To do well on the TASC Language Arts–Reading test, you'll need to recognize the theme or main idea of the text you are reading. You'll also need to understand the difference between a main idea and a theme.

Think of it this way: The main idea of a paragraph or segment of text is a major idea expressed in that portion only. The theme is an idea that continues throughout the text; it can be considered to be the moral of the story.

As a reader, you need to prepare your brain to discover the theme or main idea — that is, warm up your thinking ability before you take on the task. What can you do? Ask yourself these questions:

  • If the piece has a title, does it give you a clue about the theme or main idea?
  • Do you know anything about the topic?
  • What do you expect to learn from reading this piece?
  • What does the graphic information (pictures, tables, graphs) tell you about the theme or main idea?
As you answer these questions, you're beginning to get the gist or meaning of the text. After you know the gist, you can begin to identify the main idea and the theme (or themes) of the piece.

Identifying main ideas

A useful strategy to help you identify the main idea is to look for a topic sentence. This sentence usually tells you what a paragraph is about and, therefore, may contain the main idea. For example:
Small dogs make wonderful companions for the elderly. They are easy to walk, they are loving, they like to sit on their masters' laps, and they don't eat a lot of food. They are very loyal to the person who feeds and cares for them. Often, they will warn an elderly person if someone is at the door and make the person feel safer in his own home.
To find the topic sentence, ask yourself, "What is this paragraph about?"

If you said the first sentence, "Small dogs make wonderful companions for the elderly," you are correct. Can you see that this topic sentence provides you with the main idea of the paragraph?

Identifying themes

Now that you've mastered finding the main idea, you can begin to look further into your reading for themes. The theme can be a message the author is trying to get across. You may have heard of the "moral of the story." That's the theme the author wants to convey. For example:
Stephen told his mother he was going to stay at his friend John's house for the night. Instead, he went to visit his friend in college in the next state over. While he was driving to his friend's dorm on campus, he was stopped by a police officer for speeding. The officer told Stephen that he was going to have to contact his parents because he was a minor. Stephen's first thought was, "Boy, am I in trouble now!"
What would you say is the message or theme the author is trying to convey?

Is it that you shouldn't drive too fast? That you shouldn't visit a friend in another state? Would you say that the theme might be that you shouldn't lie? Right! The theme here is that lying is the wrong thing to do.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Stuart Donnelly, PhD, earned his doctorate in mathematics from Oxford University at the age of 25. Since then, he has established successful tutoring services in both Hong Kong and the United States and is considered by leading educators to be one of the most experienced and qualified private tutors in the country. Nicole Hersey, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of Rhode Island, with a dual appointment to the School of Education and the Department of Mathematics. Ron Olson, MA, is an NBCT-certified teacher in Social Studies who teaches AP Government, Civics, and Contemporary World Problems at Clover Park High School in Lakewood, WA. In addition to his 35 years of teaching experience, he works as an AP US History workshop consultant for The College Board and has been the advisor for National Honor Society at his high school. Shannon Reed, MA, MFA, is a visiting lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches composition, creative writing, and business writing.

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