Recognizing Details That Elaborate Upon a Main Idea

Instructor: Amanda Wiesner-Groff

Amanda has created and taught English/ESL curricula worldwide, has an M.Ed, and is the current ESOL Coordinator for the Saint Louis Public School District.

One of the most important tasks of reading, is determining the point of what is being read. This lesson will explain how to spot details that are related to the main idea, while also giving plenty of examples to help you out!

So, What's The Point?

We have all thought this at one time or another, whether it was during a parent's lecture, a boring class, or a never-ending story that seemed to have no purpose. Figuring out what the point is, and finding details that expand upon it, is what we will be discussing in this lesson. The main idea is the most important part of a story. While we may not always understand what it is, a writer's work always has a purpose; that is the main idea, the point, the purpose of a piece of writing.

Sometimes frustrating, the main idea is not always directly stated; therefore, it can show up anywhere in a piece of text. This is why it is important to recognize supporting details. Since the main idea is usually quite general, supporting details are used to enhance the purpose of the text. Supporting details give more information, expand on the main idea, and allow the writer to validate their purpose for the text.

Supporting Details in Action

Let's use Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games to show different forms of supporting details:

The main idea for this section of text revolves around Katniss Everdeen's talent and skill with archery, making her a threat in the arena.

Pieces of evidence (examples, quotes, proof, etc.).

  • For example: 'And you're good?' asks Haymitch...'She's excellent,' says Peeta. 'My father buys her squirrel. He always comments on how the arrows never pierce the body. She hits every one in the eye.'

Visualizations (details that illustrate, or help you draw mental images of what is being described).

  • For example: 'My heart starts to pound, I can feel my face burning. Without thinking, I pull an arrow from my quiver and send it straight at the Gamemakers' table. I hear shouts of alarm as people stumble back'.

Specific pieces of information that help explain, or prove, the main idea.

  • For example: 'The weapons give me an entirely new perspective on the Games. I know I have tough opponents left to face. But I am no longer merely prey that runs and hides or takes desperate measures'.

Recognizing Supporting Details

Now that you know how supporting details could appear, you need to practice recognizing them within texts. When you have a piece of text in front of you, you need to be able to distinguish between the main idea and the details that expand upon it.

Take a look at the following three sentences, and see if you pick out which one is the main idea, and which two are the supporting details:

  1. Let them come with their night-vision glasses and their heavy, branch-breaking bodies. Right into the range of my arrows.
  2. Katniss has to fight against all odds in order to defeat the power of the Capital. In doing so, she discovers her own unrelenting courage and unstoppable power.
  3. He was my first kill. I killed a boy whose name I don't even know.

If you have read the Hunger Games books, then you know the series is about the power hungry Capitol president that has teens from 12 districts fight to the death each year as a form of entertainment. This all comes to a head when Katniss Everdeen shows up to the party and rebels against the Capitol with her own power and courage. Looking at the above sentences, were you able to recognize that the main idea was the second sentence, while the other two were supporting details?

Ask Questions

One way to help find the supporting details is to break down the text and ask questions like a nagging two year old. Meaning, figure out if sentences, or details, are important to the main idea by asking:

  1. What does this all relate to?
  2. What larger picture does this point to?
  3. How does this support, explain, or prove or the purpose of the text?
  4. What proves the main idea is true or makes sense?

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