Reading Comprehension: How to Find the Main Idea in Text

By practicing a step-by-step technique, the main idea of a text is within the reach of even struggling readers.

Getting the main idea out of a text is vital to reading comprehension. At the same time, finding the main idea is treated as if it were as simple as locating a word. Noted educator and researcher Kylene Beers points out that struggling readers actually need to be taught steps and strategies to determine the main idea, instead of simply told to do so. While for some readers, the task has become instinctive, there are instructable steps to the task.

1 How to Find the Main Idea of a Text

2 Reread the passage slowly

Reread the passage slowly, and mark the ideas that are clearly supporting details as such. Certain details included in a paragraph will jump out as being interesting, but not necessarily worth remembering. Once these are marked off as “not the main idea,” the remaining information can be paraphrased into a single statement to form the main idea of each paragraph.

3 List the main idea

List the main idea of each paragraph in order. This is less than an outline; it is simply determining the scope of the passage, because the main idea of the passage will take into consideration every paragraph in it.

4 List the most important words

List the most important words. Scan the list of paragraph topics, and jot down the words that are repeated in all or most of them. It may be necessary to paraphrase one or two of the paragraph topics to have more words in common; just be sure that the new sentence is merely a paraphrase, and that the meaning isn’t changed at all.

5 Write a statement

Write a statement that connects the paragraph topics using all of the repeated words. For example, if a passage had paragraphs about the first marathon, the history of the Boston Marathon, the introduction of the marathon to the Olympics and the first women's Olympic marathon, all those topics would come together into the main idea of "the history of the marathon."

6 Test your main idea

Test your main idea by writing out a statement that explains how the topic of each paragraph connects back to that main idea. Review each paragraph of the text to make sure that the connections are suggested by the text, and are not based on outside knowledge.

  • Remember that most non-fiction pieces follow the basic introduction --body-- conclusion pattern, both in the passage as a whole, as well as within each paragraph. Also remember that this is not a strict format. Sometimes a "hook" sentence or paragraph opens a paragraph or passage, and sometimes conclusions are missing.
  • Writing out the responses to every step is best; saying them out loud to a partner is a less effective but acceptable back up. Sharing ideas by speech or writing develops them further.
  • 1 "Teaching Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary"; Marvin L. Klein; 1988.
  • 2 "When Kids Can't Read, What Teachers Can Do"; Kylene Beers; 2003.

With a B.A. in English from Rutgers University and a law degree from the University of Connecticut, Cate Kulak worked in law for 10 years before making a career change to education. She currently writes for Our Companions magazine and has sold articles to Shelterpop and Gadling.