Whether you’re reading a single paragraph or a longer passage from a text, it’s important to know how to find the main idea. Simply put, the main idea is what the passage is about. It answers a specific question: who or what is being discussed? There are a few simple strategies anyone can use to find the main idea of most topics.
In a world where you can (mostly) write whatever you want and publish it, it’s important to note that all writing has a purpose. This is where the main idea comes in. What central idea are you trying to convey? It depends partly on the type of writing you are doing.
Novels, essays, short stories, poems, and news articles all have a main idea. For the purposes of reading comprehension, it’s important to be able to identify the main idea.
The main idea and theme are two terms that are often interchanged, but there is definitely a difference between the two. The theme takes on a slightly more emotional tone. The theme is the underlying message that the writer would like to get across. Typically, the theme is some sort of statement about life or how the world works.
Here’s an example of a theme:
“Bravery will take you farther in life than complacency or cowardice.”
Contrast with this example of the main idea:
“Brian enlists in the U.S. Army to put his fortitude to the test and serve his great nation.”
In the examples above, the theme highlights personal attributes and attempts to provide a teachable moment. The main idea, however, is simply a statement of who or what is going to be discussed.
There’s one other concept that often gets confused with the main idea. Topic sentences are similar to thesis statements. A thesis statement will indicate what an entire essay is about. A topic sentence, however, is an indicator of what a specific paragraph is about.
What if a main idea isn’t clearly stated? How can you figure out what the main idea of the text is? Try out one or more of these simple main idea strategies to see if you can figure it out.
If you were writing an essay for school, the main idea would clearly be written in your thesis statement. There’s no guessing the writer’s intention with a thesis statement. It’s clearly outlined and subsequent paragraphs reinforce your thesis. The thesis statement is often found at the end of the introductory paragraph.
If you were writing a news article, the main idea would be expressed in your lead. The lead is the opening sentence or two of an article, meant to lure readers in and entice them to want to know more. Of course, news articles should be fact-driven, but that doesn’t preclude them from a central idea.
Especially if you’re reading an essay or a shorter piece of fiction, it’s safe to say the author will indicate the main idea in either the first few lines of text or the last few lines. As part of a conclusion, many writers will reiterate what, exactly, their focus was and what they hope you got out of their text.
In any type of text, you can look for a repetition of ideas. Is there some central concept the author keeps going back to? You can even use a highlighter to mark repeated ideas so you can measure their frequency later.
Fictional works are also built around main ideas. Poems and novels are always about someone or something. A fictional drama piece, for example, is going to be centered around a main character carrying out a series of events. An example might be, “Maggie has moved to Scotland and must learn to coexist in a forest filled with fairies and trolls.”
Usually, if a writer is citing a specific story or statistic, it’s meant to enhance their overarching point, or main idea. If the first or last few lines aren’t giving you any indication, revisit little snippets or stories shared throughout the text, as well as any facts or statistics.
Can you answer the question, “Who or what is this about?” in one, concise line? If so, you’ve probably found the main idea. Being able to summarize the text in your own words helps you arrive at the main idea.
Examples of main ideas can help you better understand the concept.
Read this sample introductory paragraph from a persuasive piece of writing to see if you can find the main idea.
Did you know the American population, ages 15 and older, averages three hours per day of television time? That’s three hours watching people act silly in a sitcom or three hours watching the fictional fates of teenage characters unfold on the screen. But, have you ever considered what can be accomplished when the TV is switched off and real-life is switched on? In this essay, we’ll explore a wealth of meaningful, productive activities that can be achieved in a world that doesn’t lose over 20 hours per week staring at a screen.
Who or what is being discussed? The main idea here is the many things that can be accomplished when the TV is switched off. You can find the main idea in the last sentence.
Read this short fiction story and see if you can guess the main idea.
Poppy is my puppy, and she’s afraid of everything. Last month, she hid under the couch for a week after she saw me in my snowsuit. Last week, she wouldn’t go outside for a walk because there was a spider in the doorway. Yesterday, Poppy ran away from her toy ball because it was covered in dust. Today, Poppy is afraid to drink because the water in her water bowl made a splashing noise.
What is this story about? The main idea here is all the things Poppy is afraid of.
Main idea activities and worksheets can help you practice identifying main ideas. The next time you visit your local library or bookstore, read the backs of a few books. Can you tell what the main idea of the book might be?