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Determining the Main Idea

The term main idea refers to determining what is important. It is often confused with the topic of an expository (explanatory) text. But it is much more than that. Often it is determined by using the sum of the information provided. However, in fiction the main idea can be interchanged with theme—or the important ideas the author wants to convey through implication.

According to Gerald G. Duffy in his work Explaining Reading, 2003, there are certain conceptual understandings that must be in place for a student:

  • Understand that authors have a purpose for writing that reflects what they think is important.
  • Have experience questioning as they rad.
  • Have prior experience inferring.
  • Understand that not everything in a text is equally important

There is a secret to being able to determine main idea. To do so the student must…

  • Put themselves in the author’s place.
  • Examine the words and phrases (the details) for clues to what is important.
  • Ask questions about what, in their experience, the clues combined seem to say about what is valued
  • Decide what the main idea is by saying, “If I had written this and said things this way, what would that say about what I thought was important?”

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