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Language Arts

The Topic and the Main Idea

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Most people can read a piece of writing and pick out the topic of that piece. On the other hand, most people struggle to accurately identify the main idea. What is a topic? How is it different from the main idea? Why is it so much easier to locate? These, and many other questions, will be answered shortly. First, what is "topic"?

To describe the difference between a topic and a main idea, we can look at an analogy. Imagine that you are in a room full of people and you hear your name. Naturally, your ears perk up. You keep hearing your name coming up in conversation. You are curious and want to know what they were saying about you. Your name would be the topic. What they were saying about you would be the main idea.


  • Is the general subject.
  • Is a broader category than the main idea.
  • Answers the question, "What is this about in general?"
  • Is usually written as a few words or a short phrase.
  • Usually sounds like a title.

Main Idea:

  • Is why the author has written the piece.
  • Is more specific than the topic.
  • Answers the question, "What is the author trying to tell me?"
  • Is usually written as a full sentence (subject, verb, can stand alone and make sense).

Main ideas should always be written as a full sentence. Students struggle with this. They tend to start a main idea statement with the word, "how". This doesn't work very well. A sentence contains a subject and a verb and can stand-alone.

For example, (using the dog example from the sample activity on page 1), the topic of that paragraph would be something like, "Theories about the domestication of dogs", or, "How dogs became domesticated." These are both examples of topics, not main ideas. They sound like titles, and they are not full sentences. The main idea, as was stated earlier, is "There are two theories about how wolves evolved into dogs."

Now, look at these examples. As you can see, if you went up to someone and said (with no other introduction) "Theories about the domestication of dogs", or, "How dogs became domesticated", the person you were talking to would look at you like you were a little loopy. However, if you would say "There are two theories about how wolves evolved into dogs", they might look at you with curiosity, wanting to hear about what those theories might be, or they might think you were a bit of a dog nut, BUT, they would at least understand what you were saying because you were using a full sentence.


  • The topic is broad; the main idea is specific.
  • Topics are written in a few words, as a phrase, and should sound a bit like a title.
  • Main ideas should be written in a full sentence.

Now that you know the difference between a topic and a main idea, we can move on to look at how you can find the main idea.

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