Main, Broad, Narrow Ideas

Helping Students get the Main, Broad, and Narrow ideas of text

In the Six-Way Paragraph books (that are part of our Read Right library), the first question is always about identifying three statements as either main, broad, or narrow. The gurus at OTC have found that many students come to us struggling with the main idea concept, and even more is true of the broad and narrow concepts.  For this reason we have developed or discovered techniques to help our students overcome this hurdle and find their way to more meaningful understandings of the texts they read.  Below, you will find tools and descriptions to help your students better grasp the main, broad, and narrow aspects of text.

1. Resource type: Visual Aid

Some students benefit from a visual aid in keeping these concepts clear.  We have this “bull’s eye” diagram hanging in our classroom, and we often bring it to the tutoring stations during critical thinking sessions.  The teachers can then use it to help explain how the concepts (and the specific sentences in the exercise) “fit inside” one another.

Main, Broad, Narrow "bull's eye"


2. Resource type:  Student Definitions

This document was actually compiled by our students during a brainstorming session, in which they came up with defining characteristics of broad, main, and narrow ideas. As students called out their thoughts, we wrote every single word on the board (a la Rita Smilkstein).  We then asked students to eliminate duplicate or similar items and to decide if their existing lists truly defined each term (B, M, N).  There had to be–in true Read Right fashion–a consensus about the final product. At the end of each session, we copied down the lists on a piece of paper, which we then compiled into the following, very valuable document.  We have several copies that we pull out during each Critical Thinking session. Our students really utilize this piece.  So many students confuse the broad and narrow concepts, and this offers them a tool from which to make the distinction.

For a printable version, click here: MainIdea_B&N_Student definitions

RDG 040: Critical Thinking Terms & Definitions

Main Idea: 

  • Summary of the story
  • What you would say to a friend to summarize the plot of the story, as if it were a movie
  • NOT too broad & NOT too narrow
  • The overall idea of the story
  • Just enough information to get what the story is about
  • What the author wants to the reader to know about the subject
  • It helps you make sense of the story
  • It could be used as a topic sentence or thesis statement
  • The focus of the story

 Narrow Idea:

  • Details about the main idea
  • Gives descriptive information from the story
  • Describes something in the story
  • Helps us visualize part of the story
  • Not enough information to get the whole story
  • It could be a fact from the story
  • Makes you want to know more
  • One single part of the overall subject
  • A specific idea or concept in the story
  • Describes something that happened or what someone did

 Broad Idea:

  • Lacks details
  • Too general
  • Doesn’t really describe very much
  • Covers many possible topics
  • Too big to be main idea
  • Doesn’t help visualize much in the story
  • Can go lots of different directions
  • Open idea
  • Wide, variety of topics can fit within this statement


3. Resource type:  Brainstorming*

This valuable tool is especially useful at the beginning of a semester, when students are new to the main, broad, and narrow concepts.  (*The OTC Reading Gurus, however, cannot take credit for this idea. One of our colleaques, an English Instructor named Martha Crise, offered this as a suggestion when we invited her to observe our students on a Critical Thinking day. We are very grateful to her for helping our students!)  The worksheet below is not necessary; it is a document that we make available to students should they choose to use this method on their own. I have posted it here as a visual aid and printable resource for your use. 

Using the Six Way Paragraph books, the instructor writes each of the three statements on the board. Beginning with statement A, the students are asked to call out anything that comes to their minds when they read it. Everything is listed on the board. Then the same is done with statements B and C, then ask students to identify which list they think is broad, which is the narrow, and which is main. The result is usually this: the main idea statement has a medium list; the narrow idea statement has a short list; and the broad idea statement has a long list. Students then have another type of visual aid that allows them to see how, physically, each statement holds varying degrees of information.

Group Brainstorming Activity Sheet (printable PDF)

Group Brainstorming Activity Sheet_WeedsExample

2 thoughts on “Main, Broad, Narrow Ideas

  1. I’m the IA for Adult Education Services of a Wisconsin Technical College. The instructor and I always have students who struggle with the Main, Broad, Narrow sentences of Six Way Paragraph books. We love the way your site teaches this concept especially the circle visual. With your permission, we’d like to share your ideas with our students?

    • You are quite welcome to use any resource on this blog! 🙂

      We use those B, M, N tools with all our classes, and they’re all great because different students respond differently to each one.

      We have several copies of each of them laminated, and on critical thinking days we place them on all the tables for the students to use. We even encourage the students to reference the tools when they are making their arguments to students who have answers different from theirs.

      I’m glad you think they’ll be helpful. 🙂 Have a great day!


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