about the three most important pieces of learning (main idea).
  4. Finally, ask the groups to come together as a class, and have them exchange ideas and come to a class consensus of the three most important main ideas. As they do, list the class's main idea on the board.

Graphic Clusters
The image that most people picture when they hear the term graphic organizer is a drawing with a circle in the middle and rays extending out from the circle. This kind of organizer, sometimes referred to as a graphic cluster (Tompkins, 2004), is very handy for reviewing a topic. Students write the topic in the circle (or shape of your choice—rectangles and squares work equally well). On the rays, they fill in information they learned about the topic.

From the ORC Collection
The following three resources support the strategy of determining importance.

"Name That Chapter! Discussing Summary and Interpretation Using Chapter Titles" (ORC Record #3371) is described this way:
In this lesson, students name chapters in novels that they are reading, creating a cumulative list for the novel as they work through the text. Sample titles are discussed and debated before the class settles on a choice. In this process, students apply many reading comprehension strategies, summarization, interpretation, determining importance, and drawing conclusions. (author/ncl)
You can view the full ORC record, which includes a link to the resource along with information such as standards alignment, at http://www.ohiorc.org/record/?id=3371, or you can go straight to the resource at http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=197.

"Exploring How Section Headings Support Understanding of Expository Texts" (ORC Record #1348) gives students the chance to determine the main idea by creating headings.
This lesson supports students' exploration and understanding of the purposes for section headings in expository texts. Working together, students read expository texts and insert the missing section headings. This lesson provides guided practice for students as they discuss how section headings are used to enhance comprehension. (author/ncl)
You can access the full record for this resource at http://www.ohiorc.org/record/?id=1348 or go straight to it at http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=24.

"Literacy Strategies: Concept Mapping" (ORC #9) illustrates how concept maps can be used to help determine the main idea. To sum up,
This resource, developed by an instructional design team at Southeastern Louisiana University as part of a large content-area reading project, provides directions for using concept mapping with expository texts. Concept mapping allows teachers and students to visually organize key concepts and main ideas. (author/ncl)
You can see the full record for this resource at http://www.ohiorc.org/record/?id=9, or you can go to http://www.litandlearn.lpb.org/strategies/strat_concept.pdf to see the resource itself.


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  How can determining importance be used to teach vocabulary?
Try the following tournament activity with your students. They can do it as part of a reading assignment.
  1. The students read a chapter or short story.
  2. While they read, they select four words for a particular purpose. For example, they might select four words that best describe the main character, or they might choose four words that best define the major problem in the story. The ideas for selecting the words are endless.
  3. After pairing off, the students fill out the tournament activity sheet. One child writes his or her words on lines 1, 5, 8, and 4. The other writes his or her words on lines 3, 7, 6, and 2.
  4. The students begin the battle. They must convince each other that their word is the best word to go on to the next level. They must use evidence in the text to support their views.
  5. Once they narrow their words to the one word that they believe is the best word for the topic, they present their word to the entire class. They must tell why they selected that word and defend their choice.

A template for this graphic organizer is available for your use.


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  Where can I go for additional resources pertaining to determining importance?
Baumann, J. F. (1986). Teaching main idea comprehension. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1986.

Beers, S., & Howell, L. (2003). Reading strategies for the content area. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Harvey, Stephanie, & Goudvis, Anne. (2000). Strategies that work. York, ME: Stenhouse.

Frank, Cecilia, Grossi, Janice, & Stanfield, Dorothy. (2006). Applications of reading strategies within the classroom. Boston: Pearson, 2006.

Tompkins, Gail. (2004). 50 literacy strategies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Unrau, Norman. (2004). Content area reading and writing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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Beers, S., & Howell, L. (2003). Reading strategies for the content area. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Harvey, Stephanie, & Goudvis, Anne. (2000). Strategies that work. York, ME: Stenhouse.
Tompkins, Gail. (2004). 50 literacy strategies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Paula Guisinger is a retired teacher who has thirty-five years of experience in K–6 grade classrooms. She is currently busy teaching SIRI courses and working on other literacy projects.

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