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Identify the main ideas in TOEFL Reading Passages

Madison Oster October 12th, 2021

Many TOEFL reading passages require you to do one important thing: identify the main ideas of the passage. Knowing the passage’s general background is crucial to answering the questions quickly and correctly and helps you read the passage faster with understanding. Sometimes, however, it is not so easy to identify the passage’s main ideas. So in this article, we’ll look at a few tips that will hopefully help you identify the main ideas faster and more accurately. If you're looking for TOEFL reading practice or TOEFL prep, we can help you. We offer TOEFL preparation. Try it out free for 7 days.

Look at the beginning and the end

The main ideas are most often mentioned both in the beginning of the essay and again as a conclusion at the end of the essay. Everything between is usually just supporting details for the main ideas that are presented. Normally, you can get a pretty good idea of what the passage is about from only reading the first and last paragraph of an essay or the first and last sentence of a paragraph.

Remember, this is how essays are normally conducted, but does not mean they have to be in that format. If you haven't read the test, it can be very confusing to only read a few sentences of a paragraph or a passage, so you still need to read the whole piece before coming back to the beginning and ending paragraphs again to pick out the main ideas.

Cross out minor details

If you cannot get the main ideas you want from the beginning and the end of the passage, you have no other choice but to dig through the rest of the essay. It is not so easy to find main ideas in the jungle of words, so we suggest you work your way backward. That means you can eliminate all information that you are sure are not necessary. These are sometimes easier to find that the main ideas because they can be easy to pick out like examples, details, and explanations of a term or idea.

Mark the sentences

Crossing out the supporting details is a quick way to eliminate unwanted details. However, it is not perfect and, at times, can be difficult. With examples, you can pick them out easily. Details are harder to differentiate between details and main ideas. There is a strategy to help you out with eliminating small details: marking the broad level of sentences.

When you read a sentence, consider giving them a point. You can use your own system. But what I often do is mark the sentence as a 1 for the sentence that contains the broadest idea, mark 2 for the less broad, and 3 for the least broad detailed sentence. There are multiple sentences that can be marked as 2 and 3 but there should only be one #1 sentence. If by the end, you find yourself having a few #1 sentences, it is still easier for you now to compare those #1 sentences with each other to find the one that contains more general ideas.

This strategy takes time. So I suggest you combine this method together with the "crossing out minor details" strategy above. You only need to evaluate the sentences that have not been removed by the crossing out method. You can practice these methods now by going to using our TOEFL reading practice questions

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