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Understanding central idea in texts

A step-by-step guide to figuring out what a text is about

Understanding central idea

One of the most important skills to develop as a reader is being able to identify the central idea of a text. Identifying the central idea is like taking a step back and explaining in a brief way what the text says, without including the details. By the end of this article, you'll be able to identify the central idea in any text you read. Let’s get started!

What vocab do I need to know for this lesson?

There are a lot of terms we're going to use in this lesson that are related, but different. Let's make sure you understand the key vocab you need to engage with this lesson! To ground our discussion, quickly read through this text:
Rogue waves are waves that are much larger than the waves around them. For example, in 1995, the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth II was sailing through 40-foot waves when it suddenly hit a 92-foot rogue wave. These strange waves can be over 100 feet tall. On average, two large ships disappear every week, and it is believed that rogue waves are responsible for most of these shipwrecks. But how do rogue waves form? No one is certain. Many rogue waves develop where regular waves encounter large currents. Scientists believe a current’s strength can increase a wave’s power. Researchers have also suggested that rogue waves may form when waves travel a long distance and the crests of multiple waves meet. These waves then combine into a larger wave. No matter their origins, scientists agree on one thing: as climate change causes more extreme weather, we can expect an increase in the number and size of rogue waves.
  • Topic: One word or phrase that describes what a text is about.
  • Central idea: Sometimes called "main idea," the central idea of a text is what a piece of writing is mostly about. It's the big point or the most important thing the writer wants to tell you about the topic. It's usually written in a single sentence.
  • Summary: A summary is a short description of all the important parts of a text or story. It covers not just the central idea but also the most important details that support that idea. This may be one or a few sentences long.
  • Supporting details: Supporting details are pieces of information that help to explain or prove the central idea. They can be facts, examples, or descriptions that add more about what the central idea is telling us.
  • Theme: The theme of a story is the big message or lesson that the story teaches us about life or human nature. It's not just what happens in the story, but what we can learn from it. You'll learn more about theme in this article and this video.

Why is it important to identify central ideas?

Identifying the central idea of a text is crucial for several reasons:
  • It helps you understand the text better: When you know the central idea, you can see how all the other details in the text connect to it.
  • It helps you remember what you've read: When you can identify the central idea, you'll be able to recall the most important information from the text later on.
  • It helps you communicate what you've learned: When you can explain the central idea, you can share your knowledge with others more effectively.

How can I identify the central idea of a text?

Always read an entire text carefully to get a complete understanding of what the author is trying to say. Here are a few other strategies that will help you identify a text’s central idea:
Look for clues in the title and headings: Sometimes, the central idea is stated right in the title or headings of a text.
  • Pay attention to the first and last sentences: Authors often introduce the central idea in the first sentence or paragraph and then restate it in the conclusion. However, this isn’t always the case, so look for sentences that give an overview of the text or summarize the author's central point.
  • Look for repeated words or ideas: If the author keeps mentioning the same idea throughout the text, it's probably the central idea.
  • Ask yourself, “What is the author trying to teach me?”: After reading the text, think about the overall message or lesson the author wants you to learn. This will help you identify the central idea.
  • Summarize the text in one sentence: Once you've read the entire text and considered the clues, try to write a single sentence that captures the central idea. If you can do this, you've successfully identified the central idea!
  • Top tip! For texts that contain two or more paragraphs, it helps to summarize each paragraph as you read. Tracking the central idea of every paragraph is a great strategy. Consider keeping a paper notebook handy as you read, and jot down notes or make a list of the key points of each paragraph. Taken together, your notes will help you figure out the central idea of the entire text afterward. Just like sentences build the central idea of a paragraph, paragraphs build the central idea of the entire text.

Try it!

Practice: Central idea
In recent years, the use of reusable shopping bags has become more popular. This is because people have become more aware that single-use plastic bags can harm the planet. Reusable shopping bags are often made from materials like canvas or recycled plastic. By using reusable bags, individuals can reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills and oceans. This helps to protect the environment and wildlife. In addition, reusable bags made from renewable resources like cotton or bamboo help reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases warming the planet.
Which of the following best captures the central idea of the text?
Choose 1 answer:


Recognizing and understanding central ideas is a vital skill for reading comprehension. By practicing these strategies and getting better at identifying central ideas in texts, you'll improve your understanding and ability to analyze everything you read.
Happy reading! 📖

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