Skill: Identification and understanding of main ideas

Student Speak Objective
Find and understand the main idea in the text

Isolating the main ideas or themes of a text – weeding out what is less important to find what’s most important; Finding “what is central to a text: what the author most values or wants to emphasize” (ELP Year 5-8 p. 148)
‘Good Reader’ Characteristics

  • Active reading
  • Thinking as you read
  • Linking to prior knowledge
  • Vocabulary strategies
  • Questioning as you read (awareness of purpose)
  • Predicting, confirming and repredicting
  • Recognising when meaning is lost and employing fix up strategies
Possible Strategies
  • Think alouds
  • Summarising
  • Questioning
  • Looking at titles, text types, images and text structures
  • Using prior knowledge
  • Using prediction
  • Questioning the author’s purpose
  • Sifting through supporting details – text and info hierarchy

Identifying the main idea

What is the main idea?

It may be helpful to first explain what the main idea is not. It is not the information obtained during the introduction to the text when the title, headings, illustrations etc. are briefly considered, and linked to background knowledge, prior to reading. Although these text features are often useful in scaffolding readers towards finding the main idea, on their own, they are not enough. Readers need to explore the text at a deeper level in order to confirm or put aside any tentative thoughts about the main idea that the text introduction may prompt.
It is also important to note that the main idea is not simply what the text is about. To paraphrase Gerald Duffy (2003), "Charlotte's Web" is a story about a spider called Charlotte and a pig called Wilbur, but the main idea is more to do with the things that give life meaning: friendship, love, birth and death. The main idea then, is what the author wants readers to understand is important and valued in the text, i.e., across the whole text, not just within sections of it.
If you intend to use one of the Main Idea assessment resources available in the English bank and are not familiar with teaching the main idea comprehension strategy, it would be useful to read the "Teaching and learning" section of the resource prior to administering the task. The more you understand about the concept of main idea, the clearer you will be when you introduce the task to your students.
Finally, because the main idea is hardly ever explicitly stated by the author, and because readers can't get inside the author's head to find out exactly what they want readers to understand is important and valued in the text, readers can only ever make an informed guess about what the main idea is. Consequently, readers often disagree about the main idea. Any disagreement is best seen as a valuable opportunity for discussion.
How do you find the main idea?
When determining the main idea the reader uses text details, in conjunction with their prior knowledge, to think about what the main message of the text might be. As they read, they begin to tentatively group related details, constantly asking themselves where the author is placing emphasis or value. At various stages throughout the reading the reader may decide to reject very small groups of related details as not being particularly valued by the author. However, as they read on, gathering and grouping more details, they may reverse such a decision. Finally, the reader combines all the evidence, including their prior knowledge, and decides what is most important and valued in the text.

Identify the important information.

Group the important information.

Combine the groups to get the main idea.

What students and teachers might say:
"First I look for details, then I group them together to help me work out what the main idea is."

"Some of you think the main idea is 'you need to trust the people around you before you can try something new', and some of you think it's 'when you get out there and take risks, all sorts of doors open for you'. How do you think your background knowledge might be affecting what you think the main idea is?"

Effective Literacy Practice Y1–4 p. 133
Effective Literacy Practice Y5–8 p. 148
Duffy pp. 117–124
Harvey and Goudvis pp. 122–143
Miller pp. 141–156

It is important to remember that the reading strategies work together, and do not operate discretely. For examples of assessment resources with a particular focus on identifying the main idea, see the list below:
Other resources with a focus on identifying the main idea:
This article reviews the literature on searching and extracting details and main ideas in paper-based informational texts. The article concludes with some suggestions for teacher professional development, some potential connections to searching digital texts, and some possible directions for raising overall reading comprehension.

Identifying Topics, Main Ideas, and Supporting Details Identifying Topics, Main Ideas, and Supporting Details--Reading Comprehension Guide--Academic Support

Understanding the topic, the gist, or the larger conceptual framework of a textbook chapter, an article, a paragraph, a sentence or a passage is a sophisticated reading task. Being able to draw conclusions, evaluate, and critically interpret articles or chapters is important for overall comprehension in college reading. Textbook chapters, articles, paragraphs, sentences, or passages all have topics and main ideas. The topic is the broad, general theme or message. It is what some call the subject. The main idea is the "key concept" being expressed. Details, major and minor, support the main idea by telling how, what, when, where, why, how much, or how many. Locating the topic, main idea, and supporting details helps you understand the point(s) the writer is attempting to express. Identifying the relationship between these will increase your comprehension.
Applying Strategy
The successful communication of any author's topic is only as good as the organization the author uses to build and define his/her subject matter.
Grasping the Main Idea:
A paragraph is a group of sentences related to a particular topic, or central theme. Every paragraph has a key concept or main idea. The main idea is the most important piece of information the author wants you to know about the concept of that paragraph.
When authors write they have an idea in mind that they are trying to get across. This is especially true as authors compose paragraphs. An author organizes each paragraph's main idea and supporting details in support of the topic or central theme, and each paragraph supports the paragraph preceding it.
A writer will state his/her main idea explicitly somewhere in the paragraph. That main idea may be stated at the beginning of the paragraph, in the middle, or at the end. The sentence in which the main idea is stated is the topic sentence of that paragraph.
The topic sentence announces the general theme ( or portion of the theme) to be dealt with in the paragraph. Although the topic sentence may appear anywhere in the paragraph, it is usually first - and for a very good reason. This sentence provides the focus for the writer while writing and for the reader while reading. When you find the topic sentence, be sure to underline it so that it will stand out not only now, but also later when you review.
Identifying the Topic:
The first thing you must be able to do to get at the main idea of a paragraph is to identify the topic - the subject of the paragraph. Think of the paragraph as a wheel with the topic being the hub - the central core around which the whole wheel (or paragraph) spins. Your strategy for topic identification is simply to ask yourself the question, "What is this about?" Keep asking yourself that question as you read a paragraph, until the answer to your question becomes clear. Sometimes you can spot the topic by looking for a word or two that repeat. Usually you can state the topic in a few words.
Let us try this topic-finding strategy. Reread the first paragraph on this page - the first paragraph under the heading Grasping the Main Idea. Ask yourself the question, "What is this paragraph about?" To answer, say to yourself in your mind, "The author keeps talking about paragraphs and the way they are designed. This must be the topic - paragraph organization." Reread the second paragraph of the same section. Ask yourself "What is this paragraph about?" Did you say to yourself, "This paragraph is about different ways to organize a paragraph"? That is the topic. Next, reread the third paragraph and see if you can find the topic of the paragraph. How? Write the topic in the margin next to this paragraph. Remember, getting the main idea of a paragraph is crucial to reading.
The bulk of an expository paragraph is made up of supporting sentences (major and minor details), which help to explain or prove the main idea. These sentences present facts, reasons, examples, definitions, comparison, contrasts, and other pertinent details. They are most important because they sell the main idea.
The last sentence of a paragraph is likely to be a concluding sentence. It is used to sum up a discussion, to emphasize a point, or to restate all or part of the topic sentence so as to bring the paragraph to a close. The last sentence may also be a transitional sentence leading to the next paragraph.
Of course, the paragraphs you'll be reading will be part of some longer piece of writing - a textbook chapter, a section of a chapter, or a newspaper or magazine article. Besides expository paragraphs, in which new information is presented and discussed, these longer writings contain three types of paragraphs: introductory, transitional, and summarizing.
Introductory paragraphs tell you, in advance, such things as (1) the main ideas of the chapter or section; (2) the extent or limits of the coverage; (3) how the topic is developed; and (4) the writer's attitude toward the topic. Transitional paragraphs are usually short; their sole function is to tie together what you have read so far and what is to come - to set the stage for succeeding ideas of the chapter or section. Summarizing paragraphs are used to restate briefly the main ideas of the chapter or section. The writer may also draw some conclusion from these ideas, or speculate on some conclusion based on the evidence he/she has presented.
All three types should alert you: the introductory paragraph of things to come; the transitional paragraph of a new topic; and the summarizing paragraph of main ideas that you should have gotten.
Read the following paragraph and underline the stated main idea. Write down in your own words what you are able to conclude from the information.
The rules of conduct during an examination are clear. No books, calculators or papers are allowed in the test room. Proctors will not allow anyone with such items to take the test. Anyone caught cheating will be asked to leave the room. His or her test sheet will be taken. The incident will be reported to the proper authority. At the end of the test period, all materials will be returned to the proctor. Failure to abide by these rules will result in a failing grade for this test.
You should have underlined the first sentence in the paragraph - this is the stated main idea. What can be concluded from the information is: If you do not follow the rules, you will automatically fail the test. This concluding information is found in the last sentence.

You can't comprehend the subject matter if you haven't identifyied the topic, the main idea, and the supporting details.

Finding the Main Idea

By: Caryn Bachar (2006)


English language learners (ELLs) may have some difficulty identifying the main idea when they are reading a paragraph. Teaching students how to paraphrase can help them learn to pick out what is important in the material that they read. This is a great strategy which you can accompany with other effective practices, such as previewing the story, making predictions, activating prior knowledge, using text features such as the title and other headings, and pre-reading key sections (like the introduction and conclusion). All of these strategies will help ELLs improve their understanding of the material they are reading better as they identify the important points in the text, and the main idea.

Key Benefits

It is essential to remember that students learn through different learning modalities. For this reason, it is important to teach students a variety of strategies, such as paraphrasing, note-taking, previewing, and reading key paragraphs. All of these strategies can help ELLs enhance their reading comprehension skills.

Suggested Activities

Lower Grade Activities

In lower grades, the teacher should present this lesson as a whole group activity.
  • Ensure ELLs receive a list of any challenging vocabulary words they might encounter. It's a good idea to provide an explanation, and the meaning for each word before they begin to read the story.
  • Allow students to have an oral discussion on what each paragraph describes, and provide time for students to write the details for each paragraph.
  • Use a graphic organizer to assist students in identifying main ideas, and supporting details.
  • Allow ELLs to use their native language to talk, or write, about the story.

Upper Grade Activities

Teachers may choose to first model the first paragraph and let students work in small groups as they find the main idea.
  • Encourage students to read the story/book several times.
Have an initial reading and discussion.

Ask students to read the text a second time, and encourage them to take notes.

Have students paraphrase their own notes to help them better understand the main idea.

Hold a group discussion to share ideas about the main idea of the story/book.

|| || Finding the Main Idea


The main idea of a paragraph is the author's message about the topic. It is often expressed directly or it can be implied.


  • It is easy to identify a main idea that is directly expressed in the text.
    • Main ideas are often found at the beginning of paragraphs. The first sentence often explains the subject being discussed in the passage.
    • Main ideas are also found in the concluding sentences of a paragraph. The main idea can be expressed as a summation of the information in the paragraph as well as a link to the information in the next paragraph.
  • The main idea is not always clearly stated. It is more difficult to identify a main idea when it is inferred or implied. It can be implied through other words in the paragraph. An implied main idea can be found in several ways.
    • Several sentences in a paragraph can imply the main idea by introducing facts about the topic before actually stating the topic.
    • Implied ideas can be drawn from facts, reasons, or examples that give hints or suggestions concerning the main idea. These hints will be clues leading you to discover the main idea in the selected text.
    • Try the passage below to see if you can pick out the main idea.
To many parents, the infant's crying may be mainly an irritation, especially if it continues for long periods. But crying serves important functions for the child as well as for the parents. For the child, crying helps improve lung capacity and the respiratory system. Perhaps more important, the cry serves as a signal of distress. When babies cry, they indicate that they are hungry or in pain, and this is important information for parents.
  • Use the hints below to determine the correct main idea of this paragraph.
    • After reading a paragraph ask, "What point is the author making in this passage?"
    • Ask the following questions:
Who - Does this passage discuss a person or group of people?
When - Does the information contain a reference to time?
Where - Does the text name a place?
Why - Do you find a reason or explanation for something that happened?
How - Does this information indicate a method or a theory?


  • If you are able to summarize the information in the passage in your own words,
    you have absorbed the correct main idea. To accomplish this goal, try the steps listed below after reading a short section of your textbook.
    • Write a short summary in your own words about what you have read.
    • Does your summary agree with this general topic?
    • Does your summary contain the same ideas being expressed by the author?
    • Could you write a headline (or textbook subheading) that would express your summary in less than five words?
  • If you are able to rephrase your choice of a topic sentence into a question and then determine if the passage answers your question, you have been successful at selecting a main idea.

Learning task
What to notice
Expectations are the ideas that teachers, students, parents, and communities have about students as learners – about their knowledge and expertise, their progress, and their achievement. Teachers’ expectations shape all aspects of their practice. They impact on learners’ patterns of progress as well as on their achievement.
Teaching and learning purposes
  • Main idea of each spoken text is identified (1.1 and 2.2)
  • Specific points of each spoken text are identified (1.2 and 2.3)
Ensure learners know the content and language learning outcomes
Share the learning outcomes with your students, for example:
  • I can use strategies to identify main ideas and specific points in spoken texts.
Have I explained why these skills are important?
Knowledge of the learner encompasses knowing about the pathway of progress for each learner and about the patterns of progress for language learners in general at different points in their development. For English language learners this also refers to knowledge about their cultural and linguistic background, and about their knowledge and skills in their first language(s). The effective gathering, analysing, and using of knowledge about the learner is informed by the teacher’s knowledge of language learning as well as by the teacher’s expectations.
Engaging learners with the text
Using approaches that build on prior knowledge
1. Identifying the main ideas and supporting details
The purpose of this activity is to activate prior knowledge of main ideas, supporting points and strategy use.
  • Quick writing: Students have 2 minutes to write down how they work out what the main point and supporting details of texts are.
  • Students share answers in small groups.
  • Students complete LT3Barrier cloze – Student sheet (Word 38KB) activity.
What strategies to identify main ideas and supporting points are my students familiar with?

Giving learners many opportunities to first notice then use the new language
2. Identifying the main point
The purpose of this activity is to help students use strategies to identify the main idea in oral texts. Use LT3Identifying the main idea - teacher sheet (Word 41KB) .
  • Give out student resource, LT3Identifying the main idea – Student Sheet (Word 30KB) . Read text 1.
  • Students listen to text 1 and complete question 1 in pairs.
  • Students complete question 2 followed by feedback. Display the possible key words on so that every student has a complete list of keywords.
  • Read text 2 as students answer question 3 and decide on the main idea of the text.
Have I made links to reading and writing activities where students identified main ideas?

3. Identifying supporting points
The purpose of this activity is to help students use strategies to identify supporting points in oral texts
  • Review the features of supporting points from the LT3Barrier cloze – Student sheet (Word 38KB) activity.
  • Read text 2 again as students complete the activity individually and then in groups.
  • Encourage students to ask for repetition if they need it.
Do my students need further practice identifying main ideas and supporting points in spoken text?

Planning the learning tasks so that all learners are actively involved
4. Strategy use
The purpose of this activity is to reinforce use of active listening strategies. Use LT3Strategy use – Student sheet (Word 40KB) .
  • In groups the students rank the strategies and then explain their top 5 to the class. Every member of the group must report back on one strategy.

Monitoring student learning
5. Annotate a text
Can my students explain how they identify main ideas and supporting points?

Provide multiple opportunities for authentic language use with a focus on learners using academic language
6. Putting it all together ( LT3Putting it all together – Student sheet (Word 54KB) )
  • Divide class into groups of 4 and each group of 4 into pairs, Pair A and Pair B.
  • Give Pair A student sheet 1, Pair B student sheet 2.
  • Pair A read Text 1 to Pair B.
  • Pair B may ask for repetition if needed.
  • All four students complete the first chart and discuss their answers.
  • Repeat for Text 2 with Pair B reading and Pair A listening.
Help students achieve the same explicit learning outcomes using differentiated levels of support
Variations for extra support
  • Group students with differing proficiencies together or those with the same L1.
  • Provide additional texts for further practice.
  • Put a range of main ideas and supporting points on cards and give to individual students to find their partner. They should not show their cards to other students.
What learning gaps do I need to address before moving on to formative assessment?

Include opportunities for monitoring and self-evaluation
Reflection: RIQ
Recall -2 things you did in the lesson.
I -Write down one insight or idea you have about listening.
Q – Write down one question you would like to ask.
How can I use this information?

Reading Comprehension: The REDW Strategy for Finding Main Ideas
Reading Comprehension: The REDW Strategy for Finding Main Ideas - Study Skills
REDW is a good strategy to use to find the main idea in each paragraph of a reading assignment. Using this strategy will help you comprehend the information contained in your assignment. Each of the letters in REDW stands for a step in the strategy.

Read the entire paragraph to get an idea of what the paragraph is about. You may find it helpful to whisper the words as you read or to form a picture in your mind of what you are reading. Once you have a general idea of what the paragraph is about, go on to the next step.
Examine each sentence in the paragraph to identify the important words that tell what the sentence is about. Ignore the words that are not needed to tell what the sentence is about. If you are allowed to, draw a line through the words to be ignored. For each sentence, write on a sheet of paper the words that tell what the sentence is about.
Reread the words you wrote for each sentence in the paragraph. Decide which sentence contains the words you wrote that best describe the main idea of the paragraph. These words are the main idea of the paragraph. The sentence that contains these words is the topic sentence. The other words you wrote are the supporting details for the main idea.

Write the main idea for each paragraph in your notebook. This will provide you with a written record of the most important ideas you learned. This written record will be helpful if you have to take a test that covers the reading assignment.
Use REDW to help you understand the information in your reading assignments.

· Skimming - reading rapidly for the main points
· Scanning - reading rapidly to find a specific piece of information
· Extensive - reading a longer text, often for pleasure with emphasis on overall meaning
· Intensive reading - reading a short text for detailed information