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Language Arts

Introduction to the Main Idea

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Because it is taught at such a young age and reading is such a common activity, most people do not look at reading analytically. Most people, when confronted with the concept of "reading" as an adult, say…Hey I already know how to read. Why do I need this stuff?

Perhaps you are thinking this, too. And it is true. You do know how to read. You are reading this text right now. However, reading is not as simple as it first seems. Most people think that by understanding how to put letters together into words, they are reading.

But, there is more to reading for understanding. Think about the types of things people do when they are trying to figure out what an author is saying. Or better yet, ask yourself the question, "What do I do when I am trying to figure out what an author is saying?"

Select the Next button and learn strategies used by active readers.

I try to find the main idea.
I try to understand the author's purpose.
I try to locate the supporting details.
I try to figure out unfamiliar words by looking at the context.
I try to read between the lines to understand what the author means even if he or she doesn't say it directly. I try to look at how the reading is organized.
I try to look at pictures, tables, and graphs.
I try to determine whether something is fact or opinion.

Another way of thinking of it is this: If you had to boil down an entire class about reading to just one subject, it would be about finding the main idea. Finding the main idea, more than any other aspect of reading, is what reading is all about. So, what is the main idea? The main idea is what the author is trying to get across to the reader. It is simply the key point the writer is trying to communicate. The main idea tells what the whole passage is about. In most cases, the main idea will be directly stated in a passage. Other times, it will just be implied, and you will have to infer the main idea from the clues in the text. The main idea can often be found in the first or last sentence of a passage; however, the writer sometimes puts the main idea in the middle.

There are numerous other terms used to describe the main idea, some of which are illuminating. These are:

  • The main point.
  • The gist of the piece.
  • The point of the article.
  • What the author is really trying to tell you.

One way to think about the main idea is that it answers the question, "Why is this passage important?" Another way of thinking about it is in terms of the author. If the author were writing to you, he or she might say, "Hello, dear reader. When you read this piece, this is what I want you to know about or understand." What the author wants you to know about or understand is the main idea.

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