Identifying the Main Ideas in IELTS Reading Passages

Identifying the main idea of a whole passage or of a certain paragraph is a necessary skill for answering some question types in IELTS reading section such as matching headings questions, multiple choice questions, true/false/not given questions and summary completion questions. Today we will take a look at the definition of the main idea and how to identify main ideas in IELTS reading passages.

What is a main idea?

Main idea vs Topic

The main idea of a passage/paragraph is a big picture the whole passage/paragraph is about. The main idea of a passage is called a thesis statement and the main idea of a paragraph is called a topic sentence.

A topic is the subject of a passage/paragraph. Different from the main idea, it is usually a phrase, not a sentence.

Main idea vs Supporting information

The main idea is supported by evidence. It’s not hard to distinguish the main idea from the supporting information because a main idea expresses a general opinion while evidence is specific facts.

Identifying the main ideas of a passage: Check the first/last paragraph

The main idea of a passage usually locates in the first or the last sentence of the first paragraph. Sometimes, there will be a restatement of the main idea in the last paragraph of a passage. Therefore, you can double check the main idea of a passage in the first and last paragraph. Try to find the main idea of this passage !

Key: The dependence on motor vehicles has given rise to major problems, including environmental pollution, depletion of oil resources, traffic congestion and safety.

Identifying the main ideas of a paragraph: Check the first sentence

The main idea of a paragraph is usually pointed out directly in the first sentence. Let’s look at an example paragraph from IELTS practice tests.

Example paragraph

The role of governments in environmental management is difficult but inescapable. Sometimes, the state tries to manage the resources it owns, and does so badly. Often, however, governments act in an even more harmful way. They actually subsidise the exploitation and consumption of natural resources. A whole range of policies, from farm-price support to protection for coal-mining, do environmental damage and (often) make no economic sense. Scrapping them offers a two-fold bonus: a cleaner environment and a more efficient economy. Growth and environmentalism can actually go hand in hand, if politicians have the courage to confront the vested interest that subsidies create.

Main idea

The role of governments in environmental management is difficult but inescapable.


The first sentence is the topic sentence and the other information supports this sentence. The supporting information includes the harmful effect of subsidies, the whole range of policies and the actions that government should take. They all explain the opinion that the role of governments in environmental management is difficult but inescapable.

Identifying the main ideas of a paragraph: Pay attention to transition words or phrases

When the first or second sentence of a paragraph has transition words or phrases such as however, but, while, despite, though and yet, you have to check the logical relationship between sentences. Let’s take the following paragraph from a past exam as an example.

Example paragraph

While the Inuit may not actually starve if hunting and trapping are curtailed by climate change, there has certainly been an impact on people’s health. Obesity, heart disease and diabetes are beginning to appear in a people for whom these have never before been problems. There has been a crisis of identity as the traditional skills of hunting, trapping and preparing skins have begun to disappear. In Nunavut’s igloo and email society, where adults who were born in igloos have children who may never have been out on the land, there’s a high incidence of depression.

Main idea

Climate change has certainly impacted on people’s health.


While indicates that the key information is in the main clause. Besides, ‘Obesity…incidence of depression’ supports the idea that climate change has certainly impacted on people’s health.
If you want more practice or are ready to seriously start studying for the IELTS, check out Magoosh’s IELTS prep. You’ll find many more ways to practice identifying the main idea in IELTS reading passages, as well as hundreds more practice questions and video explanations.

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