The main idea of a
passage or reading is the central thought or message. In contrast to the
term topic, which refers to the subject under discussion, the term main
idea refers to the point or thought being expressed. The difference
between a topic and a main idea will become clearer to you if you imagine
yourself overhearing a conversation in which your name is repeatedly
mentioned. When you ask your friends what they were discussing, they say
they were talking about you. At that point, you have the topic but not the
main idea. Undoubtedly, you wouldn’t be satisfied until you learned what
your friends were saying about this particular topic. You would probably
pester them until you knew the main idea, until you knew, that is, exactly
what they were saying about your personality, appearance, or behavior. The
same principle applies to reading. The topic is seldom enough. You also
need to discover the main idea.
1. As soon as you can
define the topic, ask yourself “What general point does the author want
to make about this topic?” Once you can answer that question, you have
more than likely found the main idea.
2. Most main ideas are
stated or suggested early on in a reading; pay special attention to the
first third of any passage, article, or chapter. That’s where you are
likely to get the best statement or clearest expression of the main idea.
3. Pay attention to
any idea that is repeated in different ways. If an author returns to the
same thought in several different sentences or paragraphs, that idea is
the main or central thought under discussion.
4. Once you feel sure
you have found the main idea, test it. Ask yourself if the examples,
reasons, statistics, studies, and facts included in the reading lend
themselves as evidence or explanation in support of the main idea you have
in mind. If they do, your comprehension is right on target. If they
don’t, you might want to revise your first notion about the author’s
5. The main idea of a
passage can be expressed any number of ways. For example, you and your
roommate might come up with the same main idea for a reading, but the
language in which that idea is expressed would probably be different.
When, however, you are asked to find the topic sentence, you are being
asked to find the statement that expresses the main idea in the author’s
words. Any number of people can come up with the main idea for a passage,
but only the author of the passage can create the topic sentence.
6. If you are taking a
test that asks you to find the thesis or theme of a reading, don’t let
the terms confuse you, you are still looking for the main idea.
Directions: Read each
passage. Then circle the letter of the statement that effectively sums up
the main idea.
A number of recent
books with titles like Raising Cain, Real Boys, and Lost Boys all
focus on the same issue: Today’s teenaged boys are feeling more
anxiety than ever before about their physical appearance. Bombarded by
advertising featuring well-muscled, semi-clad young men, teenage boys
are experiencing what teenage girls have been coping with for years.
They are afraid that they cannot possibly live up to the media’s
idealized image of their gender. Young boys below the average in
height, weight, or both suffer the most. Often, they are brutally
teased by their brawnier peers. Some react to the ridicule by heading
for the gym and lifting weights. Yet even those who successfully
“bulk up” don’t like feeling that they are considered worthless
if they lose their hard-won muscle tone. Others, convinced that no
amount of body building can help, often withdraw from social contact
with their peers. This is their way of avoiding taunts about their
size or shape. Still, they are understandably angry at being badly
treated because of their body type. Although school psychologists
generally recognize that boys today are having severe body image
problems, they are at a loss about what to do to solve those problems.
a. More than in
previous generations, teenaged boys are getting into body building.
b. Teenaged boys today
are showing more anxiety about their physical appearance than did boys of
In 1997, the U.S.
Consumer Products Safety Commission reported that skateboarding
injuries were up by 33 percent. Mountain climbing injuries were also
up by 20 percent. Similarly, snowboarding injuries showed an increase
of thirty-one percent. By all accounts, many Americans are having a
love affair with risky sports; as a result, they are injuring
themselves in ever greater numbers. One reason for the growing
participation in risky, or extreme, sports has been put forth by Dan
Cady, a professor of popular culture at California State University.
According to Cady, previous generations didn’t need to seek out
risk. It was all around them in the form of disease epidemics,
economic instability, and global wars. At one time, just managing to
stay alive was risky, but that feeling has all but disappeared, at
least for members of the privileged classes. To a degree Cady’s
theory is confirmed in the words of adventure racer Joy Marr. Marr
says that risk has been “minimized” in everyday life, forcing
people to seek out challenges in order to prove themselves. (Source:
Karl Taro Greenfield. “Life on the Edge.” Time. September 6, 1999,
a. According to
Professor Dan Cady if California State, many Americans yearn for the days
when just staying alive was a difficult task.
b. More and more
Americans are taking up high-risk sports; as a result, injuries from these
sports are increasing.
Directions: Read each
passage. Then complete the main idea statement begun on the blanks that
follow the paragraph.
In several states
across the nation, there has been successful drive to end “social
promotion.” In other words, children who do not achieve the required
score on a standardized test will no longer be promoted to the next
grade. Instead, they will have to repeat the grade they have finished.
Yet despite the calls for ending social promotion--many of them from
politicians looking for a crowd-pleasing issue--there is little
evidence that making children repeat a grade has a positive effect. If
anything, research suggests that forcing children to repeat a grade
hurts rather than helps their academic performance. In 1989,
University of Georgia Professor Thomas Holms surveyed sixty-three
studies that compared the performance of kids who had repeated a grade
with those who had received a social promotion. Holms found that most
of the children who had repeated a grade had a poorer record of
academic performance than the children who had been promoted despite
poor test scores. A similar study of New York City children in the
1980s revealed that the children who repeated a grade were more likely
to drop out upon reaching high school. The call to end social
promotion may have a nice ring to it in political speeches. Yet there
is little indication that it does students any real good.
Main Idea: Across the
country, many states have abolished the policy of “social promotion”
During World War
I, a number of severe shortages alerted the world’s scientists to
the need for synthetic, or man-made materials. Thus by 1934, a
research team headed by Wallace H.Carothers had developed the first
synthetic fiber, called nylon. As it turned out, the development of
nylon had a surprisingly profound effect on world affairs. True,
it’s first use was in fashion, and in 1939, the Dupont company began
marketing sheer nylon hose for women. Nylons were a spectacular hit
and sold off the shelves almost immediately. But they disappeared with
the coming of World War II, as nylon became essential to the war
effort. It was used in everything from parachutes and ropes, to
insulation and coat linings. Sadly Carothers never witnessed the
impact of his creation. He committed suicide two years before the
first pair of