Listening for the Main Point

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  • 0:01 The Main Point
  • 0:52 Word Chains
  • 2:36 Other Strategies
  • 4:24 Two or More Speakers
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

In this lesson, you'll get some tips on listening to a passage of spoken English for the main point. Don't get bogged down in the details; focus on what's really important!

The Main Point

Whether you're having a conversation in real life or listening to a passage on a test, knowing how to listen for the main point is key to actually understanding what the other person is trying to say. The main point is the most important concept or argument of the passage as a whole. Once you understand the main point, all the details will fall into place, but without the main point, nothing really makes sense.

Many students struggle with this because they think they need to understand every single word and detail to know what a speaker is saying. Then, they get so nervous and frantic about remembering every little thing that they completely lose sight of the main point. In this lesson, you'll get some tips for avoiding this problem so you can stay focused on the main point.

Word Chains

One tool you can use when you're trying to listen for the main point is word chains, sequences of similar or related words repeated throughout the conversation. This is especially true when you're listening to something that the speaker has prepared in advance, like a lecture for a class. Here's an example:

PROFESSOR: 'Good morning, class. Today we're talking about King Cyrus: specifically what kind of a leader is he? At some points, we see Cyrus talking to his generals and discussing what to do, which is what we think of as good leadership, but we also see him bribing his subordinates and tricking them into doing things. So, what kind of leadership is this? Is this the way we would expect a king to behave? Or, is it okay because Cyrus is a military commander in the middle of a war?'

In this passage, you can hear that 'leadership,' 'leader,' and related words are repeated several times. The same thing happens with the name 'Cyrus.' This creates a kind of chain of words, linking everything together; this is a passage about King Cyrus and leadership.

Listening for these word chains is a great way to identify the overall topic of a passage, or what the whole passage is about. If you've really identified the topic, you should be able to find related words scattered all throughout the passage, not just in one section or another.

Once you've identified the topic, you can ask yourself: 'what is the speaker saying about the topic?' The answer to this question will be: The main point of the passage. In this case, the professor is introducing some questions about King Cyrus and leadership.

Other Strategies

Word chains are helpful, but they aren't the only way to listen for the main point of a conversation or another piece of spoken English. Here are three more tips:

First, pay attention to the beginning and end of a conversation. At the beginning, speakers will downright tell you what they want to talk about and why, and at the end, many people will recap by repeating their main idea. Here are a few examples:

JILL: Good morning, Joe. Can we talk about the printer repair for a minute?

It's a good bet that the topic of this passage will be printer repair. Then, you just have to ask yourself: 'what is Jill saying about printer repair?' and you'll have her main point.


GREG: So, just to sum up, today we talked about bibliography sessions and why they're helpful when you're writing your papers.

Greg's main point was probably something like 'bibliography sessions are helpful.'

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