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1.   What is the trick to finding main ideas?

       The trick to finding main ideas is to know how a paragraph is designed.   Paragraphs are made up of sentences that convey information about a topic.   The author usually introduces the topic in the first sentence of a paragraph along with his/her feeling about the topic.   This is called a "topic sentence."    For example, read the following paragraph and look for the author introducing the topic and his/her feeling about the subject.

   "If you want to improve your math or science skills, you're in distinguished company.    Albert             Einstein felt he needed to learn more math to work out his general theory of relativity, so he asked a friend, mathematician Marcel Grossman, to teach him.   It took several years.    You won't need that long."      Taken from Becoming a Master Student 10th Ed. by David Ellis, Houghton Mifflin Company.

David Ellis states that improving math or science skills was a desire of very famous people.   His feeling about this desire is that it won't take you as much time as it did Albert Einstein.

2.   Is the main idea always stated in the first sentence of a paragraph?

      No, an author can choose several locations to express the main idea, but it is usually in the first sentence.   The author may choose to express the main idea in the last sentence of a paragraph.

   "It is the state dance of California.   It is a partner dance that requires a leader and a follower.   The steps are performed in a slot or row configuration.    The leader and follower exchange places as they dance through turns, side passes, whips, and other moves.   The leader and follower hold hands throughout the dance except for a few moves that allow for a break in the arm connection.   This dance is known as the West Coast Swing, and it is very popular among all age groups."     Written by Doreen Kaller, Instructor, Rio Hondo College  

Notice that the main idea of the paragraph is located at the end.   It states the name of the dance, and the author's feeling that it is very popular.   The other sentences present the supporting details.

      The author may choose to express the main idea in the middle of the paragraph.

   "Changing the look of an old piece of furniture begins with the removal the the existing paint or finish.   You can buy several products designed for paint removal.   After removing the paint, the piece must be well sanded.    Following the right steps can definitely turn an old furniture piece into a welcomed addition to any home.   The sanded piece should be primed if necessary to eliminate any "bleeding through" of the original color.   The new paint should be applied neatly and carefully, allowing for the appropriate amount of time for drying before applying a second coat if needed.   Depending on your preference, you may want to add a clear coat to finish the job."

Written by Doreen Kaller, Instructor, Rio Hondo College

This time the author states the main idea in the middle of the paragraph (3rd sentence) and expresses the feeling that the finished product will be welcomed in the home.

     Sometimes the author may choose to "suggest" a main idea and feeling without stating it in a particular sentence.   This is called an "implied main idea" when the author does not state the topic but instead provides sentences of example to convey the message.

    "I scanned the room for familiar faces but saw none.   I checked my watch for the current time.   I paced the floor and continued to look around.   I checked the Arrival Board for incoming flights.   I checked my cellphone for messages.   I bought a cup of coffee.   I sat down and fidgeted in my seat."

Written by Doreen Kaller, Instructor, Rio Hondo College

The author reveals the main idea without stating it in a sentence.   The author's character is anxious about the arrival of someone who appears to be late.

3.   How should I highlight main ideas in my texts?

     Most students tend to highlight too much information in their text chapters.   If you read the paragraphs to locate the main ideas, then you will primarily be highlighting the key words in any paragraph that give the author's topic and feeling about the topic. (main idea).    You should never highlight entire sentences because highlighting is a reading technique to enhance the review of a chapter.   You won't have the time to reread every word if you highlight several sentences. 

4.   Are main ideas used for test questions?

     Most instructors design their tests around the text headings and main ideas related to the headings.   Even textbooks design summary questions at the end of a chapter based on main ideas.  Understanding the main ideas of what you read is the key to successful comprehension and reading enjoyment.