How to Explain the Main Point through Supporting Details

Video Lesson on Author Purpose: Definition and Examples

In this lesson, you'll learn how to identify the supporting details that explain the main idea being presented in a piece of literature. You will also learn different strategies that can be applied to future questions about the main idea.

What is the Main Idea?

We can all relate to sitting in class and avoiding eye contact with the teacher in fear of being asked to answer a verbal question. This was especially terrifying if the question was related to something we are not familiar with! Each time the teacher called someone else's name, we cheered inside because we were off the hook. Let's travel back to language arts class and review the ever-popular question, 'What is the main idea?'

The main idea, or what some people call the central idea, is the concept of the passage that the author wants to convey. Do not get this confused with a theme or a plot of the story. The theme is the point of the topic or main idea. The plot is what happens in the story. The main idea equals concept. Think of the main idea like a movie preview you just watched. The movie preview isn't exactly the theme of the movie or the plot of the movie; it simply introduces the audience to the main concept of the film.

Authors may use one sentence to state the main idea clearly, or they may use supporting details to point out and explain the idea. Now that we know what the main idea is and how it differs from plot and theme, we need to learn how to identify the main idea within the text.

Identifying the Main Idea

Finding the main idea can be an easy task if you use the supporting details within the text to assist you. It is important to note that you should not confuse supporting details with the main idea of the text. Supporting details are words, phrases, or statements that will support, define, or explain the main idea to the reader.

Let's consider an example. Say you are telling a friend a story. In order for the story to make sense or be interesting to the listener, you must use supporting details. Through these details, the listener can make sense of your story's main idea. Authors use this same process to convey the main idea in their writing.

To identify the main idea in a piece of writing, you must first ask yourself what you think the author is trying to tell you about the person, thing, or idea. In some types of writing, the author will write the main idea within the first sentence of a paragraph and then use the rest of the paragraph to support the main idea. Identifying the supporting details will help you identify and explain the main idea of the piece.

Explaining the Main Idea

You should try to use supporting details within your explanation when you are asked to explain the main idea of a passage. This will make your explanation more valid and demonstrate your understanding of the main idea.

Let's take a look at a short reading passage so we can learn how to identify supporting details and use them in an explanation of the main point.

Example 1

It is important to wear sunscreen during hot summer days. Wearing sunscreen provides protection from ultraviolet rays and decreases your chances of getting skin cancer. Dermatologists stress that people should not avoid sunscreen just because they have a deep tan or because the weather is overcast.

If asked what the main idea of this passage is, you'd probably say, 'The importance of wearing sunscreen.' But if I asked you to explain the main point through supporting details, you'd have to give me a little more information. You might say something like, 'Wearing sunscreen is important for everyone, even on gloomy days, because it decreases your chances of skin cancer caused by ultraviolet rays.'

Example 2

For our next example, we'll use one of the most popular fables of all time: The Lion and the Mouse. The story goes something like this: Deep within the jungle lived a lion. Every animal in the jungle knew not to go near the lion in fear of becoming its next meal. One day, a starving little mouse traveled through the jungle looking for food. While on its journey, he accidentally stumbled upon a lion. The lion grabbed the mouse and asked how dare it disturb his rest. Frightened, the little mouse asked the lion to spare his life. The lion asked the mouse why he should spare the mouse's life. The mouse replied, 'I can help you one day.'

The lion began to laugh hysterically at the answer the mouse gave him. He told the mouse, 'How can a little mouse like you save me? You're a tiny mouse!' The lion laughed some more and let the mouse go.

A few days later, the lion went looking for food in the jungle. While stalking his prey, he got caught up in a hunter's net. The lion roared and tried to claw his way out. Unfortunately, he could not free himself. From a distance, the mouse heard the lion roar. He made his way to sound and saw the lion trapped. The mouse told the lion, 'Keep quiet, lion. I will free you!' The mouse gnawed on the netting until the lion was free. The lion looked at the mouse and said, 'I apologize, little mouse. I laughed at you and you helped me!' The lion learned that day any act of kindness big or small should never be wasted!

Now, pause the video, so that you can identify the main idea and the supporting details. Then, write an explanation of the main point using supporting details. When you are finished, un-pause the video to see how your answer compares.

Main idea: A vicious lion learns that any act of kindness big or small should never be wasted.

Supporting details: The lion meets a mouse who promises help one day in exchange for his life. The lion laughs at the mouse and lets him go. One day, the lion is caught in a trap by hunters. The mouse fulfills his promise and chews on the netting to free the lion.

Explanation: The main idea of the story is to show readers that we should never underestimate any act of kindness. The lion in this story spared the life of a little mouse but laughed when the mouse offered future help in exchange. But the mouse was able to free the lion one day in the future when the lion was trapped in a net set by hunters. The lion learned that any act of kindness, big or small, should never be taken for granted.

Lesson Summary

Today, we learned that the main idea is the concept that the author wants to convey. We also learned that the author will use supporting details to help explain the main idea to readers. Supporting details are words, phrases, or statements that will support, define, or explain the main idea to the reader. Whenever you are asked to explain the main idea of a piece of writing, you should try to use supporting details found within the text to do so. This increases your chances of correctly identifying the main idea and explaining it in a way that is easily understood.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be able to explain the main idea of a literary work with the use of supporting details.

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