Home Parliamentary Business Senators and Members About Parliament Visitor Information Employment
Parliament of Canada 

Learning Strategies

2003 Learning Strategies

Learning Strategy 11

Finding The Main Idea --Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) Civics Practice Pack
Submitted By
Bernard Howes (ON)

  • Students preparing for the compulsory Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test in Grade 9 and 10 taking the required credits in Canadian Social studies which includes geography, history, and civics.

  • 120 minutes total; can be broken into separate components of varying lengths.

At the teacher's own pace and discretion, you can implement all of the following suggested lessons as part of larger units on government and citizenship with the motivation of preparing students for the required OSSLT.

Learning Outcomes

  • Students will gain:
    • Knowledge of some key aspects of Parliament.
    • An understanding of some key ideological concepts, principally the political spectrum.
  • Students will develop:
    • Critical thinking skills, specifically finding the main idea and relevant support.
    • Debating, presentation, and listening skills
    • An awareness of the requirements regarding the OSSLT
  • Students will cultivate:
    • Respect and appreciation for Canadian Parliamentary Democracy
    • Awareness of political concepts such as the political spectrum and ideology.
    • Critical capacity for inquiring and reflecting on Parliamentary democracy and government.

Information Paragraph Students compose an objective expository paragraph on the House of Commons Mace Sorting and organizing, determining a main idea with supporting details. Key concept of the OSSLT. Question is modeled directly from test. Student must understand concept of the MAIN IDEA and Supporting Details.
Summary Must condense or shorten a reading to a maximum of 100 words. Another difficult but critical task from the OSSLT Students read a short piece on some aspect of Canadian democracy or government Students must grasp the MAIN IDEA and SUPPORTING DETAILS.
Series of Paragraphs Students must write an opinion piece on some relevant issue on citizenship or on parliamentary democracy. Using knowledge of government and citizenship to properly state and defend an opinion on a given issue. Must clearly state their opinion and provide sufficient and relevant support for it. Familiarity with the concept of a thesis, or dominant main idea in a multiple paragraph composition.
Debate Students must state their position on an issue in an ‘adversarial’ discussion. Observers must find their main idea and determine each speakers relative position on the political spectrum Through listening, determine the MAIN IDEA and its respective political ideology. Critical need to find the main idea, with a practical application of using a common and basic political concept. Familiarity and general understanding of the “Political Spectrum”

Determine debating rules/techniques.


To begin, a brief review of some of the critical concepts emphasized in these lessons.


The Main idea refers to a paragraph or an article's basic point. The "main idea" involves the dominant topic of anything you read complimented with the writer's opinion or feeling on the topic.


TOPIC: Consuming alcohol

WRITER'S OPINION: "a dangerous and destructive threat."

"Consuming alcohol is a very dangerous and destructive threat to society."


Every time that you state your opinion, or simply your MAIN IDEA, you must back it up with PROOF. This is what the literacy test refers to as SUPPORTING DETAILS.

Whenever you write any composition, you must consider some of these questions:

  • How is (what ever I’m writing about) so?
  • Have I provided PROOF that proves my main idea?
  • Does what I say make sense?
  • Can it survive scrutiny?

Please note:

If you require further assistance or clarifications regarding the contents of this lesson, please contact the author at There are many resources available that reinforce these concepts on the internet as well as in private educational resources.

For additional information regarding the OSSLT, please go the administrators of the test's web site at


TASK: Write one well-constructed informational paragraph. Be sure that it includes a topic sentence, supporting details, and a conclusion. You must use at least four details from the list of facts on the following page that focus on one aspect of the topic.
PURPOSE AND AUDIENCE: to provide information to an adult
TOPIC: The House of Commons Mace
LENGTH One page maximum

  • The original mace was destroyed in the great fire of 1916.
  • An ornamental staff
  • Symbol of the authority of the Speaker of the House of Commons
  • Mace weighs 8 kilograms, is 1.5 m long.
  • In the middle ages, it was an officer's weapon with a spiked head, used to break through chain-mail or armor.
  • In the 12th Century, maces were symbols of the King. They were stamped with the Royal Arms and carried by the King's bodyguards, the Sergeant-At-Arms.
  • During long breaks, it is put on display for the public
  • 16th Century, maces evolved from a weapon to an ornately embellished emblem of the Sergeant's office
  • Priceless symbol of Parliament's authority.
  • The Mace became identified with the growing privileges of the House and consequently its Speaker.
  • After the fire of 1916, the Senate lent the House of Commons its Mace, as well as the Ontario Legislature. A temporary one was finally made out of wood.
  • House of Commons Mace is a reproduction or the original, created for legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada.
  • The Mace is silver covered with heavy gilt.
  • A gift from the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of London, England in May 1917
  • Wooden mace is still on display in Parliament Hill
  • The Mace is crucial to the functioning of the house.
  • The guardian of the Mace is still the Sergeant-At-Arms
  • Always carried on the right shoulder.
  • The crown on Mace must point to the government side.
  • 15th Century, Royal Sergeant-At-Arms were assigned to the Commons.
  • Mace is kept in the Speaker's chambers.

PLAN YOUR RESPONSE -Planning is a critical step towards successfully completing the OSSLT! Use the space provided for rough work.

Do I have the minimum requirements to pass? Check for:
    A clear topic sentence? (Do I have a point? Is there something that I'm trying to prove?)
    Do I have 4 supporting details? (Any supporting details included in the topic sentence do not count towards this - Are they relevant? In an effective order?)
    Is there a concluding remark or sentence? (Is the main idea restated? Is there some type of culminating point?)

BONUS: Did you use any transition of linking words to make your paragraph SMOOTH?

{Provide students with one generously spaced lined page to compose their answer. Again, making a rough draft is critical to ensuring success.}


The summary is another attempt at having students find the MAIN IDEA of a written piece they have read and which they must find two relevant supporting details.

This task is easily made very topical to what you are doing in class. Great sources for material to have students summarize include political columnists, editorials, and promotional material such as pamphlets or even brief government documents.

Remember that the “CanCopy” license for schools does permit you to use most published articles in the classroom. This gives you a huge selection of current and relevant material to use in your class. (For details regarding your “CanCopy” license, please visit )

Material can be found at or in:

  1. Local newspapers
  2. Government publications (Call your MP, the Library of Parliament or go to
  3. Magazines
  4. Textbooks
  5. See the EQAO website for further “actual” sample questions
Do I have the minimum requirements to pass? Check for:

The main idea (Did I state the writer's point? Did I capture the reason why the author wrote what he wanted to communicate?)
Do I have 2 supporting details? (Do they prove the author's point? Are they the most important or relevant?)
Is it less than 100 words?


In this writing task, the student must compose a written piece that is a minimum of three paragraphs in length and is centered around one main idea or thesis. Although not formally called an essay, that is essentially what it is. The student must clearly respond to a statement or question given to him by first clearly stating an opinion and then providing enough substance to his or her view. Providing adequate and effective supporting details is very important here.


This question is not as easy as it seems --many students have difficulty, not with stating their opinion, but rather backing it up with some relevant points. Consequently, it is imperative that the students practice writing OPINION pieces. To make this effective though, there must be some type of FEEDBACK for the student.

FEEDBACK can take many different forms, but it must be done if there is to be any hope of progress. Students must realize where they need to make improvements. Carefully tailored rubrics to simple checklists completed by their peers will suffice.

A sample checklist could be as follows… It does not have to be complicated or overly thorough to be valuable.

An opinion is STATED that relates to the assigned topic?      
There are a minimum of three paragraphs.      
Each paragraph is relevant to the main idea and provides good supporting details.      
Grammar, tone, spelling, punctuation do not get in the way of the meaning of the text.      

Questions to consider include: (Note: These are ACTIVE statements, --rather than passive, in the hope that they might cause a stronger ‘reaction'.

  1. The Queen must remain our head of state.
  2. Cameras should not be allowed in the House of Commons
  3. Governments should censor the internet.
  4. Mandatory retirement is simply wrong.
  5. Governments must tax people who are over weight.
  6. Driving licenses should be issued at 18.
  7. The Canadian dollar should be retired and replaced by the U.S. $.
  8. Competitive amateur athletes should get no support from tax dollars

These are all suggestions, but be sure to consider local issues and international concern when listing possible choices.


This task continues to build upon the same basic principles behind this practice pack: Finding the MAIN IDEA and SUPPORTING DETAILS. In other words, “What's your point?” “How are you going to prove it?”

In this task, the process will be principally ORAL, rather than written, which can be a nice change of pace for the students. Trying to use graphic organizers or simply encouraging the students to make notes is recommended and would certainly be beneficial to their skill development

Even better would be to integrate this in an actual model parliament. Take a moment to inspect the many other learning strategies available at this site for ideas on how to accomplish this.

The following outlines a suggested procedure for an “adversarial” style debate:

  1. Pair the students up, either randomly, or by ability.
  2. Have them select, (or assign them) a controversial topic similar to those listed for the opinion piece.
  3. Students must be assigned a ‘for' or ‘against' (i.e. Government/Opposition) stance on their topic.
  4. Students should be encouraged to collaborate on general research, but must write their own speech keeping in mind that they are adversaries. (To see an official ‘debating' society for some advice, go to
  5. As the teacher, some formative assessment can be done by actually having students hand in an outline to their argument, specifically identifying their “Main Idea” and some of their supporting details. Remember the main idea is not just a statement of the topic, but a combination of the topic with an opinion on it. Without it, you simply have a regurgitation of the facts on a topic. You may want to point out the connection of the “Main Idea” to that of a thesis in an essay to better illustrate the point.
  6. Once a decision is made regarding the manner of the delivery, students must articulate their speeches to their classmates.
  7. As each student speaks, you should have the other students observe the presenters, directing their close attention to the content of their material. This could be used as a method of peer evaluation on the speaker, but also a formative assessment by you on the listener's ability to find the “Main Idea” and “Supporting Details” that should be present in each speech.

•  To accomplish this task, you may use a chart similar to this one:

  Clear --- Not Clear Relevant? YES / NO Relevant? YES / NO  

  • If appropriate to your course's content, have the students identify the speaker's position on the ‘political spectrum' to reinforce how opinions can be (and are) grouped together to express people's ideologies.
  • Comments and peer evaluation of the actual delivery of the speech should be part of the process, but should be less of a priority relative to the actual content.
  • Starting the chart with some simple straightforward questions may help direct the students to the essence of what they have to find. There will be students who will certainly make mistakes in trying to state their “Main Idea”, some will not even state any –it is very important that the students detect this on their own.

This concludes the suggested activities for this “OSSLT CIVICS PRACTICE PACK” I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to visit my regular web page at <<>> to see if I have any additional activities or materials.

If you have questions or comments, I invite you to correspond with me via email at . Many thanks to the Teacher's Institute and to the Library of Parliament for taking the time to make this collaboration of ideas possible.

Top of Page

* The ideas and opinions expressed in the Learning Strategies belong to their authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Library of Parliament. The Library of Parliament does not edit the Learning Strategies for content accuracy or currency of information.