Finding Main Ideas

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Language Arts, Reading, Reading Comprehension

Grade 3- 5


Students read newspaper articles to determine the main idea of a story.


Finding Main Ideas
Writers Communicate with Readers
Writing is a form of communication. Writers, in other words, have something to say to readers. What the writer is talking about, the main point of what the writer is saying, is the main idea.
Without a main idea, nothing very much is said--nothing of importance, anyway. Think of someone chattering endlessly without really telling you anything. "Get to the point!" you say. Or, "What in the world are you talking about?" What you are asking for in such cases is the main idea of the conversation. If there is no main idea there is no real conversation. It is all small talk.
In good writing you shouldn't have to search for the main idea. A good writer makes the ideas jump out at you. Everything either points to the main ideas, leads up to them, or explains them.

Previews and Main Ideas

One reason that previewing is so useful is that it helps you find main ideas in your reading before you start to read. A headline and sub-headings often tell at a glance what the main ideas are. It isn't always that easy, but previewing will certainly provide clues to main ideas so that you know them when you see them.

Main Ideas and Details

Some people have trouble deciding what is a main idea in a piece of reading and what is a detail about a main idea. This should not be a big problem. Decide which sentence is the most important statement in a paragraph or in a group of paragraphs. What is the writer talking about?
Details explain a main idea. Details may be in the form of facts, explanations or descriptions. What is the following short article about? And what are some of the details?

It was a great day for the Clemson Tigers when they became college football's national champions. The big win came in Clemson's victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. This was the school's first national championship in 86 years of gridiron play.

This first sentence tells what the article is about. The main reason for the article is to tell you about Clemson's big win. So this is the main idea. Where they won--the Orange Bowl, and what team they beat--Nebraska, are details. The fact that this was their first championship in 86 years is also a detail.
Find the main idea in this paragraph.

The town of Concord is where they fired the shot "heard 'round the world." But the people of Concord have become fed up with guns, handguns at least. Concord has joined five other towns in an effort to ban ownership of pistols by private citizens.

This time the main idea is not the first sentence. The first sentence points to the main idea. It starts you thinking about guns, which is the main point of the article. Concord is fed up with guns. That is the main idea and it appears in the second sentence which is also the topic sentence of the paragraph.
The last sentence tells what Concord is doing about handguns, so this is a detail.

Putting Many Ideas Together
There is almost always more than one important idea in any reading material longer than a paragraph or two. Long news articles and chapters of books are packed full of ideas. But you can still point to one thing, the most important thing, that is the main subject of the whole article.
What you want to do with long articles, or chapters of a book, is organize the ideas in your mind. Here is how it is done:
  1. Keep the main subject of the reading in mind. You may have found this in your previewing. Write it down if you have to. Hang on to it.
  2. Watch for the most important idea in each long paragraph or group of short paragraphs. (You can find these in topic sentences.)
  3. Work with one long paragraph at a time or a few short ones. Do not do too much at once or you may get lost in a tangle of ideas and details.
  4. Think how each idea you find ties into the main subject (main idea) of the whole article.
  5. If you are doing study reading where you must remember important ideas for a test later on, make an outline from the main ideas you find. (Once again, use the topic sentences.)


  • Finding Main Ideas activity pages
  • pencils
  • newspaper

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