Finding the main idea


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Finding the main idea

  1. 1. Finding the Main Idea How Can I Locate the Main Idea? Once you can find the topic, you are ready to find the main idea. The main idea is the point of the paragraph. It is the most important thought about the topic. To figure out the main idea, ask yourself this question: What is being said about the person, thing, or idea (the topic)? The author can locate the main idea in different places within a paragraph. The main idea is usually a sentence, and it is usually the first sentence. The writer then uses the rest of the paragraph to support the main idea. Let's use the paragraph below as an example. First find the topic, then look for the main idea. Summer is a wonderful time to spend at West Beach. It is a beach with light- colored, soft sand. The coastline goes on for a long way and many people enjoy walking along it. Children like to play in the surf and walk along the rocks that are visible at low tide. This is a fun beach for people of all ages. In this paragraph:  THE TOPIC IS WEST BEACH  THE MAIN IDEA (WHAT THE WRITER IS SAYING ABOUT THE TOPIC) IS THAT SUMMER IS A WONDERFUL TIME AT WEST BEACH Here is another example: The movie Apollo 13 was a blockbuster for the summer of 1995. It is an exciting story about space exploration. In the movie, the astronauts get in trouble while they are trying to return to Earth. People in the audience are on the edge of their seats waiting to see what happens. What makes it even more exciting is that it is a true story.
  2. 2. In this paragraph:  THE TOPIC IS THE MOVIE APOLLO 13  THE MAIN IDEA IS IN THE FIRST SENTENCE: APOLLO 13 WAS A BLOCKBUSTER FOR THE SUMMER OF 1995 While the main idea is usually in the first sentence, the next most common placement is in the last sentence of a paragraph. The author gives supporting information first and then makes the point in the last sentence. Here's a paragraph we can use as an example. Try to locate the topic and the main idea. Most teenagers and young adults do not know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. It is a big decision. There are a number of things you can do to narrow the choices. For example you can take an interest test, do some research on your own about a career, try volunteer work in the field in which you are interested, or "job-shadow", in which you spend a day with a person who is working in a field that interests you. These are just a few helpful ideas as you begin to choose a career. In this paragraph:  THE TOPIC IS JOBS OR CAREER CHOICES  THE MAIN IDEA IS A FEW IDEAS TO HELP THE READER CHOOSE A CAREER Finally, an author might put the main idea in the middle of a paragraph. The author will spend a few sentences introducing the topic, present the main idea, then spend the rest of the paragraph supporting it. This can make the main idea more difficult to find. See if you can find the topic and main idea in the paragraph below.
  3. 3. The United States seems to be in love with the idea of going out to eat. Because of this, a real variety of restaurants has come about specializing in all kinds of foods. McDonald's is the king of a subgroup of restaurants called fast-food restaurants. Chances are, no matter where you live, there is a McDonald's restaurant near you. There are even McDonald's in the Soviet Union. Now McDonald's is trying something new. It is called McDonald's Express and there is a test site in Peabody, Massachusetts. It is part of a Mobil gas station. This allows you to fill up with gas and fill up on food at the same time. What will they think of next? In this paragraph:  THE TOPIC IS MCDONALD'S  THE MAIN IDEA IS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PARAGRAPH, IN THE THIRD SENTENCE: MCDONALD'S IS THE KING OF FAST FOOD Identifying Topics, Main Ideas, and Supporting Details Understanding the topic, the gist, or the larger conceptual framework of a textbook chapter, an article, a paragraph, a sentence or a passage is a sophisticated reading task. Being able to draw conclusions, evaluate, and critically interpret articles or chapters is important for overall comprehension in college reading. Textbook chapters, articles, paragraphs, sentences, or passages all have topics and main ideas. The topic is the broad, general theme or message. It is what some call the subject. The main idea is the "key concept" being expressed. Details, major and minor, support the main idea by telling how, what, when, where, why, how much, or how many. Locating the topic, main idea, and supporting details helps you understand the
  4. 4. point(s) the writer is attempting to express. Identifying the relationship between these will increase your comprehension. Applying Strategy The successful communication of any author's topic is only as good as the organization the author uses to build and define his/her subject matter. Grasping the Main Idea: A paragraph is a group of sentences related to a particular topic, or central theme. Every paragraph has a key concept or main idea. The main idea is the most important piece of information the author wants you to know about the concept of that paragraph. When authors write they have an idea in mind that they are trying to get across. This is especially true as authors compose paragraphs. An author organizes each paragraph's main idea and supporting details in support of the topic or central theme, and each paragraph supports the paragraph preceding it. A writer will state his/her main idea explicitly somewhere in the paragraph. That main idea may be stated at the beginning of the paragraph, in the middle, or at the end. The sentence in which the main idea is stated is the topic sentence of that paragraph. The topic sentence announces the general theme ( or portion of the theme) to be dealt with in the paragraph. Although the topic sentence may appear anywhere in the paragraph, it is usually first - and for a very good reason. This sentence provides the focus for the writer while writing and for the reader while reading. When you find the topic sentence, be sure to underline it so that it will stand out not only now, but also later when you review. Identifying the Topic:
  5. 5. The first thing you must be able to do to get at the main idea of a paragraph is to identify the topic - the subject of the paragraph. Think of the paragraph as a wheel with the topic being the hub - the central core around which the whole wheel (or paragraph) spins. Your strategy for topic identification is simply to ask yourself the question, "What is this about?" Keep asking yourself that question as you read a paragraph, until the answer to your question becomes clear. Sometimes you can spot the topic by looking for a word or two that repeat. Usually you can state the topic in a few words. Let us try this topic-finding strategy. Reread the first paragraph on this page - the first paragraph under the heading Grasping the Main Idea. Ask yourself the question, "What is this paragraph about?" To answer, say to yourself in your mind, "The author keeps talking about paragraphs and the way they are designed. This must be the topic - paragraph organization." Reread the second paragraph of the same section. Ask yourself "What is this paragraph about?" Did you say to yourself, "This paragraph is about different ways to organize a paragraph"? That is the topic. Next, reread the third paragraph and see if you can find the topic of the paragraph. How? Write the topic in the margin next to this paragraph. Remember, getting the main idea of a paragraph is crucial to reading. The bulk of an expository paragraph is made up of supporting sentences (major and minor details), which help to explain or prove the main idea. These sentences present facts, reasons, examples, definitions, comparison, contrasts, and other pertinent details. They are most important because they sell the main idea. The last sentence of a paragraph is likely to be a concluding sentence. It is used to sum up a discussion, to emphasize a point, or to restate all or part of the topic sentence so as to bring the paragraph to a close. The last sentence may also be a transitional sentence leading to the next paragraph.
  6. 6. Of course, the paragraphs you'll be reading will be part of some longer piece of writing - a textbook chapter, a section of a chapter, or a newspaper or magazine article. Besides expository paragraphs, in which new information is presented and discussed, these longer writings contain three types of paragraphs: introductory, transitional, andsummarizing. Introductory paragraphs tell you, in advance, such things as (1) the main ideas of the chapter or section; (2) the extent or limits of the coverage; (3) how the topic is developed; and (4) the writer's attitude toward the topic. Transitional paragraphs are usually short; their sole function is to tie together what you have read so far and what is to come - to set the stage for succeeding ideas of the chapter or section. Summarizingparagraphs are used to restate briefly the main ideas of the chapter or section. The writer may also draw some conclusion from these ideas, or speculate on some conclusion based on the evidence he/she has presented. All three types should alert you: the introductory paragraph of things to come; the transitional paragraph of a new topic; and the summarizing paragraph of main ideas that you should have gotten. Exercise: Read the following paragraph and underline the stated main idea. Write down in your own words what you are able to conclude from the information. The rules of conduct during an examination are clear. No books, calculators or papers are allowed in the test room. Proctors will not allow anyone with such items to take the test. Anyone caught cheating will be asked to leave the room. His or her test sheet will be taken. The incident will be reported to the proper authority. At the end of the test period, all materials will be returned to the
  7. 7. proctor. Failure to abide by these rules will result in a failing grade for this test. Answer: You should have underlined the first sentence in the paragraph - this is the stated main idea. What can be concluded from the information is: If you do not follow the rules, you will automatically fail the test. This concluding information is found in the last sentence. You can't comprehend the subject matter if you haven't identifyied the topic, the main idea, and the supporting details. MAIN IDEAS • The mainideaisthe central,ormost important,ideaina paragraphor passage.It statesthe purpose andsetsthe directionof the paragraphor passage. • The mainideamay be statedor it maybe implied. • Whenthe mainideaof a paragraphis stated,itismost oftenfoundinthe first sentence of the paragraph.However,the mainideamaybe foundinanysentence of the paragraph. • The mainideamay be statedinthe firstsentence of aparagraph andthenbe repeatedorrestatedatthe endof the paragraph. • The mainideamay be split.The firstsentence of aparagraph maypresenta point of view,while the lastsentence presentsacontrastingoropposite view. • To findthe mainideaof any paragraphor passage,askthese questions: 1. Who or what isthe paragraphabout?
  8. 8. 2. What aspect or ideaaboutthe ‘who’or ‘what’isthe author concernedwith? Main IdeaPractice Paragraphs1-6 Readand thinkaboutthe followingsample paragraphs,inwhichthe mainidea sentencesare underlined. ¾ Paragraph One It is oftensaidthatlightningneverstrikestwice inthe same place,butthisisn’ttrue. Go ask the forestrangers.Rangerswhospendtheirsummersasfire-fighterswilltell youthat everythundershowerbringsseveral boltsof lightningtotheirlookoutstations. (Notice thatthe firstsentence tellswhatthe paragraphisabout;the sentencesthatfollowsupportthe ideastatedinthe firstsentence.) READING – Main Ideas Rev.August.2005 Paragraph Two Costs were lowthatyearand the outputhigh.There was a goodpersonfor eachjob
  9. 9. and the marketremainedfirm.There were nolossesfromfire.All inall itwasthe bestyears inthe historyof the company. (Note thatthe firstthree sentencesgive detailstoexplainwhyitwasthe bestyearinthe company’s history.) Paragraph Three There are great numbersof deeraroundhere.Thiswhole areaisgreatcountryfor huntersandfishermen.There are bears,mountainlions,andcoyotes.Tothe eastthere are streamsfull of trout,and there are ducks andgeese. (The authorbeginsandendswithexamples.The mainideaisstatedinthe secondsentence.) ¾ Paragraph Four Advertisingaffectsourlives everyday.Brandnamesare commonhouseholdwords.We start each dayusingthe toothpaste,soap,andbreakfastfoodspromotedbyadvertisers.Ads have made the cars we drive signsof oursuccess.Our choicesof food,dress,and entertainmentare swayed byads.Notone aspectof Americanlife isuntouchedbyadvertising. (The mainideaisstatedat the beginningof the paragraphand thenrestatedatthe end.) ¾ Paragraph Five Penicillinisone of the greatestof the wonderdrugs.Ithas savedthousandsof lives
  10. 10. alreadyandwill save manymore inthe future.Unfortunatelyithasnoeffectatall onmost of the illsof mankind.Penicillinisaverygooddrug,but itis certainlynota cure-all. (The authorhas splitthe mainidea.Thisparagraphbeginswithpositivecommentsonpenicillin. The word but signalsashiftinthought,andthe paragraphendswitha statementof itslimitations.) ¾ Paragraph Six Do you wearglasses?Make sure your glassesfitwell.The earpiecesshouldbe ateye level.Don’ttrytoadjustthe earpiecesyourself.Take yourglassesforadjustmentstothe place youboughtthem.Keepyourglassesina case whenyou’re notwearingthem.Thiswill preventscratches.Keepthe lensesclean.A softclothisbestforcleaning. (The mainideaisimplied.Allof the sentencesinthe paragraphgive detailsaboutamainidea.In thisparagraph the impliedmainideaisthattakingcare of your glassesinvolvesmanysteps.) READING – Main Ideas Rev.August.2005 MAIN IDEAS EXERCISES:Each paragraphis followedbyfourstatements.Selectthe statementthat bestexpressesthe mainidea.Circle the letterof thatstatement. 1. People oftenrefertotaxesintermsof theirbeingmuchtoohigh.Inreality,theyare probablyevenhigherthanyouthink,because inadditiontothe federal incometax we are nowstudying,there are manyotherFederal,State,andlocal taxes,includingsalestaxes,
  11. 11. inheritance taxes,state income taxes,personalpropertytaxes,real estate taxes,andothers. These are justsome of the mostobviousones. a. Taxesare muchtoo high. b. We pay more taxesthan we mayrealize. c. Inheritance taxesandreal estate taxesare unfair. d. Some taxesare hidden. 2. The fact that electroniccomputersare now usedfordataprocessinghasledthe general publictobelieve thatitisa mysterious,complicatedscience andthatthe computersare giantbrains.Both of these ideasare false.A computerisbasicallyjustahigh-speedadding machine thatperformsthe functionsitistoldto.If the inputdata are variedevenalittle, the computerisunable to operate until itisprogrammedtoacceptthe variations.The businessoperationsitperformsare impressive onlybecause of the extremelyhighspeedof manipulation,butmostof these operationshave beenusedfordecades.Unlike man,the computerperformsrepetitivecalculationswithoutgettingtiredorbored. a. A computerisa high-speedaddingmachine. b. A computerisa mysteriousgiantbrain. c. A computerisimpressivebecause of itshighspeed. d. A computerissuperiortoman inmanyways. 3. The LouisianaPurchase provedtobe one of the shrewdestbusinesspactsinthe entire historyof the UnitedStates.The purchase doubledinthe areaof the countryand provided territoryfromwhichfourteennewstateswere createdeitherwhollyorinpart. Italso gave us control overthe mouthof the Mississippi Riverandopenedupthe waytoforeigntrade. Priorto the purchase,the waterwayhadbeenblockedbythe Spanish,probablywiththe
  12. 12. approval of Napoleon.The landthatwasboughtwas rich intimber,minerals,andnatural resourcesof manykinds.Finally,the costof the transactionwasunbelievablylow;the total of $15 millionamountedtoaboutfourcentsan acre. a. The LouisianaPurchase wasaverygood businessdeal forthe U.S. b. The landboughtby the LouisianaPurchase wasrichin minerals. c. The landboughtby the LouisianaPurchase wasverycheap. d. Most Americanswere verypleasedwiththe purchase. READING – Main Ideas Rev.August.2005 MAIN IDEAS(Continued) 4. There is a commonbelief thatwhile the dogisman’sbestfriend,the coyote ishisworst enemy.The badreputationof the coyote tracesback to hisfondnessforsmall animals;he huntsat nightand isparticularlydestructive tosheep,youngpigs,andpoultry.Yetitis sometimeswise toencourage coyotes.Providedvaluable farmanimalsare protected,the coyote will oftenfree the propertyof otheranimals,likerabbits,whichare ruinousto crops and certaintrees.He isespeciallybeneficial inkeepingdownthe rodentpopulation. Where coyoteshave beenallowedtodotheirworkwithoutmolestation,ranchersandfruit growershave foundthemsovaluable thattheywouldnomore shootthemthantheywould shoottheirdogs. a. Under certainconditionsthe coyote ishelpful toman. b. The coyote isfearedbecause of hisfondnessforsmall animals c. Modern rancherswouldnosoonershootcoyotesthantheywouldshootdogs.
  13. 13. d. The coyote usuallyprefersrabbitsandotherrodentstosheepandpoultry. 5. In earlierdaysthose whohadoverseasbusinesswhichtheybelievedshouldbe discussedpersonally,tookshipandsetoutacross the brinydeep.Once aboardthey transactedtheiraffairs,engagingincommercial andsocial mattersorconducting governmentbusiness.Todayshipsandpassengerscontinue tosail the sevenseas,and airplanessoaroverhead.Butabove themall,wordsspeedthroughthe sky –telephone conversationsquicklybringtogetherinthe mostpersonal fashionpeoplewhoare separatedbythousandsof miles. a. Overseastelephoneservice todayisrulingoutall needforoverseastravel. b. Nothingcantake the place of person-to-personconversationinsettling business, social,andgovernmentproblems. c. Many conversationswhichonce requiredoverseastravel cannow be conductedby telephone. d. Evenwithmodernoverseastelephone service people continue totravel abroadby shipor by plane. 6. The attitudesof Americanstowardgamblingare amazinglycontradictory.Youmay find,forexample,thathorse racingislegal inyourstate,butthat you cannotlegallyplay pokerfor moneyonyourfrontporch; bookiesmaybe prosecutedbystate law, butthey are supposedtopurchase a federal license nonetheless;one churchcondemnsgambling, while anotherraisesmoneybysponsoringBingogames.Gamblinglawsare inconsistent fromstate to state or evenfromtownto townand are verydifficulttoenforce.
  14. 14. a. Americanshave negative attitudestowardgambling. b. Gamblinglawsare difficulttoenforce c. Gamblinglawsare inconsistentfromcommunitytocommunity. d. Churchesdonot have uniformideasaboutgambling. How to Find the Main Idea Summarize the Passage After you've read the passage, summarize it in one sentence that includes the gist of ever idea from the paragraph. A good way to do this is to pretend you have just ten words to tell someone what the passage was about. You'd have to think broadly, so you could included every detail in just a short statement. Look for Repetition of Ideas If you read through a paragraph and you have no idea how to summarize it because there is so much information, start looking for repeated words, phrases, ideas or similar ideas. Read this example paragraph: A new hearing device uses a magnet to hold the detachable sound- processing portion in place. Like other aids, it converts sound into vibrations. But it is unique in that it can transmit the vibrations directly to the magnet and then to the inner ear. This produces a clearer sound. The new device will not help all hearing-impaired people - only those with a hearing loss caused by infection or some other problem in the middle ear. It will probably help no more than 20 percent of all people with hearing problems. Those people who have persistent ear infections, however, should find relief and restored hearing with the new device. What idea does this paragraph consistently repeat? A new hearing device. What's the point about this idea? A new hearing device is now available for some hearing-impaired people. And there is the main idea.
  15. 15. Avoiding Main Idea Mistakes Now, choosing a main idea from a set of answer choices is different than composing a main idea on your own. The writers get tricky and will give you distractor questions that sound a lot like the real answer! So be sure to avoid making these 3 common mistakes when you're selecting a main idea on a multiple-choice test. How to Find a Stated Main Idea How to Find an Implied Main Idea Summary Finding the main idea can be challenging, but if you use the tools above and practice, you'll be well on your way to the score you want on the verbal or reading sections of those standardized tests.