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Help With Finding the Main Idea Study Guide

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Help With Finding the Main Idea Practice Exercises

LESSON SUMMARY

Finding and understanding the main idea of a text is an essential reading skill. When you look past the facts and information and get to the heart of what the writer is trying to say, that's the main idea. This lesson will show you how to find the main idea of a passage. Then you'll learn how to distinguish the main idea from its supporting statements.

Imagine that you are at a friend's home for the evening. "Here," he says, "let's watch this movie."

"Sure," you reply. "What's it about?" You'd like to know a little about what you'll be watching, but your question may not get you the answer you're looking for. That's because you've only asked about the subject of the film. The subject—what the movie is about—is only half the story. Think, for example, about all the alien invaders films that have been made. While these films may share the same general subject, what they have to say about the aliens (and about our response to invasion) may be very different. Each film has different ideas it wants to convey about the subject.

Similarly, writers write because they have something they want to write about, and they have something they want to say about that subject. When you look beyond the facts and information to what the writer really wants to say about his or her subject, you're looking for the main idea.

Just What Is a Main Idea, Anyway?

One of the most common questions on reading comprehension exams is, "What is the main idea of this passage?" How would you answer this question for the paragraph below?

Wilma Rudolph, the crippled child who became an Olympic running champion, is an inspiration for us all. Born prematurely in 1940, Wilma spent her childhood battling illness, including measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox, pneumonia, and polio, a crippling disease which at that time had no cure. At the age of four, she was told she would never walk again. But Wilma and her family refused to give up. After years of special treatment and physical therapy, 12-year-old Wilma was able to walk normally again. But walking wasn't enough for Wilma, who was determined to be an athlete. Before long, her talent earned her a spot in the 1956 Olympics, where she earned a bronze medal. In the 1960 Olympics, the height of her career, she won three gold medals.

What is the main idea of this paragraph? You might be tempted to answer "Wilma Rudolph" or "Wilma Rudolph's life." Yes, Wilma Rudolph's life is the subject of the passage—who or what the passage is about. But that's not the main idea. The main idea is what the writer wants to say about this subject. What is the main thing the writer says about Wilma's life?

Before we answer that question, let's review the definition of main idea:

Main idea: The overall fact, feeling, or thought a writer wants to convey about his or her subject.

We call this the main idea because it is the idea that the passage adds up to; it's what holds all the ideas in the passage together. Now, reread the paragraph about Wilma Rudolph carefully. Which idea holds the paragraph together?

  1. Wilma Rudolph was very sick as a child.
  2. Wilma Rudolph was an Olympic champion.
  3. Wilma Rudolph is someone to admire.

The best answer is choice c: Wilma Rudolph is someone to admire. This is the idea the paragraph adds up to; it's what holds all the information in the paragraph together.

This example also shows us two important characteristics of a main idea:

  1. It is general enough to encompass all the ideas in the passage.
  2. It is an assertion. An assertion is a statement made by the writer.
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