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Teach Your Students the Main Idea Successfully

By Kellie Hayden

Do your students get the main idea confused with details from the reading passages? Do you need some ideas to help your students? This article will offer some tips.

Secrets to Success

Language Arts instructors have been teaching the main idea concept for years. Learning how to identify it in reading passages is an Writing Tools indicator for many grade levels at the elementary, middle and high school level.

Explanation for Finding it While Reading

First, students need to understand what a main idea is. It is the important or key information of a paragraph or passage. One easy way to explain this to students is to share the following example:

If you have read a great book and want to tell your friend about it, you are essential giving them the main idea of the book when you tell them in a couple of sentences about it.

Paragraphs: There are topic sentences for paragraphs, which are ones too. These are generally clearly stated in a sentence; many times they are the first sentence of a paragraph. However, it can be found at the end or in the middle as well. It can even be implied or not directly stated.

Passages: When finding the main idea for a whole passage, the main idea is many times not stated. It will need to be inferred or guessed from all of the available information in the passage. Because this is a higher level thinking skill, some students may struggle to identify it.

Writing a Main Idea

The main idea or topic sentence of a paragraph should state the topic and the controlling idea. The topic is what the paragraph is about and the controlling idea is the directions the writer wants to go with the topic.

For example, the topic of a paragraph that a student chooses to write could be video games. However, this is not a topic sentence. This paragraph could go in many directions, such the cost, types, graphics, controllers, amount of players, etc.

Topics: video games

Controlling ideas: types of controllers

Main idea of a paragraph: The types of controllers for video games can be hand held in a variety of shapes or one that allows the motion of the body or the sound of your voice to become the controller.

Tips & Tricks

It would be wonderful if teachers could wave a magic wand and the main idea of a passage would suddenly be highlighted for the students. Instead, teachers need to teach them tricks to find it.

Here are some tips for students of varying ages:

  1. It is not always in the same place in a paragraph or passage. It might not even be in the passage. You must use hints from the title and information from the passage itself.
  2. It can be a general statement that connects all of the details.
  3. On multiple choice tests, the test writers try and trick you with specific details from the passage in the answers. Do not fall for this. Look for an answer that gives the topic and author's idea about it.

Example Paragraph:

It had rained for three weeks. Lindsey and Bobbie had their noses pressed against the glass when they drove over the bridge with their boat in tow. The water was flowing so fast over the dam that white water churned and splashed everywhere. The level of the river was higher than either of them could remember. The family had planned to go boating this weekend. However, due to flooding and fast current of the river, there would be no boating this weekend.

Where is the main idea?

A. Sentence 1 -- Many times it is here. However, this just tells the weather.

B. Sentence 2 -- We find out who it is about but not the focus of the paragraph

C. Sentence 3 -- We find out that there is fast moving water in the river.

D. Sentence 5 -- We find out that the family wanted to go boating.

E. Sentence 6 -- This sentence tells the topic and author's ideas about it (no boating due to fast current and level of river)

Background & Research

Danhua Wang reported that researchers and theorists agree that identifying and stating the main idea is the key to understanding meaning in a passage in the article, "Factors Affecting the Comprehension of Global and Local Main Idea." One way to separate the stronger students from the weaker students is to find the students who are able to find the main idea.

Wang studied first year college students to find out about their ability to find the main idea and would be stumbling blocks. The study focused on the two hierarchic levels of the main idea: local and global. In expository texts, the local was the most important idea in a paragraph. It was clearly stated and easier to find. The global was the central idea of the whole piece and was generally suggested.

The different types of texts, such as expository or narratives writing have different structures, which can throw some students. To find the main idea in expository texts, "Analysis of the local main idea’s textual features suggested that identification of the explicit main idea was affected by the degree of explicitness, which was measured in terms of sentence structure, position in the paragraph, and the number of points in the sentence." In other words, the success of most students in finding the main idea in an expository text depends on the details and explicitness of the text.

Teaching students to find the main idea is not an easy task due to the complexities of different passages. Practice helps as well as teaching students tricks on tests.


Finding the Main Idea from Mt. San Antonio College.

How Can I Locate the Main Idea? Landmark School Outreach Program

Interactive Activities on Finding the Main Idea on Bright Hub Education

Passages for Finding the Main Idea on Bright Hub Education

Teaching Strategies for the Main Idea and Supporting Details on Bright Hub Education

Wang, D. (2009). Factors Affecting the Comprehension of Global and Local Main Idea. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 39(2), 34-52. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.