Finding the Main Idea

The main idea of a paragraph is the author's message about the topic. It is often expressed directly or it can be implied.

Where are the main ideas found?

It is easy to identify a main idea that is directly expressed in the text.
  • Main ideas are often found at the beginning of paragraphs. The first sentence often explains the subject being discussed in the passage.
  • Main ideas are also found in the concluding sentences of a paragraph. The main idea can be expressed as a summation of the information in the paragraph as well as a link to the information in the next paragraph.
The main idea is not always clearly stated. It is more difficult to identify a main idea when it is inferred or implied. It can be implied through other words in the paragraph. An implied main idea can be found in several ways.
  • Several sentences in a paragraph can imply the main idea by introducing facts about the topic before actually stating the topic.
  • Implied ideas can be drawn from facts, reasons, or examples that give hints or suggestions concerning the main idea. These hints will be clues leading you to discover the main idea in the selected text.
  • Try the passage below to see if you can pick out the main idea.

    "To many parents, the infant's crying may be mainly an irritation, especially if it continues for long periods. But crying serves important functions for the child as well as for the parents. For the child, crying helps improve lung capacity and the respiratory system. Perhaps more important, the cry serves as a signal of distress. When babies cry, they indicate that they are hungry or in pain, and this is important information for parents."
Use the hints below to determine the correct main idea of this paragraph.

After reading a paragraph ask, "What point is the author making in this passage?"

Ask the following questions:

  • Who - Does this passage discuss a person or group of people?
  • When - Does the information contain a reference to time?
  • Where - Does the text name a place?
  • Why - Do you find a reason or explanation for something that happened?
  • How - Does this information indicate a method or a theory?

How can I determine if I have selected the correct main idea of a paragraph?

If you are able to summarize the information in the passage in your own words,you have absorbed the correct main idea. To accomplish this goal, try the steps listed below after reading a short section of your textbook.

  • Write a short summary in your own words about what you have read.
  • Does your summary agree with this general topic?
  • Does your summary contain the same ideas being expressed by the author?
  • Could you write a headline (or textbook subheading) that would express your summary in less than five words?

If you are able to rephrase your choice of a topic sentence into a question and then determine if the passage answers your question, you have been successful at selecting a main idea.