Stating the Main Idea of a Text

Filipinos are generally good at reading details but not at seeing the whole picture or structure. Although knowing and remembering the details of a text is an advantage, it is much better to be able to place those details in their proper context and perspective. That makes for a fuller, more meaningful comprehension of a text. 

The context of information is set by the material’s main idea: why such information is selected and why it is presented in a certain way is determined by the main point or idea that the writer wishes to convey. The main idea is at the heart of a text, its driving force, its reason for being. So it’s important to be able to identify and express the main idea of a text, whether printed or audio-visual.

The Main Idea or Thesis

The main idea is the thesis or main point of an informational text. It can be expressed anywhere in a material or paragraph, either at the beginning or middle, or at the end. If stated at the beginning, then you can expect the sentences that follow to support or develop the main idea. This is what you call deductive order. If the thesis or main idea is expressed at the end, then the earlier statements are details/specifics that build up on the main point or general statement. This text follows the deductive order. 

What if the main idea or thesis is not expressed or is implicit in the text? How do you determine the main idea? Obviously, you first have to know the topic of the text. Consider the words that are repeated throughout the material that refer to the same subject—most probably that is the topic of the material. Writers refer to the topic by actually repeating the key term, using synonyms or other names for it, or using pronouns. For example, for the topic Manny Pacquiao, his name may be mentioned several times, or the material may use his other names like “Pambansang Kamao” or “People’s Champ” or “Eight-division Champion,” “Cong. Pacquiao”, “Pacman,” or “he”. 

Next, try to express what is being said about this key word, preferably one sentence per idea. Then group the sentences whose ideas are closely related and try to express each group’s ideas in just one sentence. Finally, combine the ideas and try to come up with one sentence to summarize them all. This is the text’s main idea/thesis. Another clue may be the title. For example, a title such as “War Over Jihad” suggests a debate or conflict on the term ‘jihad’ because it’s war OVER jihad. So the writer is most probably going to express his side on that debate.

Determining or inferring the main idea or thesis does not only apply to informational texts (although they constitute the bulk of learning materials in school) but also to audio-visual materials such as films and advertisements. However, in dealing with audio-visual materials, in addition to language you have to consider visual details such as color, shape, facial expression, gesture, and position, and aural details such as tone, pitch, and volume.

Let’s see how well you analyze this paragraph to arrive at a statement of main idea. The sentences are numbered for easy reference.

1. The concept of habitat is very important. 2. In the appropriate physical, chemical, and biotic habitat, the survival and development of species is almost assured. 3. It is for this reason that organisms do not just exist or grow anywhere. 4. For example, snakes and lizards cannot exist in Alaska because summer there is not warm or long enough for them to breed. 5. Similarly, fish require oxygenated water, so they cannot thrive in bodies of water that are heavily polluted by organic wastes, because microorganisms consume the oxygen which the fish need.

Here are some guide questions to help you.

  1. What is the topic of the paragraph? What terms refer to it? 
  2. What is the comment about this topic? (This is the main idea.) Can you identify a sentence where this comment can be found? (If you can point to it, then that means the main idea is stated.) 
  3. Which between Sentence 1 and Sentence 2 expresses more precisely the point of the paragraph? 
  4. Why does the paragraph mention snakes, lizards, and fish?

Clearly, an analysis of the component ideas of a paragraph will go a long way in determining a text’s main idea or thesis.


  • The topic is different from a main idea or thesis. The main idea or thesis of a paragraph is its comment on the topic. 
  • The thesis or main idea may or may not be stated. If it is not stated, it has to be inferred from all the details – verbal and nonverbal – given in the text. 
  • The main idea is usually a general statement which is elucidated in the material through rhetorical devices such as examples and analysis.

Let’s Practice

Read carefully the following paragraphs and either copy or express in your own words the main idea of each paragraph. What is/are your basis/bases for your answer?

  • During the period when Mao Tse Tung was chairman of the Communist party that ruled the country, China had to endure food and water shortages because of its very large population. At that time, on the average, four children were being born in each family. Prompted by this urgent problem, the Communist party was forced to control family size in order to stabilize food and water supply and to improve opportunity for family prosperity. Thus, in September 1980, the Communist party declared that each couple should have only one child. The target of the One-Child Policy: by the end of the 20th century, a population below 1.2 billion.(Based on: Moore, M. (Oct 30, 2014), “What is China’s One-Child Policy?The Telegraph

    Main Idea: 

    Textual evidence for your answer:

  • Questions and questioning are a fixture in any classroom for they invariably trigger learning, underscoring the truism in the observation made by Wind Eagle, an American Indian chief, that “[q]uestions take you further than answers” (in Saxon, 2009). Having the advantage of knowledge and experience, most teachers and authors have wisely guided readers and students through the jungle of words in texts, to equip them with basic skills and relevant information. The downside of this practice is that teachers and textbooks set, and consequently restrict, the parameters for learning by relegating students to the reactive role of answering questions. Since “constructing questions involves decisions on what information is question-worthy” (Frase & Schwartz, 1975, p. 674), to maximize learning, self-questioning ought to be encouraged among students.(From: Remedios Z. Miciano, “On Questions and Questioning”)

    Main Idea: 
    Textual evidence for your answer: 

  • In the “hybrid” world today, we eat “brunch” (breakfast and lunch combined) while texting (writing that’s like talking), or blogging (web + log), or reading infographics. Infographics combines words and visuals (graphics) to convey information. No matter how complex (or boring) the data is, infographics can make the content understandable and interesting through artistic visuals and layout to complement language which tends to be abstract. Thus, infographics can be effectively used for information dissemination and even persuasion. Because it makes use of a lot of visuals, infographics is the preferred mode of receiving information of Millennials who are strongly visual learners. In view of this, language classrooms today should begin to consider the preparation of infographics in lieu of straightforward “essays” as writing requirements. This innovation will be welcomed by learners today who are adept at searching for information and graphics on the Internet.Main Idea: 

    Textual evidence for your answer: 

  • STRESS is the general malaise of people today. This is true of the poor, the rich, the middle class, the student, the employee, the administrator, the entrepreneur – everybody.; It is primarily caused by a lifestyle and values that make people believe that it is extremely important to be available (meaning active and operational) 24/7. That is why the young feel that they have to be connected to the social media all the time, lest they be left out; that is why adults sleep with their mobile phones close by because they might miss an opportunity; that is why entrepreneurs say “Yes” to all projects, afraid to lose that extra buck. The result of this frenzied lifestyle is the gradual killing of the wellspring of creativity and productivity due to an unhealthy diet of instant food, lack of sleep/rest, and the near impossibility of critical reflection and meditation. Greg McKeon, author of Essentialism, has a logical solution to this problem: “the disciplined pursuit of less,” as it says on the book’s cover. Sadly, this is easier said than done because it runs counter to what many believe to be the engine of growth: the drive to have more, know more, experience more, and acquire more.Main Idea: 

    Textual evidence for your answer: