Practice Locating Main Ideas

Practice Locating Main Ideas

Main Idea

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.

Reading Tips:

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.

Exercise 1

Directions: Read each passage. Then circle the letter of the statement that effectively sums up the main idea.

  1. 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.

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.

  1. 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, p.29).

Main Idea?

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.

Exercise 2

Directions: Read each passage. Then complete the main idea statement begun on the blanks that follow the paragraph.

  1. 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” ___________________________________________________________.

  1. 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 nylons ever went on sale.

Main Idea: In 1934, Wallace H. Carothers developed nylon, the first synthetic fiber __________________________________________________________.

Exercise 3

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:

  1. While she lived, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo was known mainly as the wife of the famed muralist Diego Rivera. Yet in the decades since her death, Kahlo has become hugely famous in her own right and is probably now better known than her husband. In 1990, Kahlo became the first Mexican artist to break the one million mark at an auction. The vivid, self-portraits that Kahlo created in the thirties and forties continue to be widely sought after by collectors willing to pay high prices for her paintings. Although Kahlo is often described as a painter intent on exploring her own personal reality, many of her paintings include references to Mexico’s political and social history. It’s not surprising, then, that in 1985, the Mexican government publicly proclaimed her work a national treasure.

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:

Exercise 4

Directions: In the blanks that follow each paragraph, write out what you think is the main idea.

  1. In the 1870s, the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley navigated the Congo river under the sponsorship of King Leopold of Belgium. Wherever he stopped, he made treaties with the African chiefs he encountered. As a result, when Stanley returned to Europe, King Leopold was able to take possession of an area eighty times the size of Belgium. Leopold promptly called the area the Belgium Congo and turned it into his own private goldmine, almost destroying the Congo in the process. Under Leopold’s rule, the Congolese were faced with impossibly high taxes and forced into slave labor. Agents of the Belgian government would give each Congolese family a basket to fill with rubber. If members of the family did not return the basket with the required number of pounds of rubber, their home would be burned to the ground. Anyone who rebelled would be put in prison. Meanwhile, Leopold grew enormously rich, squandering his blood money on yachts, mansions, and mistresses. To keep the Belgian people quiet, he also expended enormous sums on public works. Nevertheless, public opinion against Leopold and his vicious ways grew stronger. Ultimately he was forced to give up his stranglehold on the Congo, but not before millions of people had been imprisoned and thousands had died.

Main Idea:

  1. Computerized axial tomography, also known as the CAT scan, was developed in 1971. In its importance, the development of the CAT scan ranks with Roentgen’s discovery of X-Rays. The word “tomography” comes from the Greek word “tomos” meaning section or slice. In effect, the CAT scan allowed doctors to see into the body almost as if layers of it had been sliced away for better viewing. For the first time, it was possible to view soft tissue inside the skull, chest and abdomen without resorting to surgery. Thanks to the CAT scan, radiologists could now distinguish normal from clotted blood. They could also examine the ventricles of the heart without inflicting pain. Prior to the creation of the CAT scan, it had been necessary to pump air into the ventricles of the heart, causing the person undergoing the procedure intense pain.

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.

Reading Tips:

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.

Exercise 1

Directions: Each item in this exercise describes a famous person. It’s your job to infer the name of the person described.

  1. A small-town lawyer from Illinois, tall and lanky with an Adam’s apple that could have gone down in the Guinness Book of Records had it existed in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, he changed the face of American history, steering it through a civil war that left both sides bloody. Who knows what more he could have done had an assassin’s bullet not cut him down.

The person described is _______________________________

In drawing the correct inference, which piece of information is more useful:

a. He had a big Adam’s apple.
b. He steered the nation through a civil war.

Explain your answer:


  1. Glittering and shaking to the strains of “Proud Mary,” this lady ruled the stage in the sixties, but Ike ruled the roost until she walked out the door. It took her almost a decade to get back on top but she still remains one of pop’s great divas. Closing in on sixty, she can still belt out rock and roll with singers half her age, and “Simply the Best” just may qualify as her own personal theme song.

The person described is _____________________________

In drawing the appropriate inference, which piece of information is more useful.

a. She ruled the stage but Ike ruled the roost.
b. She was a popular singer in the sixties.

Exercise 2

Directions: For each situation, draw what you think is an appropriate inference.

  1. You have just gotten a pit bull puppy from an animal shelter. He’s lovable but nervous. If you raise your voice for any reason, he cowers and trembles. If you scold him, he hides. When you got him from the shelter, he had a slight limp and a deep scratch across his nose.



  1. You are a high school student sitting in class when a substitute teacher walks in and announces that your regular teacher is ill. Everyone in the class including you erupts in applause. The substitute raps his knuckles on the desk for order, but the students ignore him and talk louder.



Exercise 3

Directions: Each item in this exercise introduces a topic. Six specific statements about the topic follow. Read them carefully. Then choose the more appropriate inference.

1. Topic: Shakespeare in nineteenth-century America

Specific Statements:

a. In the early nineteenth century, Shakespeare was the most widely performed playwright in both the North and Southeast.

b. In the first half of the nineteenth century, English and American actors could always earn money by performing Shakespeare in towns both big and small.

c. American audiences were famous for their participation in performances of Shakespeare’s plays: They hurled eggs and tomatoes at the villains and cheered and whistled for the heroes.

d. By the end of the nineteenth century, theater owners claimed that most ordinary people couldn’t understand Shakespeare, and they were refusing to stage his plays.

e. In the early 1800s, theater goers in big cities could often choose between three different productions of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet; by the end of the nineteenth century, it was hard to find one production of a Shakespeare play, let alone several.

a. Early American audiences embraced Shakespeare’s plays enthusiastically because they wanted to prove that they were as clever and sophisticated as their former British rulers.

b. The role of Shakespeare in America changed dramatically as the nineteenth century drew to a close.

2. Topic: The medics in World War II

Specific Statements:

a. During training for combat, the medics were often despised because most of them had refused to take up arms.

b. The medics had their own barracks and were separated from combat soldiers, who referred to them as “pill pushers” and laughed at their medical drills.

c. In actual combat, it was often the medics who meant the difference between life and death for soldiers wounded in battle; they were the ones who braved gunfire to carry wounded soldiers to the hospital.

d. In many divisions, soldiers who had lived through combat took up collections in order to provide bonuses for the medics.

e. Interviewing veterans of World War II, author Stephen Ambrose consistently heard from men who believed they owed their lives to some member of the medical core.

a. The combat experience profoundly changed the way soldiers felt about the medical core.

b. Despite their bravery in the battles of World War II, medics never really received the respect that was due them.

Exercise 4

Directions: Read each paragraph. Then choose the inference that could effectively sum up the main idea.

1. When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, the United States was the only major power without a propaganda agency. More important, despite prodding from England and France, the U.S. had no plans to create one. During World War I, a government-based group known as the Committee for Public Information had successfully stirred up public feeling against German-Americans because America was at war with Germany. As a result, many innocent German-American citizens had been insulted, beaten, even lynched. In addition, a good portion of the American public still believed that the United States had been tricked into entering World War I because of British propaganda. Distrustful of propaganda in general, there was little widespread support for a government agency dispensing it when the second world war broke out.

a. Because of what had happened during World War I, the American public was suspicious of propaganda and not inclined to support its use when World War II first erupted.

b. Aware of how the German government was using propaganda to spread hate and violence, the American public was reluctant to make use of it at the beginning of World War II.

2. At his death in 1971, trumpeter Louis Armstrong was much loved as a celebrity. Yet as a musician, he no longer commanded wide respect among the general public. To most people, he was the man with the toothy smile who made occasional appearances in television and movies usually singing what had become his signature songs “Hello, Dolly” and “It’s a Wonderful World.” Jazz enthusiasts, however, had another take on the passing of Louis Armstrong. To them he was the New Orleans-born musician who had, along with Bix Biederbecke, introduced the solo to jazz. With records like “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” “I’m not Rough,” and “Potato Head Blues,” Louis became the first great jazz influence. As music critic Terry Teachout has written, Louis Armstrong was “the player other players copied.” Still, at his death, few really knew what Louis had accomplished. In his honor, radio and television broadcasts played “Hello Dolly,” not “West-End Blues,” his 1928 recording that starts off with what may be the most famous horn solo in jazz.

a. A hero to much of the jazz community, Louis Armstrong was forgotten by the general public at the time he died.

b. At his death, Louis Armstrong was a beloved celebrity whose spectacular achievements had been forgotten by all but devoted jazz fans.

Exercise 5

Directions: Read each paragraph. Then draw an inference that sums up the main idea.

1. In the movies, England’s King Richard the First—he of the lion heart and Robin Hood fame—is a hero of spotless reputation. In Hollywood’s many versions of the Robin Hood story, for example, Robin worships good King Richard and would willingly die for him. History, however, offers a different slant on Richard’s supposed goodness. In 1189, the Pope called for yet another crusade to take back the holy land of Jerusalem from Moslem rule. Intent on following the Pope’s order, Richard combined forces with King Philip the II of France. Together, they managed to take the town of Acre, a port on what is now Israel’s Northwestern coast. Attempting to blackmail the Moslem ruler Saladin into giving up sacred lands, Richard took 2,500 civilians hostage, many of them women and children. When Saladin refused, Richard promptly slaughtered every last one of his hostages.



2. When Bonnie Parker met Clyde Barrow, she was twenty years old. Although she had been a rebellious child and teenager, she had never broken a law in her life. The worst thing she had done in her mother’s opinion was run off and get married to a shiftless womanizer who humiliated and neglected her. When Clyde came along, Bonnie was ripe for the attentions of a man who seemed to think she was both important and attractive. As long as he didn’t desert her, Bonnie didn’t much care about Clyde’s two-year jail sentence. In jail at least, she knew where he was, and she could write him daily letters about how much she loved him. Bonnie, however, got nervous when she heard that Clyde was planning a jailbreak. To bind him more tightly to her, she smuggled him a gun and helped him escape. After he got caught and sent back to prison, Bonnie was even more determined to wait for the man she called her “one true love.” Upon his release from jail, Bonnie took Clyde home to meet her folks and announced she was going to Houston, Texas to get a new job. The next time her mother heard from her, Bonnie Parker was sitting in jail and had formally started her career as one half of the most famous bandit duo in history.



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