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.
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
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.
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
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
point(s) the writer is attempting to express. Identifying the
relationship between these will increase your comprehension.
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:
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.
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
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
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
proctor. Failure to abide by these rules will result in a failing
grade for this test.
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.
• 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?
2. What aspect or ideaaboutthe ‘who’or ‘what’isthe author concernedwith?
Main IdeaPractice Paragraphs1-6
Readand thinkaboutthe followingsample paragraphs,inwhichthe mainidea
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
READING – Main Ideas
Costs were lowthatyearand the outputhigh.There was a goodpersonfor eachjob
and the marketremainedfirm.There were nolossesfromfire.All inall itwasthe bestyears
inthe historyof the company.
(Note thatthe firstthree sentencesgive detailstoexplainwhyitwasthe bestyearinthe company’s
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
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 –
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,
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
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
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
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
a. Under certainconditionsthe coyote ishelpful toman.
b. The coyote isfearedbecause of hisfondnessforsmall animals
c. Modern rancherswouldnosoonershootcoyotesthantheywouldshootdogs.
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
a. Overseastelephoneservice todayisrulingoutall needforoverseastravel.
b. Nothingcantake the place of person-to-personconversationinsettling business,
c. Many conversationswhichonce requiredoverseastravel cannow be conductedby
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.
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
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.
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
How to Find a Stated Main Idea
How to Find an Implied Main Idea
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.