How to find the main idea

Determining the main idea of any text can be tricky. Let’s take a look at some helpful ways to zero in on it.

Taylor Hartley

Taylor Hartley

January 19, 2024

How to find the main idea

Determining the main idea of any text can be tricky. Let’s take a look at some helpful ways to zero in on it.

Taylor Hartley

Taylor Hartley

Jan 19, 2024

How to find the main idea

Determining the main idea of any text can be tricky. Let’s take a look at some helpful ways to zero in on it.

Taylor Hartley

Taylor Hartley

Jan 19, 2024

Key takeaways

  • Think of the main idea as the point – The main idea is the primary argument or claim discussed by the author, around which all other supporting details and explanations revolve.
  • Make sure you read the full text – You can determine the main idea by reading the full text, annotating its key points, summarising, and looking for any repeating ideas or statements.
  • There are a few key questions to ask – While reading, it’s always important to look for the Who, What, Where and Why. These details will help explain why the author believes what they do.

The main idea of a text can be a difficult thing to nail down, but it’s the most important detail of any passage you come across. As you travel along your journey towards mastering reading comprehension, you’ll need to build a habit of figuring out what the main idea is. Once you’ve accomplished that, you’ll have a better chance at consistently understanding even the most complicated of paragraphs. 

What exactly is the main idea?

The main idea is the central argument or point a paragraph is trying to communicate. It’s often the first claim an author makes when they begin their work but it can also be formed based on key details and facts dispersed throughout the body of a paragraph, too. Think of the main idea as the anchor of a paragraph, holding the passage steady and providing a foundation for other important points. 

Is there a difference between the central idea and the main idea?

You might be a bit confused if you discover people referencing a “central idea,” of a paragraph or essay. But fear not! The central idea and the main idea are one and the same. The central idea represents the same key talking points and details as the main idea–the primary argument an author is trying to make. 

Is there a difference between a supporting detail and a main idea?

Even though the central idea and the main idea are the same, there are a few differences between the main idea and it various supporting details. Supporting details are another important part of reading comprehension, as they provide some much needed context, or explanation of the overall main idea. 

A supporting detail might go into greater detail on a specific topic, and give you a bit more understanding of the main point the author is trying to drive home. However, these supporting details don’t exist as their own main ideas, they’re simply there to support the main idea and reinforce it.

How to find the main idea in five easy steps

Now that you have a basic understanding of what the main idea is, you’ll need to start learning ways to identify it when you encounter it in the wild. Follow along as we walk through some helpful tips on pinpointing the main idea of a passage.  

1. Identify the topic.

One of the first tools you can use for locating the main idea is referencing the title of a paper or any subtitles used throughout. Titles are a great way of gaining a grasp on the central topic of an author’s argument. Take the title of this article, “How to find the main idea.” We can learn a lot about what a piece of writing is about by looking at its title. 

2. Read the entire passage.

The second step in finding the main idea? You guessed it, thoroughly read the passage so you can get a firm handle on what it’s trying to say. You might be tempted to skim the writing to save time, but it’s important to read each sentence with intent so no details go unseen. Remember, even the smallest detail can provide you with the extra confidence and understanding you need to define the main idea. 

3. Annotate as you go, underlining key points or ideas you see.

One helpful tip to help guide your understanding of the main idea is to annotate, or take notes, while you read the text. Doing this will give you a brief but helpful outline of the main points the passage makes. You can look back through your notes once you’re done reading and use them to solve the main idea puzzle. Remember to write down any details you find particularly impactful.  

4. At the end, summarise the passage and what you think it’s arguing.

When you’re finished reading and annotating, use what you’ve learned from the text to form a summary of the entire passage. Your summary should include the main arguments and supporting evidence the author used to get their point across. By creating a summary, you’ve reinforced the main ideas of the text in your head, making it easier to discover what the author is really trying to say. 

5. Read the first sentence and last sentence and look for repeating ideas in your annotations.

The main idea is often expressed in the first few lines of a text and reiterated in the closing lines of a passage. Knowing this, take a good look at both the first and last lines of a paragraph, and see if there are any recurring details or statements within each one. If there are similarities, there’s a good chance that these statements reflect what the main idea is. 

Questions to ask when trying to find the main idea

Although it’s important to take note of each detail you come across in a passage, some can be more valuable when trying to determine the main idea. These details are key parts of the summary you’ll need to create. They’re known as the Who, the What, the Where, and the Why. 


The Who relates to the subject of the text; the person or thing the passage is describing. It’s most often a person or group of people, but it can also range from animals to robots to insects! Identifying the Who is an important part of grasping the main idea, because you’ll need to determine just who the author is writing about if you’re going to figure out what the author is trying to say about them.


What is happening within the passage? What actions are taken by the Who? These actions, or reactions, are known as the What. This is the meat of the paragraph, the behaviours or movements of characters and people that the author uses to describe what’s happening in their writing.


The When is another important detail you’ll need to define as you discover the main idea. The When of a passage is the time period the paragraph itself takes place in or references. Think of the When as a date on a calendar. The Who and What you’ve already defined, but on what date – or at what time of the day – do they appear?


What is the setting or location of the paragraph? Where does the action take place? Is it in a specific state or country, or maybe a specific city or neighbourhood? By defining the Where, you’ll be able to determine how the setting influences the main idea. Maybe there are specific laws or rules tied to the setting that affect the main idea, or maybe the geography of the setting affects what the author is trying to say about the region and the people who live in it. No matter what the Where is, you need to define it so that you can understand how the setting of a passage relates to the main idea. 

And most importantly, why?

The Why is perhaps the most important piece of the main idea puzzle. To define the Why, ask yourself how the author explains the reasoning behind their argument. Why do certain things work the way they do? Why do people act in the ways that they do? The answer to these questions are within the text, and they’re probably the most important facts regarding the main idea. If you can define the Why, or the explanation for why the author thinks the way they do, you can find the main idea. 

Watch out for distractors

As you work your way through a multiple-choice test, reading comprehension questions will normally ask you to pick the main idea out from a collection of possible answers. The creators of these tests can be tricky, and might try to mislead you with answers that don’t actually align with the true main idea.

Because of this, it’s important that you read the passage carefully, paying close attention to the little details throughout that might clue you in to the main idea’s meaning. Make sure to come up with your own main idea, and don’t rely on the answers provided to you by the test. Wrong answers are often either too narrow in their description of the text, too broad, or make claims that are contrary to the argument posed by the author.

Creating your own outline of the passage once you’ve carefully read it will help you summarise the text, pick out its key arguments, and determine the best answer for what the main idea is.

Explore the main idea with DoodleEnglish

DoodleEnglish is an app that’s filled with thousands of fun, interactive exercises covering grammar, punctuation, spelling and more!

Designed by teachers, it creates each child a unique work programme tailored to their needs, boosting their confidence and skills in English. Try it for free today!

try doodleenglish for free

FAQs about the main idea

The main idea should include the main talking points of a paragraph. Think of it as a summary of the author’s writing that represents their central argument. The main idea includes the key statements, facts, or opinions the author chooses to include that embody what they’re trying to say. 

There are several strategies you can use to help you find the main idea. Techniques such as looking at the title of the work, or any subtitles, writing down your own summary of the text, looking at the first and last sentences of a paragraph, and identifying recurring ideas are ways to discover the main idea. You can also take notes throughout your reading so that you have a brief outline of key details. 

Yes, it’s extremely important for you to read the passage in its entirety if you want the best chance at understanding its main idea. You may feel tempted to skim or speed-read your way through an essay, but be wary that you might miss certain details or key ideas that could have helped you define the central argument. The best way to go about defining the main idea is to read each sentence intently. 

The central claim and the main idea are synonymous with one another, meaning they represent the same thing. If you’ve identified the central claim of a passage, you’ll be happy to know that you’ve also found the main idea!

Screenshot 2023-10-13 at 16.29.14

Try DoodleEnglish for free!

Related posts

What are speech marks?

From novels to news reports, speech marks are used everywhere

Spelling activities for KS2

There are lots of fun ways you can liven up spelling practice!

What is SPaG? A guide

SPaG is a really important concept in English, but what does it mean?


Are you a parent, teacher or student?

Get started for free!

Are you a parent or teacher?

Maths information pack

We ask for your contact info so we can send our info pack directly to your inbox for your convenience

Exam prep information pack

We ask for your contact info so we can send our info pack directly to your inbox for your convenience

Case studies information pack

We ask for your contact info so we can send our info pack directly to your inbox for your convenience

Information pack

We ask for your contact info so that our Education Consultants can get in touch with you and let you know a bit more about Doodle.

Student Login

Which programme would you like to use?

If you’d like to use Doodle’s browser version, please visit this page on a desktop.

To log in to Doodle on this device, you can do so through our apps. You can find out how to download them here: