Clues to Finding the Main Idea in Textbooks and Articles

  1. Titles, heads, and subheads.  These announce major subjects and ideas in boldface type.

  2. Purpose sentence.  Look for a sentence in the first paragraphs of a book, chapter, or article that states what the rest of the text will be about.

  3. Pre-outline.  Look for sentences listing the ideas that will be developed in the coming paragraphs.

  4. Topic Sentence.  Recognize the sentences in paragraphs and sections of material that state the subject and focus of the rest of the discussion.

  5. Italics.  Sometimes main ideas appear in italics as well as boldface type to make them stand out from the rest of the text.

  6. Repetition.  Repetition of a key word or idea throughout a text is a signal that it is a major topic in the discussion.

  7. Questions.  Questions invite readers to look for answers, and the answer is often one of the major ideas being developed.

  8. Numbering.  Ideas that are numbered are important.  Either write them or make them into a mental list and put a label or title at the top.

  9. Visuals.  Pictures, graphs, diagrams, figures, and other materials are often used to highlight and emphasize main ideas.  Study them carefully.

  10. Details.  The use of examples, statistics, and other details always signals a main idea is being clarified, proved, or developed.  Look back or ahead and discover the idea.

  11. Organizational Patterns.  The major parts of the pattern, such as the topics, the divisions in time, the two objects being compared, the cause and the effect, or the problem and the solution are the main ideas.  Recognize the pattern and look for the ideas.

  12. Summary.  Summaries restate the main ideas in brief form.

Adapted from College Reading and Study Skills, Nancy V. Wood, 1996.