As a middle school writing aide, I know firsthand that grasping the main idea — or seeing the “big picture” — is difficult for budding readers. So to get practice my sixth graders at Corte Madera School summarize articles from newspapers. One article from The New York Times discussed the relocation of Lego’s manufacturing division from its headquarters in Denmark to Mexico. Lego planned to lay off many of its longtime workers and hire cheaper labor overseas.

What’s the who and what of this story?” I asked. One student said the colorful plastic blocks were in high demand, so more factories were being built in other countries. (Not accurate.) Another child said Danish workers were moving to Mexico because it was a warmer and less expensive place to live. (Also not true).

Then, I asked the essential question: “What’s the main idea?” By sixth grade, your child should be able to read a short passage, extract the main points and key details, and summarize it into a brief paragraph, or abstract. Then, they should be able to formulate the main idea in one or two sentences. Yet not every middle schooler can easily do this. But practice makes perfect.

Here’s how you can help your child sharpen reading skills:

  1. Look through The New York Times — or your city’s major newspaper — for a feature article. Find a story with entertaining yet concrete facts. Science stories on expeditions to Mars or global warming are a good bet, as are articles on technology and new media trends. Avoid entertainment reviews or profiles. The mix of anecdotes, reportage, and interviews could be confusing. Also choose an article with a thesis. Search for conflict, cause and effect, a debate, or change. The story should state something new or urgent, which your kid must identify.

  2. Before reading the article, instruct your child to scan the page’s other features — photos, captions, quotes in larger font, maps, or charts — and speculate what the story is about.

  3. Have them read and highlight the “Five Ws:” who, what, where, when, why (and how, if any), as well as main details to support these points. (If the newspaper is splashed with neon, this indicates they may need more practice figuring out what’s essential, and what’s not.) The why is less apparent and may be tricky, so assist them, if needed, to make a conclusion.

  4. Using their notes, have them write a short paragraph summarizing the story with a few supporting details. For instance, in the Lego article it could be about how many employees will lose their jobs.

  5. Encourage them to take a stab at the main idea from their summary by paring down the paragraph into a sentence: “To make more of a profit, the Lego company is currently moving its manufacturing department from Denmark to Mexico.”

The drill gives them practice on “getting the point,” but also exercises vocabulary and exposes them to current events. Before you know it, reading together may become a Sunday morning tradition.