After determining the topic of a reading passage. The student needs to figure out what the main idea is. The main idea is the most important statement the writer makes about the topic. There are three common characteristics of main ideas.
- Must always have the topic (the word, name, or phrase that tells who or what the paragraph is about)
- Must always be a complete sentence by itself (even if you were not able to read the rest of the paragraph)
- Must be a sentence that summarizes the details of the paragraph
IMPORTANT NOTE: In many ways, the main idea and the thesis statement can be the same thing. A thesis statement is the main idea of an entire paper whereas a regular main idea is the most important statement about the topic in a particular paragraph. In other words, there are different levels of main ideas from ones that cover an entire paper to ones that only cover a paragraph. This applies to the concept of topics as well.
The main idea of a paragraph can be in one of three places.
- The beginning
- The middle
- The end
We will now look at examples of each.
Main Idea at the Beginning
The main idea at the beginning is often the easiest to understand. The first sentence states clearly what the rest of the paragraph is about. The reader never has to wonder why the author is saying something because the author tells them from the beginning. Below is an example. The main idea is underlined and in bold
Dogs are good pets to have. Dogs are fun to play with and are friendly to everyone. Dogs are also very close to their master and obey them. Dogs even love children and will protect the family.
Dogs are good pets to have is the main idea. The rest of the paragraph provides reasons and evidence for why dogs are good pets. This is deductive reasoning in which is going from a general principal (the main idea) to specific examples (the rest of the paragraph.
Main Idea at the End
The next most common place to put a main idea is at the end.
Have you ever had a dog for a pet? Dogs are fun to play with and are friendly to everyone. Dogs are also very close to their master and obey them. Dogs even love children and will protect the family. Dogs are good pets to have.
The writer starts with a question (a question can never be the main idea). They supply reasons for having a dog and the summarize by sharing that dogs are good pets to have. This is inductive reasoning in which the author goes from specific examples (the beginning of the paragraph) to a general principle (the main idea).
Main Idea in the Middle
The worst place to put the main idea is in the middle. This approach is neither deductive or inductive it is just confusing for many academic disciplines. Below is an example.
–Have you ever had a dog for a pet? Dogs are fun to play with and are friendly to everyone. Dogs are also very close to their master and obey them. Everyone should own a dog. Dogs even love children and will protect the family.
The question to ask is “why provide another example after sharing the main idea?” This is why this approach is not always the clearest.
When reading it is important to determine what is the point and to answer why is the writer writing about this. The answer to these questions is the main idea. It is the most important idea about the topic. The main idea is what the writer wants a student to remember after he or she finishes reading. The placement of the main idea can be anywhere in the paragraph. Finding the main idea will help a student to see the big picture of what the writer was trying to say.
IMPORTANT NOTE FOR WRITERS: In an academic writing, it is almost always best to put the main idea at the beginning. A student wants the reader, which is often a professor, to know exactly where the student is taking them in their text immediately. If a teacher has to try and figure what a student has to say, the teacher can often become frustrated and this could cost a student points. Scholars want to know what the point is right away, they want to see the big picture and check details as necessary. Therefore, students should tell them in the first sentence or as soon as possible what the main idea is. There are exceptions depending on discipline but this is a very safe rule for most circumstances.
The next best place to put a main idea is at the end. As mentioned, this is a sort of inductive reasoning approach. The reader wonders what the student is talking about but the get the point at the end. It’s frustrating but eventually they get the punchline. The worst place is the middle. A student give examples, state the point, and give more examples. This is totally confusing in may disciplines. Remember, main idea should be first whenever possible, last if necessary, and never in the middle.