How to Find the Main Idea

How to Find the Main Idea in a Reading Passage

Student highlighting the main idea in a book.
Student highlighting the main idea. Hero Images/Getty Images

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 vocabulary words in context, is one of the reading skills important to master.

Doing so will help you succeed on the reading comprehension section of your next standardized test. Understanding what the main idea is and following a few simple steps will help you learn to identify it.  

What is the Main Idea?

The main idea of a paragraph is the point of the passage, minus all the details. It is the main point or concept that the author wants to communicate to the readers about the topic. Hence, in a paragraph, when the main idea is stated directly, it is expressed in what is called the topic sentence. It gives the overarching idea of what the paragraph is about and is supported by the details in the paragraph. In a multi-paragraph article, the main idea is expressed in the thesis statement.

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."

The main idea is the brief, but all-encompassing summary. It covers everything the paragraph talks about in a general way, but does not include the specifics.

When an author does not state the main idea directly, it should still be implied, and is called an implied main idea. This requires that the reader look closely at the content - at specific words, sentences, images that are used and repeated - to deduce what the author is communicating. This may take a little more effort on the part of the reader.

Finding the main idea is critical to understanding what you are reading. It helps the details make sense and have relevance, and provides a framework for remembering the content.

How to Find the Main Idea

Identify the Topic

Read the passage through completely, then try to identify the topic. Who or what is the paragraph about?

Summarize the Passage

After reading the passage through thoroughly, summarize it in your own words in one sentence that includes the gist of every idea from the paragraph. A good way to do this is to pretend you have just ten words to tell someone what the passage is about. 

Look at the First and Last Sentences of the Passage

Authors often put the main idea in or near either the first or last sentence of the paragraph or article.

Determine whether either of these sentences capture the main idea. Sometimes, however, the author will use what is called a reversal transition in the second sentence - words like but, however in contrast, nevertheless, etc. - that indicate that the second sentence is the main idea. If you see one of these words that negate or qualify the first sentence, that is a clue that the second sentence is the main idea.

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 is 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

Choosing a main idea from a set of answer choices is different than composing a main idea on your own. Writers of multiple choice tests are often tricky and will give you distractor questions that sound much like the real answer. By reading the passage through thoroughly, using your skills, and identifying the main idea on your own, though, you can avoid making these 3 common mistakes - 1) selecting an answer that is too narrow in scope; 2) selecting an answer that is too broad; 3) or selecting an answer that is complex but contrary to the main idea. 

Summary

Finding the main idea can be challenging, but if you use the tools above and practice, you will be well on your way to the score you want on the verbal or reading sections of standardized tests.

Resources and Further Reading

Updated by Lisa Marder 9/30/17