How to Find the Main Idea

How to Find the Main Idea in a Reading Passage

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It's time to put your thinking caps on! We have all seen the main idea questions on our reading comprehension tests, but sometimes, those questions are pretty difficult to answer, especially if you are not completely sure you understand what the main idea really is. But finding the main idea of a paragraph or longer passage of text, along with making an inference, finding the author's purpose, or understanding vocab words in context, is one of the reading skills you will need to master at some point.

Why not do it now, before before taking the reading comprehension section on your next standardized test? Read on to get the details. 

What is the main idea?

The main idea of a paragraph is the point of the passage, minus all the details. It's the big picture - the Solar System vs. the planets. The football game vs. the fans, cheerleaders, quarterback, and uniforms. The Oscars vs. actors, the red carpet, designer gowns, and films.

The main idea is  what you tell someone when they ask what you did last weekend. You might say something like, "I went to the mall," instead of saying, "I got in my car and drove to the mall. After I found a parking space near the main entrance, I went inside and got a coffee at Starbucks. Then, I went into several shoe stores looking for a new pair of kicks to wear next weekend when we go to the beach. I found them at Aldo's, but then I tried on shorts for the next hour because I realized mine were all too small."

It's the brief, but all-encompassing summary. It covers everything the paragraph talks about, but nothing in particular. 

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.

Avoid 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.

Finding the Main Idea Practice