Get Straight to the Point: Recognizing Main Ideas

Contributor: Allison Crews. Lesson ID: 13609

Determining the main idea in a work of literature is a crucial skill component of literature analysis. This lesson will help you identify main ideas and write strong summaries.


Literary Studies, Writing

English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Skill Sharpener

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Think about your favorite book or movie.

woman making a choice

  • What would you say is the point of this work?
  • Why did the creators make this piece of art?
  • What do they want their readers or viewers to take away from the work?
  • How do you know?

Keep these thoughts in mind as we examine excerpts and works of literature in this lesson, and consider (as you read) how you determine what matters.

One important distinction when recognizing main idea is the difference between main ideas and topics.

The topic is the subject of the piece.

The main idea is the point the writer wants the reader to take away from the piece.

Take a look at these imaginary headlines:


Consider the top headline first.

  • What is the topic of this headline (and hypothetical story)?

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  • What would you deduce is the main idea of this article?

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Now, consider the second headline.

  • What is the topic?

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  • What is the likely main idea?

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Determining the topic is the first step in recognizing main idea.

Tips for Identifying Main Idea

Sometimes, when reading a piece, you will need to re-read or read closely in order to identify the main idea.

Close reading is a method of reading that is slow and intentional, making note of the details: word choice, symbols, themes, repetition, etc. This method is helpful for determining what choices the author makes to develop his or her main idea and themes.

Additional tips for identifying main idea:

  • Read the beginning and ending at least twice. Consider how the story gets from Point A to Point B.
  • When you finish reading, write a summary of the work. (We'll practice this in the Got It? section.)
  • Consider the ideas, situations, and images that appear repeatedly throughout the piece.
  • Remember that in fiction writing, the story is told artistically. The main idea may not be explicitly stated but rather figuratively implied.


Read "The Mice," by Lydia Davis, below, and then answer the question that follows.

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Choice A is not an event that occurs or is implied in the story.

Choice C is implied but as a speculation and not supported by evidence.

Choice D is not referenced at all in the story.

Choice B, however, addresses what occurs in the story and reflects the purpose of the story as a whole. Choice B is the best answer.

Click through to the Got It? section to practice summary writing and deepen your understanding of main ideas.

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