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5.1: Topics, Supporting Details, and Main Ideas

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    Before you try to identify the main idea of a reading, it is best to identify the topic. The topic is the general subject of the reading, and it is not as specific as the main idea; it is usually only a few words, not a complete sentence. To identify the topic, ask yourself, "Who or what is this reading selection about?" There are some clues within a reading that can help you answer the question:

    • Headings and Titles
    • Pictures
    • Repeated words and phrases

    Once you think you've identified the topic, make sure it is one that is general and not too specific. For example, below are some ideas that are better suited topics because of their generality, whereas the other ideas are too specific to be considered topics.

    Tips for exams Learn to take exams effectively.
    College papers Learn to write college papers.
    Food allergies There are several types of food allergies.
    College majors Understand different college majors.

    Supporting Details and Main Ideas

    Now that you've identified the topic, you are ready to identify the main idea of a reading by looking at the supporting details. The supporting details of a reading are information (facts, examples, support) that further explains the topic, and that directly relates to the main idea. Sometimes, the supporting details will include transitional words and phrases to signal their significance.


    My grandmother's 7-layer cookie recipe is one that must be followed exactly to ensure a successful turnout. First, pour melted butter into a baking dish. Next,  sprinkle finely crushed graham cracker crumbs on top of the melted butter. Afterward, evenly distribute chocolate chips and butterscotch chips in the baking dish. Next, sprinkle shredded coconut overtop the chips. Then, evenly pour one can of sweetened condensed milk over the previous ingredients. Lastly, sprinkle chopped walnuts on top of the milk. After baking at 350 degrees for 30 minutes and allowing the cookies to cool completely, they are ready to be cut and enjoyed.

    Topic- 7-layer cookies
    Main Idea- Following the steps to a 7-layer cookie recipe in precise order ensures a successful turnout.
    Supporting Details- in green

    Main ideas that are explicitly stated are easier to identify than those that are implied (not directly stated). Main ideas may be stated in the beginning, middle, end, or beginning and end of a reading selection. Much of this will be discussed in the next section of this chapter.


    License and Attributions:

    Developmental Studies (101 and 103). Authored by: Laura Gilbert. Located at:

    License: CC BY: Attribution.

    5.1: Topics, Supporting Details, and Main Ideas is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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