How to Find the Main Idea of a Paragraph

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An important part of developing reading comprehension is identifying the main idea of a paragraph. The main idea states the author's overall purpose for writing the paragraph. Identifying the main idea and restating it in your own words develops skills of comprehension and analysis. Though there are several techniques for identifying the main idea, some general guidelines and strategies for both reading and checking your decision can enhance your ability to select important information from a paragraph.

  • Selected reading passage
  • Pen or highlighter
  • Paper

1 Finding the Main Idea

Vocabulary Builder

2 Read the title

Read the title. Some paragraphs or passages will have a heading or title that describes the main idea of the passage. If a title is "Popular Garden Flowers," then the following paragraph will likely describe what kinds of flowers are common in gardens.

3 Read the first sentence

Read the first sentence of the paragraph. Many paragraphs begin with a topic sentence that outlines the main idea or point of the entire passage. The sentences that follow the topic sentence provide supporting details. For instance, read the following passage. "Roses are a popular type of flower in gardens. Roses are easy to grow and beautiful to look at. Roses give off a pleasant aroma once they are in bloom. Even though roses have thorns, they remain a common choice for gardeners." The first sentence lets us know that all subsequent sentences will be discussing the popularity of roses.

4 Read the passage from beginning to end

Read the passage from beginning to end. If the main idea is not stated in the first sentence, it may be stated in the last sentence. In the following passage, the main idea is in the final sentence. "Daisies, lillies, and roses are good flowers for gardeners. They are easy to grow and look beautiful. Carnations are also a popular choice because they come in many colors. In warm climates, hibiscus flowers are popular, but in cold climates grasses and hearty bushes are the plants of choice. There are many popular flower choices available to gardeners." The last sentence summarizes the list that precedes it.

5 Read the full passage

Read the full passage. If the first and last sentences do not identify the main idea, use a highlighter while rereading the paragraph. Highlight words or ideas that repeat themselves. Highlight phrases that begin with marker phrases like, "The most important aspect is ..." or, "It's most interesting that ..." Ideas that are repeated are likely evidence of the author's main idea. The following passage repeats a concept throughout that leads to the main idea. "Water, soil, sun exposure and climate are all factors that contribute to flower growth. Choosing the right flowers for your garden should depend on these factors. There are many varieties of flowers available to gardeners. Exotic flowers require more care than popular flowers. Common flowers are usually easy to care for but still visually interesting." The repetition of the words "flower," "care" and "common/popular" suggests that the passage is about common flower varieties and the reasons they are popular.

6 Checking Your Selection

7 After reading the passage

After reading the passage, place it face down in front of you. Use a clean sheet of paper and rewrite what you remember from the passage. It is likely that the key ideas you remember are the author's main points. After you make your list, reread the paragraph. If there are any major points that are not on your list, you likely have not identified the main idea.

8 Rewrite the passage in your own words

Rewrite the passage in your own words. Give a friend or classmate a copy of your rewrite and a copy of the original paragraph. Ask the friend to compare the paragraphs. If they are essentially the same, then you have identified the main idea. If there are large differences in meaning, then you probably have not identified the main idea.

9 Restate the main idea as a question

Restate the main idea as a question. Replace the topic sentence with your question version of the main idea. If all subsequent sentences answer the question, then you have correctly identified the main idea. For example, read the following passage. "There are many reasons why some flowers are more popular than others. Common flowers are typically easier to care for and require less water. Popular flowers come in a wide variety of colors. Many common flowers attract wildlife like butterflies and bees, which help in pollination." The first sentence can be written in question form as, "Why are some flowers more popular than others?" Every sentence following the topic sentence answers the question. The main idea is "why some flowers are more popular than others."

Hannah Wahlig began writing and editing professionally in 2001. Her experience includes copy for newspapers, journals and magazines, as well as book editing. She is also a certified lactation counselor. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Mount Holyoke College, and Master's degrees in education and community psychology from the University of Massachusetts.