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Getting Smarter through Language

Intermediate Reading Course. Section 1: The Basics

Main Ideas and Supporting Details as Patterns of Information

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By definition, a paragraph has some main information you need to learn from it. In addition, you have other information that supports that main idea.

These are called “the main idea of the paragraph” and the “supporting details.”

Understanding a paragraph means understanding its main idea. Let’s go deeper into main ideas and supporting details.


It is highly recommended you complete The anatomy of a paragraph. It has the basic concepts we will extend in this lesson.

Patterns of Information in the Paragraph

Writers structure a paragraph around its main idea and the details that support the main idea. This creates a pattern of information where each detail supports a single main idea. (That is why these are called “main ideas” and “supporting details” in reading courses.

As the reader, you should have a mental picture of such organization. As you read each sentence, you should see a pattern of information in the paragraph. In fact, you should see patterns in the text as a whole, too.

Video Activity 1

Watch The main idea as a pattern in reading and take good study notes.

You can study the page and watch the video in any order.

Video Activity 2

Watch Suppoprting details and patterns in reading and take good study notes.

You can study the page and watch the video in any order.

Let’s Examine a Couple of Examples

Example Paragraph 1

1Professor Ecks is very demanding, but he is an excellent instructor. 2He assigns homework every week. 3You will also take a quiz weekly. 4You’d better turn in your assignments on time because he accepts no late work. 5You will learn a lot because he explains everything very well and keeps you engaged in interesting discussions every class. 6He also has a genuine interest in his students. 7He always makes time for you and, if needed, he will help you individually.

Professor Ecks

Sentence 1 states the main idea: “Professor Ecks is very demanding, but he is an excellent instructor."

The details elaborate the main idea.

He is demanding

  • Homework every week. (Sentence 2)
  • A quiz every week. (Sentence 3)
  • No late work. (Sentence 4)

but an excellent instructor

  • Good explanations. (Sentence 5)
  • Interesting discussions. (Sentence 5)
  • Genuine interest in students. (Sentence 6)
    • Makes time for students. (Sentence 7)
    • Helps students individually. (Sentence 7)

Let’s look at another paragraph.

Example Paragraph 2

As you read the paragraph below, identify the main idea based on the pattern of supporting details.

  1. Identify the topic and what the writer has to say about it. That is the main idea.
  2. Also notice the ideas that support that support the main idea. Those are the supporting details.

Based on “Keeping Hands Clean” from the Centers for Disease Control.

1Washing your hands seems simple enough. 2After all, you have been doing it since you were a child. 3Unfortunately, many people do it incorrectly. 4Follow these five simple steps to wash your hands properly. 5First, wet your hands with clean water and apply soap. 6It does not have to be any special kind of soap. 7Lather your hands until you have a good amount of foam. 8Next, rub your hands together, making sure you scrub between your fingers and under your nails. 9This should take at least 20 seconds. 10Then, rinse your hand well under clean, running water. 11Finally dry your hands using a clean towel. 12If you have no towels around, simply air dry them. 13Following these simple steps is an effective way to stop the spread of disease-causing germs.

hand washing

Sentence 3 states the main idea: “Follow these five simple steps to wash your hands properly."

The details elaborate on the five steps mentioned in the main idea.

Here is a simplified version of the steps:

  1. Wet your hands and apply soap. (Sentences 4–5)
  2. Lather. (Sentence 7)
  3. Scrub for 20 seconds. (Sentences 8–9)
  4. Rinse . (Sentence 10)
  5. Dry. (Sentence 11)

The other sentences add an introduction to the topic (Sentences 1–3) and final comments (Sentences 12–13)

Important Takeaways

Look for Patterns of Information

When you start reading a paragraph, keep in mind that the writer organized the information around a main idea and elaborated on it using details.

Do not “look” for the main idea sentence in the paragraph. If you do, you may end up playing a “guessing game.” Instead, read to understand the paragraph so you can see patterns of information in it.

What is the paragraph about?

What does the writer have to say about it?

How do the details come together to elaborate on the main idea?

As you start answering to yourself these questions about the paragraph, you will “see" the pattern naturally and figure out what the main idea is.

Assess Your Learning

Complete Activity 1. Practice distinguishing general concepts from specific concepts.

Up Next: Location of the Main Idea Sentence

Go to the next lesson to learn where the main idea sentence can be in the paragraph.