What’s the Big Idea? 4 Reading Comprehension Strategies

My student wasn’t happy that she failed the SAT reading section, who would be? When she saw that she scored in the 35th percentile, she said, “But I love to read!” It’s true. She’s a strong reader and reads for pleasure outside of class, so you’d think she would score well. What happened?

When we analyzed her mistakes (error analysis, do it!), we noticed a pattern: most of the questions she missed were asking her to identify or analyze the main idea of the passage. Sometimes test questions obviously refer to the main idea, but often it’s a bit sneakier. Questions that say something like “The author would most likely agree with” or “The passage most strongly suggests” are asking the reader to take a step back and summarize the content and the purpose of the passage.

Too often our students, especially students with learning or attention challenges, get bogged down in the details of what they are reading. They are prepared to define vocabulary words or identify supporting evidence, but they cannot see the forest for the trees and struggle to understand the main idea of what they are reading.

So what’s to be done? If you’re a fan of SMARTS, then the answer won’t surprise you — teach strategies! Teach your students strategies for identifying the main idea of expository passages, the first step of any reading comprehension task.

Here are a few simple strategies you can try:

  1. Scan the page for clues — Is there a title or a heading to the passage? Perhaps there is a title or a summary in the header or the footer? These provide valuable clues as to the main idea.
  2. Look for repeated words — If a certain word or phrase pops up throughout the passage, then it’s a good bet that you’ve found the main idea!
  3. Ask a question — Once you have a general idea of what the main idea might be, ask yourself a question (e.g., “What can we do about climate change? Why was Woodrow Wilson elected?”). Use evidence from the passage to think of the answer. The answer to your question is the main idea!
  4. Reverse outline the passage — We teach our students to create outlines for their writing assignments, so why not ask them to create outlines for what they’re reading. By creating an outline from a reading passage, they’ll have to tease out the main idea as well as the topics and evidence that support that idea.


For more reading comprehension strategies, check out Unit 3 of the SMARTS program. I love to use Skim and Scoop to help students prepare for standardized tests with a heavy reading component. Honestly, it is one of our most popular strategies because it helps students get through their tests faster and more efficiently, which is a win for everyone!

Have any reading comprehension strategies you like to use? Share them below!

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director