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Without an understanding of the main idea, reading becomes frustrating and uninvolved. However, for some readers, the main idea eludes them - it seems like a huge puzzle that they just can't solve. What do these readers need to do?
  • Visualize -

    Make the story into a movie - "see" the characters and actions happening inside your head like a dream. If the movie stops, stop reading. Think about these questions:
  • Why has the movie stopped?
  • Is there a word you don't understand or a phrase that is confusing?
  • Is your mind simply wandering to other things instead of focusing on the story?
    Unless the movie stays on play instead of on pause, you'll have a difficult time finding the main idea. Now that the movie is going, what scenes are standing out as the most important, the most dramatic? Look inside these scenes for the main idea.

    That's fine for stories, but what about non-fiction? Actually, there should be a movie going on in your head for non-fiction, too. For instance, read this following short statement:

    According to Wikipedia, "Elephants are mammals, and the largest land animals alive today."
    • If you didn't know what an elephant was, can you now see the size of it?

    What about an alpaca? This animal really does exist. Read how Wikipedia describes it and make sure you keep the movie running in your head.

      "The alpaca is a domesticated species from South America developed from the wild alpacas. It resembles a sheep in appearance, but is larger and has a long, erect neck as well as coming in many colors, whereas sheep are generally bred to be white or black."

  • What does the alpaca look like? Do you see in your head a furry animal that has a long neck?
  • Do you see an animal that looks like a llama? Then you are right!
  • Now, what is the main idea of this short passage? Since the passage tells you where the animal is from and what the animal looks like, the main idea is to give you a brief description of an alpaca.

  • What if you need more help than visualizing? Then, you need another tool in your toolbox.
  • Use your background knowledge -

    What do you already know about the subject? Think about this before reading.
  • Make connections to your past experiences and draw connections.
  • But what if you don't have background knowledge on a subject such as the dimensions of black holes in outer space? What do you do then?
  • Go to the children's library and read every book you can find about black holes so that you can build your own background knowledge. This will help you make those connections.
  • When your head says, "That reminds me of..." it's time to listen. Your mind is following an important point that may lead you to the main idea.
  • Beyond background knowledge, you can...

  • Ask yourself questions -

    Ask yourself what the writer is talking about.
  • Ask yourself what the writer meant by that phrase. Asking yourself questions helps you understand the text.
  • Look for clue words that will help you find the main idea. For example, if the author of a paragraph writes:
      "There are many similarities in the way the various natural sciences make new discoveries,"
  • The key word is "many." This word tells you as the reader that many comparisons among the sciences are going to be made.
  • By asking what the author means by "many," you as the reader will be able to cue in on this key word.
  • Ask yourself, "What is this paragraph all about?" Finding the answer to this question will lead you to the main idea.
  • You can also ask yourself, "What here is an opinion and what is a simple fact?"
  • Often, the main idea is an opinion, while the facts are used to prove the opinion is correct. For example, if the author writes:
      "There are many similarities in the way the various sciences make new discoveries,"this opinion might be backed up by the fact, "For instance, both chemistry and physics rely heavily on math equations to analyze data."
  • The opinion may be more difficult to spot, so ask yourself, "What is a simple fact?" and, by eliminating the simple facts, you can oftentimes find the main idea.

Now that you have some ideas to help you with the main idea, you can help build your own background knowledge on this skill. The websites listed below will help you practice finding the main idea and will give you other strategies to find them.

  • Test Prep Review
    A learning module on the main idea

  • RHL School Main Idea
    A simple review of the main idea

  • Gallaudet University Reading Exercises
    This site will help with both main idea and supporting details

  • Mrs. Dowling's Virtual Classroom Quiz
    This site provides quizzes on the main idea for practice

    Click on the links below to navigate within this website:

    Easy Literacy Home

    BCC Course Information and Support

    Quotable Quotes for Writing Inspiration

    Power Points for Reading and Writing Instruction

    Amistad Grant Lesson Plans and Information
    Help With Reading Comprehension

    Copyright © 2007 by Catherine M. Wishart. All rights reserved.