Locating Main Ideas
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 main idea.
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. 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 previous generations.
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.
Main Idea: Across the country, many states have abolished the policy of “social promotion” ___________________________________________________________.
Main Idea: In 1934, Wallace H. Carothers developed nylon, the first synthetic fiber __________________________________________________________.
Directions: Each paragraph is followed by a statement of the main idea that is not quite accurate or precise enough. In other words, it almost—but not completely—sums up the main idea. Revise each statement to make it more effectively express the main idea.
Over the last two centuries, America’s soldiers have been given several nicknames, among them “yanks,” “grunts,” “doughboys,” and “Johnny Reb.” However, none of those nicknames has had the staying power of the nickname “G.I.” Derived from the words “government issue,” the term “G.I.” emerged in World War II and gave birth to its own masculine and feminine forms, “G.I. Joe” and “G.I. Jane.” It was even attached to one of the most famous educational bills in American history, the G.I. Bill. At one point, the military tried to rid itself of the name G.I. claiming that it dehumanized the people to whom it referred. Military manuals and pamphlets began substituting the supposedly more favorable term “service members.” But the public would have none of it. Newspapers, radio, television, and most importantly, World War II veterans themselves clung to the nickname. Particularly for the veterans of World War II, being a G.I. was a badge of honor, and they were not about to give up the name.
Imprecise Main Idea: Throughout the last two centuries, America’s soldiers have been given many different nicknames.
Revised Main Idea:
Imprecise Main Idea: Unfortunately, the painter Frida Kahlo spent her life in the shadow of her famous husband, the muralist, Diego Rivera.
Revised Main Idea:
Directions: In the blanks that follow each paragraph, write out what you think is the main idea.
Inferences are evidence-based guesses. They are the conclusions a reader draws about the unsaid based on what is actually said. Inferences drawn while reading are much like inferences drawn in everyday life. If your best friend comes in from a blind date and looks utterly miserable, you would probably infer the date was not a success. Drawing inferences while you read requires exactly the same willingness to look at the evidence and come to a conclusion that has not been expressed in words. Only in reading, the evidence for your inference consists solely of words rather than actual events, expressions, or gestures.
1. Make sure your inferences rely mainly on the author’s words rather than your own feelings or experience. Your goal is to read the author’s mind, not invent your own message.
2. Check to see if your inference is contradicted by any statements in the paragraph. If it is, it is not an appropriate or useful inference.
3. If the passage is a tough one, check to see if you can actually identify the statements that led you to your conclusion. This kind of close reading is a good comprehension check. It will also help you remember the material.