Difference Between Topic and Main Idea
A topic is the word or phrase that everything in a text refers back to.
See If you can guess the topic of these pictures.
The topic is Baseball.
Now let’s look for the topic in a text.
“Music can be an effective study tool. Some people say that music helps them to relax, and to focus better. People listen to music for many other reasons as well. Music has been proven to produce serotonin, one of the so-called happiness hormones.”
The topic is music.
A helpful way to identify the topic is to look for repeated words or phrases. The word music, in this case, was repeated in each sentence. The word may not be repeated in every sentence, but often time there will be a pronoun that points us back to the topic. For instance: “I like to listen to music when I study. Music calms me down. It helps me to focus.”
The first two sentences identify the topic, music, and the last sentence uses the pronoun “it” to refer back to the topic.
Some paragraphs, however, are not as blatant. Some can be more tricky. Sometimes an author will use different words for the same thing.
“If you are studying for test day, Mometrix is the best way. This company specializes in preparing study material that helps equip you with the knowledge you need, and helping prevent test anxiety. Millions of students have used this resource to help them succeed on their exams.”
The topic is Mometrix, even though the word is only stated once. The topic is repeated, but a different word is used to refer to the same thing.
Once we have found the topic of the paragraph, we can find the main idea.
This may be a helpful topic to help you identify the main idea:
Topic + Main Point about the Topic = MAIN IDEA
“Music can be an effective study tool. Some people say that it helps them to relax, and to better focus on what they are learning. Some studies show that many students actually perform better when they listen to artists like Beethoven, and Mozart while studying.”
The Topic is: Music. The main point about the topic: Music can be an effective study tool.
Notice that topics are expressed as words or phrases, but main ideas are expressed in sentences.
“Physical activity provides innumerable benefits. Consistent exercise alleviates symptoms of depression. Studies show that consistent exercise results in not only less time to fall asleep and sounder sleep cycles, but also less daytime drowsiness. Additionally, an improved cardiovascular system and increased endorphins stimulate the mind for more creative thoughts to flow.”
The topic is : Physical Activity. The Main idea: Physical activity provides innumerable benefits.
In many paragraphs, the first sentence states the main idea. When the author states the main idea, it is called an explicit main idea.
But the main idea is not always in the first sentence.
“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… Oh it’s just a leaf. What does that mean? It’s autumn! Autumn, or fall, marks the transition from summer to winter. There are several different ways to recognize this transition without looking at the calendar. For instance, if the leaves start to change colors, and fall off, this is a good marker that it is autumn. The temperature, in many parts of the world, will also start to drop.”
In this paragraph, this first sentence is not the main idea. So, let’s look at the topic. We know that the topic is Autumn, because it is repeated, and everything is referring to it.
“Autumn, or fall marks the transition from summer to winter.” is the main idea. This sentence includes the topic, and it also makes a main point about the topic.
It may seem a little silly that the sentence that states the main idea is called the topic sentence, but that’s just the way it is.
Always remember, to find the main idea, figure out the topic first. Then, look for a sentence that states a main point about the topic.
Like the formula: Topic + main point about the topic = MAIN IDEA.
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Free Topics and Main Ideas Fact Sheet
Use the topics and main ideas fact sheet below to help you get a better understanding of how factors work. You are encouraged to print or download the topics and main ideas fact sheet with the PDF link at the bottom of the page.