Tally it up for Main Idea

Hi everyone! It's Melissa from Don't Let the Teacher Stay Up Late here to share with you again! I don't know about you, but we just got back from Spring Break yesterday and are in full gear preparing for our state tests. This is where our upper grade teachers really start to panic, and the kids can unfortunately become overloaded with test prep and stress from all sides.

Funny Birthday Ecard: If I sprout horns and blow hot steam out of my nostrils, don't be alarmed... State testing has begun. I will return to my normal self in approximately two weeks.

Well, I am sharing a "test prep" tip, but it's one that I think is very simple and can really help your kids a ton! Virginia actually did an analysis of the most missed questions on our state tests, and, no big surprise, Main Idea and Supporting Details appeared a lot.

Many of our teachers have taught the students to "Stop and Jot" or make "Headlines" for each paragraph, which can be effective but also frustrating. I've been working with the students to keep it short and simple if they do it so they don't burn out from writing these long sentences every time. Plus I also teach them to chunk smaller paragraphs. Still, that's not the strategy I'm here to share.

When students reach a main idea question, have them use tally marks to see which choice is discussed most often.

I pulled a passage from ReadWorks, which is a great free site that I highly recommend if you're looking for engaging passages. Have the student read through it once on their own. Then when they reach any question that asks for the main idea or says the words "most", "mostly", or "main"...

The hardest part is getting the students to see relationships when it's not so specific. I would recommend modeling a LOT, then have them work with a partner or group before trying it independently unless you know the passage or question is a little more straightforward.

What other little "tricks" do you teach your kids to help prepare them for tests?


  1. This is a great strategy. I also taught some of my kids who got confused with tally marks to assign each answer a shape or symbol. When they see that choice in the passage, they draw that symbol or shape in the margin of the paragraph. Then, the students count up the shapes to see which was mentioned more. It might seem confusing, but some of my students really like it.

    1. I like the idea of shapes as well! That would be perfect for more visual learners. The tallies are easier for us because they also translate to our online test at the end of the year. Thanks for sharing!