Reading Main Idea for Praxis I: Pre-Professional Skills Test Study Guide
When standardized reading tests ask you to find the main idea of a passage, they are asking you to determine an overall feeling or thought that a writer wants to convey about her subject. To find the main idea, think about a general statement that brings together all of the ideas in a paragraph or passage. Look out for statements that are too specific—a main idea must be broad enough to contain all of the concepts presented in a passage. Test takers often confuse the main idea of a passage with its main topic. The topic is the subject—what the passage is about. The main idea is what the author wants to express about the subject.
Main Topic versus Main Idea
Topic/subject: what the passage is about
Main idea: what the author wants to say about a subject
Textbook writing and the passages on the PPST Reading test often follow a basic pattern of general idea→specific idea. In other words, a writer states her main idea (makes a general claim about her subject) and then provides evidence for it through specific details and facts. Do you always find main ideas in the first sentence of the passage? The answer is no; although a first sentence may contain the main idea, an author may decide to build up to her main point. In that case, you may find the main idea in the last sentence of an introductory paragraph, or even in the last paragraph of the passage.
Read the following paragraph and answer the practice question that follows.
Experts say that if you feel drowsy during the day, even during boring activities, you haven't had enough sleep. If you routinely fall asleep within five minutes of lying down, you probably have severe sleep deprivation, possibly even a sleep disorder. Microsleep, or very a brief episode of sleep in an otherwise awake person, is another mark of sleep deprivation. In many cases, people are not aware that they are experiencing microsleeps. The widespread practice of "burning the candle at both ends" in western industrialized societies has created so much sleep deprivation that what is really abnormal sleepiness is now almost the norm.
Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, www.ninds.nih.gov
What is the main point of this passage?
- If you fall asleep within five minutes every time you lie down, you are sleep deprived.
- If you experience enough microsleeps, you can attain the sleep you need to function.
- Sleep deprivation is a pervasive problem in the United States and other western nations.
- If trends in sleep deprivation continue, our society will experience grave consequences.
- Sleep deprivation is responsible for approximately 100,000 car accidents each year.
Choice a is a true statement, but too specific to be a main idea. Choice b is a false statement. Choice d is a speculative statement that is not implied in the passage, and choice e is a detail or fact that is not supported by the information in the paragraph. Only choice c represents a general or umbrella statement that covers all of the information in the paragraph. Notice that in the sample passage, the author does not present the main idea in the first sentence, but rather builds up to the main point, which is expressed in the last sentence of the paragraph.
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