How to Teach Students to Find the Main Idea

The main idea is the central theme of a story. Finding the main idea of writing can be a challenge, but it is an essential reading comprehension skill for our learners to develop. Learners who become skilled in this art will benefit from it far beyond the school gates’ perimeters. From the print of an insurance document to writing a book review, the capacity to filter through a text and identify its central idea is a crucial life skill and an essential literacy-based learning objective.

What is the Main Idea

Whether we are talking about a paragraph, a poem, a chapter, or a longer text, identifying the main idea typically requires the reader to identify the subject of a piece of writing and then locate what the writer wants us to understand about that subject.

It is best to start small. When working with learners on identifying the main idea, begin by having learners locate the main idea in a sentence prior to building up to locating it in a longer paragraph. As learners build their confidence in identifying the main idea in paragraphs, they will soon be ready to move onto longer texts in chapters and, eventually, full-length books.

A Word on Paragraphs

The main idea of a sentence is typically straightforward to identify. It is as easy as identifying the subject of the sentence. On the other hand, whole chapters or books can seldom be easily reduced to expression in the form of a single main idea. For these reasons, the paragraph offers the learner the most suitable format to practice their main idea identification skills.

Typically, if the writer knows what they are doing, we can identify the main idea in every paragraph. Think of this as the crucial point that is expressed in a subject sentence. It is usually found in the paragraph’s first sentence, with subsequent sentences offering the supporting details. However, it can happen in the middle, in the end, or even be split across the paragraph. It may even not be there at each – at least not explicitly.

Writers are a creative bunch; learners will require sophisticated means to accurately identify each case’s main idea. That is what this article will help your learners do.

How is the Main Idea Expressed?

It can appear to be a clear-cut task to define the main idea, so why is it often so problematic for learners to identify it? Typically, the central concept is expressed directly in the text and is as easy to identify as your face in the mirror.

The main idea will not always be stated so explicitly. Learners must learn to identify it, whether expressed directly or merely implied, to fully comprehend what they are reading.

The Statement of the Main Idea

Attention is the key to extracting the main idea from a text, whatever the genre. Learners need to identify the most relevant info from a work and develop a statement expressing its main idea.

We refer to this as The Statement of the Main Idea. This statement should be a sentence or two. The process of composing this statement starts by asking questions about the text. Not every question will apply to every text, but they will provide a good starting point for extracting the main idea from any writing piece.

●     Who – Can the learner identify the person or people the text is about?

●     What – Can the learner identify the subject or underlying theme of the text?

●     When – Can the learner identify a reference to a specific time or period?

●     Where – Can the learner identify a specific place or a setting?

●     Why – Can the learner identify a reason or explanation for what happens in the text?

●     How – Can the learner identify a method or theory?

These questions can help learners draw out what the text is about. The two most essential questions of those above are who and what. These will be sufficient to elicit the info required to identify the main idea. But the litmus test of whether the learner has been able to absorb the text’s main idea is whether they can summarize what they have read in their words.

The Litmus Test: Summarizing and Paraphrasing

We know through our experience in the class that learning-through-teaching is an extremely efficient teaching strategy. It also offers teachers chances to observe and assess their learners’ grasp of the ideas they have been working on. Similarly, when we ask our learners to summarize or paraphrase an extract’s main idea, we create a chance to observe their comprehension of what they have read and their ability to identify the main idea therein.

You can also encourage learners to practice these skills by challenging them to paraphrase and summarize things you have said in class, even during lessons unrelated to literacy.

Strategies for Identifying the Main Idea

Get The Meaning

In this method, give each of your learners a copy of a nonfiction paragraph. If you wish, you can differentiate for learners’ different capabilities by choosing extracts of varying complexities.

Have learners:

1. Ask who the paragraph is about.

2. Ask what the essential info is about the who or what.

3. Restate the main idea in no more than ten words.

You can model this strategy for your learners by walking them through the process. Project the text on the whiteboard for shared reading and, with focused support and prompting, have them answer the initial inquiries.

Part 3 of the process can be undertaken as a shared writing piece to model the correct approach before learners begin to do it independently. Later, when learners have written independent statements of the main idea, they can compare their responses and offer feedback. Feedback sessions can give the learner another chance to redraft and modify their accuracy and brevity statements.

Through these processes, learners will improve their ability to identify the main idea and express it clearly and concisely.

Get the Meaning – Longer Texts

It is harder to reduce a longer extract down to a single central idea – much less a whole book! There will be times, however, where learners will be asked to do just that. They will need a systematic approach to support them in such circumstances. The following process provides for an efficient approach:

1. Look at the title – The title provides a good indication of the text’s subject or helps orient the reader in the main idea’s direction.

2. Look at the first and final sentences/paragraphs of the extract. The main idea will be given and summarized in these sections of the content.

3. Look for repeated words and phrases. The frequency with which they happen will be a strong indicator of their importance and point learners in the direction of that elusive main idea.

4. Instruct learners to ask themselves, “What does the writer want me to know?” – Answering this question successfully will require the learners to uncover the main idea of the text.

As the learners work through each of the above steps, they can highlight, underline, or circle the keywords and phrases and then utilize these to help them form their statement of the main idea.

Locating the Main Idea

Inferring the main idea requires the learner to find patterns in the details. As when the main idea is explicit, the learner must first identify the writing subject before determining what the writer wants the reader to know about that subject. Suppose the main idea is not stated explicitly in a sentence or paragraph. In that case, it is implied, and learners must consciously work to uncover it by analyzing the context to infer the main idea. Focused practice of this strategy will soon make it become second nature. The learner will become skilled in identifying the main idea even when it is not stated explicitly.


To identify the main idea, learners should first decide the text’s subject. They will then need to work out what the writer wants us to understand about that subject. This is the spirit of how to identify the main idea. Learners should understand that the main idea may not always be explicit, and they may need to work hard to uncover what the text conveys. Whether the main idea is implicit or explicit, each paragraph will have a main idea, and learners should understand that it can be found throughout the paragraph.

Through perseverance, learners will utilize various strategies and, at times, a fusion of these strategies to uncover the main idea with accuracy and speed. As time passes, they will apply these strategies to various texts over various lengths and complexities.

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