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     Many students read textbooks assuming that all of the words on the pages are important and thus should be highlighted and remembered.   True?   False.   Most information in print has various levels of importance, and it is up to the reader to recognize what the author feels is most important and what is merely added to clarify those points.

     For a minute, consider the concept of major and minor importance.   If you are a sports fan, you understand the idea of major and minor league baseball teams.   If you are interested in health, you can probably name many major diseases as well as minor illnesses.    If you are a student, you may select classes for your major degree while taking courses to complete a minor degree.   All of these divisions are valuable, but major categories are more important and thus receive more attention and focus.     

     When reading information from textbooks or any source, a good reader knows how to locate major details from minor details.    Authors present details to express their points more clearly, but students need to learn how to differentiate between major and minor details.    Read the following paragraph to determine the major and minor details.

   There are many factors that contribute to student success in college.   The first factor for success is having a goal in mind before establishing a course of study.   The goal may be as general as wanting to better educate oneself for the future.   A more specific goal would be to earn a teaching credential.   A second factor related to student success is self-motivation and commitment.   A student who wants to succeed and works toward that desire will find success easily as a college student.   A third factor linked to student success is using college services.   Most beginning college students fail to realize how important it can be to see a counselor or consult with a librarian or financial aid officer.    

     Now see if you were able to determine the key elements of this paragraph including the major and minor details.

1.   Topic-               Student Success

2.   Main Idea-        There are many factors that contribute to student success in college.

3.   Major Details-  First factor (goal)

                                  Second factor (self-motivation/commitment)

                                   Third factor (college services)

4.   Minor Details- Earning a teaching credential

                                  Desire to succeed

                                  Seeing a counselor, librarian, or financial aid officer

     As a college reader, you will begin to see that authors use signal or transition words to let you know when a major detail is being presented.   In this paragraph, the author uses the signal words first, second, and third to indicate the major details.   The author also adds minor details after each major detail to clarify the factors for student success.

Try another paragraph and see how you do locating major and minor details.


     On April 14, 1865 in Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., President Abraham Lincoln was seated in a theater box with his wife, Mary, Major Henry Rathbone, and Rathbone's fiancee.   At approximately 10:00 p.m., John Wilkes Booth, ascended the staircase leading to the President's theater box.    As Booth approached the box, he presented a "card" to the President's personal attendant, who was seated in the chair closest to the door of the box.   After a brief exchange with the attendant, Booth entered the box and closed the door behind him.   The play was in progress as Booth drew his pistol and fired a small leaden ball into the back of Lincoln's head at the precise moment the audience erupted in loud laughter.   As Booth jumped from the box to the stage below, he shouted, "Sic Semper Tyrannis" which means, "Thus Always to Tyrants."  

Adapted from The Escape & Capture of John Wilkes Booth by Edward Steers, Jr. and Joan L. Chaconas, Marker Tours, 1983.


1.   Topic-                President Lincoln's Assassination

2.   Main Idea-         President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford's Theater on April 14,                                     1865.

3.   Major Details-   Lincoln and his wife were at the theater with Major Henry Rathbone and his                                      fiancee.

                                   Booth entered the theater box from the staircase.

                                   Booth shot the President with a pistol in the back of the head.

                                   Booth escaped the box by jumping to the stage below.

4.   Minor Details-  Booth presented a card to the President's personal attendant.

                                   Booth exchanged words with the attendant.

                                   After jumping to the stage, Booth yelled, "Sic Semper Tyrannis."

     As you can see, the details in this example are not as clearly marked with signal words because the author chose to present the points in a narrative style.   The author did not use signal words like first, second, and third because he chose to present the major and minor points in a sequential order.  

Text Highlighting Hint

     When highlighting a college text, students should remember to only highlight the main ideas and major details that the author is presenting.   Minor details should not be highlighted because they are only added to enhance the meaning of major details.   Most students tend to overmark their texts and ultimately do not have time to review all that they marked before exams.   It is much more efficient to just mark the main ideas and major details, thus making a review of the highlighted material easier before test time.