Identifying the Main Idea in Informational Texts

Contributor: Allison Crews. Lesson ID: 13617

Sometimes it can be tricky to figure out the author's point in a text. This lesson will offer strategies and practice for determining main idea using informational texts.

categories

Comprehension, Writing

subject
English / Language Arts
learning style
Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:
  • Want to know what you'll be doing in this lesson?

Check out The Ultimate Main Idea Song from Jake Scott:

Bet you won't be able to get that song out of your head!

What Is Main Idea?

The main idea tells the reader what the piece of writing is about. In a paragraph, the main idea is conveyed to the reader in the topic sentence.

  • How can a reader find the main idea in a piece of writing?

The main idea is easily found because the rest of the paragraph or piece is based around it.

Once a piece or paragraph has been read, the reader should be able to state what the paragraph was about. The main idea is whatever the paragraph or short piece was talking about.

Generally, each paragraph will have its own main idea. However, every once in a while, a piece of writing will be so short that it will have one overarching idea.

Identifying Main Idea

First, it is a good idea to determine the topic of the piece of writing. This is the general subject the piece is about.

A subject is neutral. It does not express an opinion or perspective; it just is, like biology, fashion, food, genealogy, architecture, etc.

The difference between a topic and a main idea is that the main idea is a point being made. It may be purely informative, but it also might express a perspective on the topic.

As the opening song explained, the main idea is what the reader takes away from the piece.

Look at this example paragraph, an excerpt from President Barack Obama's 2009 Inaugural Address, to determine the topic:

The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift. And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.

This is a very short, straightforward paragraph.

  • What is the topic?

Remember, you are identifying just the subject of this paragraph, not the point of the paragraph.

man thinking

The topic of this paragraph is the economy.

After you identify the topic, you want to determine what the important details of the text are. Then, summarize what you've read.

Summarizing is a very important skill, but it can be difficult to truly master.

When you summarize, you retell what you've read, but you only include the most important and necessary information leaving out the extraneous details. It is also very important that, unless you are asked to write a critical summary, you do not comment on the information in the text.

Take a look at the example paragraph one more time:

The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift. And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.

It is very short, so your summary might not be much shorter than the text itself. However, identify the most important details of the paragraph, and write a summary of it in the box below:

Because this paragraph is so short, the summary statement can also serve as the main idea for this paragraph.

However, if you simplified the main idea statement to something like, "The economy requires prompt action to improve," that would also be correct.

Now, take a look at another paragraph from this speech:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Follow the steps outlined above in order to find the main idea.

follow these steps

Now select the statement below that best expresses the main idea.

The topic is still the economy because it is a continuation of the first paragraph.

The recurring theme is determining what works. It is established that this is the important question to ask, and all analyses of economic success point back to it. The economy is a success if families have decent wages, if they can afford medical care, if they can retire with dignity, if programs are effective, if money is being used wisely, and if systems are transparent.

If the question "does it work?" is applied to measure the process (programs, spending, etc.) as well as the outcomes (wages, medical care, retirement, etc.), the resulting answer will accurately assess the quality of the economy. Therefore, that is the main idea.

Sometimes the main idea in an informational text is less obvious.

To learn how to identify main ideas that are not explicitly stated, click through to the Got It? section.

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