Teaching Ideas to Find the Main Idea in Passages

How to Distinguish

Most reading standardized test that students will take will ask for the main idea. The main idea, summarizing, and theme many times become mixed up in students’ minds. Before beginning a lesson on finding the main idea in a reading passage, teachers should review the differences of writing a summary, the theme, and the main idea.

Main Idea

The main idea of a passage is the topic of the passage and the author’s main point about the topic. Sometimes the main idea is not directly stated. This means that the students will have to infer or figure out what the main idea is. Students will have to read through the supporting details to figure out the main idea of the passage.


Summarizing a passage is another important skill that students need to do well on standardized tests. However, giving a summary when the question asks for the main idea can be disastrous.

A summary of a passage is a shortened version of the key elements or events of a passage. Students should be able to take a page of text and summarize it into one or a couple of sentences. An easy practice is to take a passage and underline key words or phrases. Then, they can write what the passage is about in a few sentences.


The theme is focused on the main idea but shows a universal truth about life, human nature, or society. It is not the subject of the passage. It can also be a fable or a moral. A few examples of common themes in literature are as follows: the great journey, good vs. evil, solving a great mystery, growing up, relationships, love, revenge, friendship, etc.

Main Idea Practice

The following passage has a multiple choice question following it. For each answer or distracter an explanation is given. Distracters are answer choices that are not correct. The distracters will usually be answers that support the passage but will not be the main idea. The distracters will usually be supporting detail, inferred details, themes, or summaries.

Main Idea Question Sample with Analysis

Bella stretched out on the couch, not on the seat cushions but on the arm rest in the sunshine. She was the beloved family dog that was not supposed to be on the couch. Her black fur stood out on the light tan upholstery, and Mother hated seeing dog hair all over her new couch. Martin decided that he could fix this problem, which would allow Bella to sit on the couch with the family. He purchased a new dog hair removal device from the store with his allowance. He then cleaned the couch religiously every week. Now, everyone, including Bella, could enjoy the nice, new couch.

What is the main idea of this passage?

A. Bella doesn’t always obey

B. Bella is the family dog that liked the arm rest

C. Martin cleaned the couch so Bella could enjoy sitting with the family

D. Martin purchased a dog hair removal device from the store and cleaned the couch

Answer with analysis

A. is an inferred detail

B. is a supporting detail

C. is the main idea

D. is a summary of what Martin did

Many times, students will choose a supporting detail because they remember it from the passage. This main idea is not directly stated in the passage. The students will need to read the entire passage and use supporting detail to figure out the main idea.

To help students learn how to choose the correct main idea, they need to practice this skill. Many books or online sites offer this kind of practice, such as Quia.com.