Main Idea

Main Idea asks:  What is the main idea of what you just read?


Basics

Main Idea refers to the core meaning of a reading passage.

Main Idea is one of three key questions of reading comprehension.

Main Idea asks: What is the main idea of what you just read?

A main idea question can also be asked without using the term “main idea”:
• What is this passage trying to say?
• What is the author getting at?
• What is the purpose of this passage?
• What is the objective of this passage?
• Etc.

The main idea is often found in the title and early paragraphs of a passage.

The main idea also weaves its way throughout a passage.

The main idea might be repeated for emphasis in the last paragraph of a passage.


Passage

Description of a Desert

It is difficult to form a correct idea of a desert, without having seen one.  It is a vast plain of sand and stones, interspersed with mountains of various sizes and heights, without roads or shelters.  They sometimes have springs of water, which burst forth, and create verdant spots.

Question
In the above title and first paragraph from a report by Ann Plato, what is the main idea?
A.  A desert is easily imagined.
B.  A desert is indescribable.
C.  A desert is described.
D.  What’s for dessert?

Answer
C.  A desert is described.

Answer Process
Both the title and the first paragraph focus on the description of a desert.


Passage

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland.  I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.  By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.  I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.  They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time.  A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood.  The white children could tell their ages.  I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.  I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it.  He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit.  The nearest estimate I can give makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age.  I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.

Question
In the above title and first paragraph from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, what is the author trying to say?
A.  Slavery is evil.
B.  Frederick Douglass describes his childhood.
C.  Seasons are equated with agriculture.
D.  Frederick Douglass is explaining his difficulty in determining his age.

Answer
D.  Frederick Douglass is explaining his difficulty in determining his age.

Answer Process
In this case, the phrase “trying to say” takes the place of “main idea,” and the contents of the paragraph are more helpful than the title.  Although it mentions slavery, seasons, and childhood, the paragraph mainly makes multiple references to the narrator’s age.


Passage

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Question
In the above title and first paragraph from a novel by Charles Dickens, what is the author getting at?
A.  He is setting the scene for the contradictory forces in the story.
B.  He is writing without a purpose.
C.  He is making no comparisons.
D.  He is alluding to neither the past nor the present.

Answer
A.  He is setting the scene for the contradictory forces in the story.

Answer Process
In this case, the phrase “getting at” takes the place of “main idea,” and the contents of the paragraph are more helpful than the title.  Multiple contradictory forces are listed, thereby setting the scene for the story to come.


Practice – Questions

1.  Passage
The Origin of Species

I will here give a brief sketch of the progress of opinion on the Origin of Species.  Until recently, the great majority of naturalists believed that species were immutable productions, and had been separately created.  This view has been ably maintained by many authors.  Some few naturalists, on the other hand, have believed that species undergo modification, and that the existing forms of life are the descendants by true generation of pre-existing forms.  Passing over allusions to the subject in the classical writers, the first author who in modern times has treated it in a scientific spirit was Buffon.  But as his opinions fluctuated greatly at different periods, and as he does not enter on the causes or means of the transformation of species, I need not here enter on details.

1.  Question
In the above title and first paragraph from a book by Charles Darwin, what is the main idea?
A.  Animals are different from plants.
B.  There are many different religions.
C.  There is controversy regarding the origin of species.
D.  Human babies are dropped off by storks.


2.  Passage

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

2.  Question
In the above title and first stanza from a poem by Robert Frost, what is the main idea?
A.  A traveler has a choice between two roads.
B.  Wood is yellow.
C.  It is winter.
D.  The season of the year is uncertain.


3.  Passage

The Fall of the House of Usher

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.  I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.  I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.  I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul …

3.  Question
In the above title and first paragraph from a story by Edgar Allan Poe, what is the main idea?
A.  Don’t worry; be happy.
B.  A traveler finds the house of a pop star.
C.  A car runs out of gas.
D.  A traveler is beset with a sense of gloom.


4.  Passage

The Strenuous Life

In speaking to you, men of the greatest city of the West, men of the State which gave to the country Lincoln and Grant, men who preeminently and distinctly embody all that is most American in the American character, I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.

4.  Question
What is Theodore Roosevelt in the above title and first paragraph of a public speech trying to say?
A.  He is secretly talking about Chicago.
B.  Take it easy.
C.  There is much to be said for exerting oneself.
D.  He is secretly talking about Los Angeles.


5.  Passage

U.S. Department of Transportation – Office of Drug & Alcohol Policy & Compliance

Safety is our no. 1 priority at the U.S. Department of Transportation.  And a cornerstone of our safety policy is ensuring that transportation providers across all modes – on roads, rails, water, or in the air, over land and underground – employ operators who are 100 percent drug- and alcohol-free.  We want – and we insist upon – safety-conscious employees at all times and under all circumstances.

5.  Question
What is the above title and first paragraph from an employee handbook getting at?
A.  Exceptions can be made.
B.  Safety is one of many priorities.
C.  The rules concern one form of transportation.
D.  Employees throughout the department need to be conscious of safety.


6.  Passage

The Taxpayer Advocate Service Is Here To Help You

The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) is your voice at the IRS.  As an independent organization within the IRS, our job is to ensure that every taxpayer is treated fairly and that you know and understand your rights.  We can offer you free help with IRS problems that you can’t resolve on your own.  We know the tax process can be confusing, but the worst thing you can do is nothing at all!  TAS can help if you can’t resolve your tax problem and:
• Your problem is causing financial difficulties for you, your family, or your business.
• You face (or your business is facing) an immediate threat of adverse action.
• You’ve tried repeatedly to contact the IRS but no one has responded, or the IRS hasn’t responded by the date promised.

6.  Question
In the above title and first paragraph from a government document, what is the main idea?
A.  The IRS is out to get you.
B.  The worst thing you can do is nothing at all.
C.  There is no point in trying.
D.  The Taxpayer Advocate Service is a helping arm of the IRS.


7.  Passage

Of Parents and Children

The joys of parents are secret; and so are their griefs and fears.  They cannot utter the one; nor they will not utter the other.  Children sweeten labors; but they make misfortunes more bitter.  They increase the cares of life; but they mitigate the remembrance of death.

7.  Question
In the above title and first paragraph from an essay by Francis Bacon, what is the main idea?
A.  Children are all fun.
B.  Children are nothing but trouble.
C.  Parents might have mixed feelings about children.
D.  You should never have children.


8.  Passage

Preface to Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language

It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward.  Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths through which Learning and Genius press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress.  Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.

8.  Question
In the above title and first paragraph introducing Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, what is the main idea?
A.  Samuel Johnson has a high opinion of himself.
B.  Samuel Johnson is approaching the task of writing a dictionary with humility.
C.  Samuel Johnson has no sense of humor.
D.  Samuel Johnson believes writing a dictionary will be easy.


9.  Passage

Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties

As this book is written for boys of all ages, it has been divided under two general heads, “The Tomahawk Camps” and “The Axe Camps,” that is, camps which may be built with no tool but a hatchet, and camps that will need the aid of an axe.  The smallest boys can build some of the simple shelters and the older boys can build the more difficult ones.  The reader may, if he likes, begin with the first of the book, build his way through it, and graduate by building the log houses; in doing this he will be closely following the history of the human race, because ever since our arboreal ancestors with prehensile toes scampered among the branches of the pre-glacial forests and built nestlike shelters in the trees, men have made themselves shacks for a temporary refuge.

9.  Question
What is Daniel Carter Beard, the author, getting at here at the beginning of Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties?
A.  Boys of all ages, including grown men, have needed to build shelter throughout history.
B.  Only boys would be interested in this book.
C.  Only men would be interested in this book.
D.  Shelters, shacks, and shanties are beneath the dignity of the modern world.


10.  Passage

Hamlet

To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.

10.  Question
What is Shakespeare’s Hamlet trying to say?

A.  Hamlet has terminal cancer.
B.  Hamlet is trying to figure out how to be famous.
C.  Hamlet is wondering whether he should be passive or active.
D.  Hamlet is an expert marksman.


Practice – Answers

1.  C.  There is controversy regarding the origin of species.

2.  A.  A traveler has a choice between two roads.

3.  D.  A traveler is beset with a sense of gloom.

4.  C.  There is much to be said for exerting oneself.

5.  D.  Employees throughout the department need to be conscious of safety.

6.  D.  The Taxpayer Advocate Service is a helping arm of the IRS.

7.  C.  Parents might have mixed feelings about children.

8.  B.  Samuel Johnson is approaching the task of writing a dictionary with humility.

9.  A.  Boys of all ages, including grown men, have needed to build shelter throughout history.

10.  C.  Hamlet is wondering whether he should be passive or active.

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