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Reading to Understand

The main idea is the point or message - what an author presents and what a reader takes from a text. 

Searching for that main idea is a very important activity in understanding a text. It is usually found in the opening paragraph when the author is setting up the topic and expressing the thesis. 

However, the location can vary according to the type of reading. For example, a research article's main idea is toward the end, whereas a persuasive essay's main idea is conveyed at the beginning.

Steps for Identifying the Main Idea

Step 1

Pre-read to Determine the Overall Topic

Examine the title and then skim the text to determine who or what the reading is about. If you see the same word repeated you know that it is likely the topic or at least an important element of the topic. The topic should be a noun or a noun phrase such as "online education." The topic itself does not convey any meeting us you must read on to determine the main idea.

Step 2


Ask yourself questions about the text as you read in-depth. Pay close attention to the introduction, the first sentence of body paragraphs, and the conclusion. In these places, the author typically states and supports the main idea. 

Questions to Ask Yourself While Reading

  • What elements make up this topic?
  • What is the author saying about this topic?
  • What does the author want me to know or believe about this topic?

Step 3


Reflect on what you have read. If the main idea is not immediately apparent to you review the introduction and conclusion. The main idea should be a complete thought such as "because of its flexibility, comfort, and lower-cost online education is increasing in popularity for younger generations."

Questions to Ask Yourself While Reflecting:

  • What is the message I take away from this reading?
  • What point does the information add up to?
  • What idea does the author reinforce in the conclusion?
  • What is the final impression I have about this topic?

Finding the Main Idea

Once you believe you have found the main idea, check that each body paragraph relates to that main idea. The body paragraph should include supporting ideas that reinforce and provide greater detail about the main idea. 

Some students find it beneficial to sketch the main idea and supporting ideas in their notes as a concept map.