What is a Central Idea in Literature?

What is a central idea? A central idea (also called the main idea or main point) is the unifying component in a piece of literature. Central ideas are what we look for in paragraphs, chapters, or entire stories to uncover the point of the text. All writing should have a purpose. That’s what the central idea is! Almost all types of literature contain one or more central ideas. A central idea can often be put into one sentence. Sometimes we can recognize the central idea, just from the title or the first sentence of the text. Other times, it is not so simple.

Determining the central idea in a piece of writing is a basic reading skill. Finding and understanding the central idea is an essential skill that demonstrates that the child comprehends that text. This reading comprehension skill will benefit them not only in school. The ability to sift through a text and identify its central idea is as much a crucial life skill as a necessary literacy-based learning objective.  The central idea is usually emphasized by additional details which support the premise of the central idea. These are known as supporting ideas. check out our printable main idea graphic organizers that help students to organize the central idea into the main idea and two or three supporting details.

Difference from summary

The difference mostly comes down to length. Both a central idea and a summary filter out the unimportant details and leave the main point the author is trying to express. However, the central idea is more concise. It can sometimes fit into one sentence. A summary provides more details and takes several sentences or even a paragraph, depending on what is being summarized.

Difference from theme

A central idea must not be interchanged with a theme, as these are different concepts. A theme, found in a fictional text (novels, short stories, poetry), is the underlying message that goes beyond what the text is about. It is the moral or lesson learned through the characters in the text. Many students have difficulty distinguishing the difference between a central idea and a theme. One reason students have a hard time separating the two is that the length of a theme is also short.

Difference from topic and thesis sentences

Topic and thesis sentences should not be confused with the central idea.  It’s important to remember the differences between all three. A thesis statement will reveal what an entire essay is about. A topic sentence, on the other hand, is an indicator of what a specific paragraph is about.


Sometimes the central idea is hard to miss. For example, the main idea of a newspaper article can be taken from the headline. Articles in academic journals include an abstract from which the reader can grab the central idea from.  In a shorter piece of literature, it’s often found at the beginning of a paragraph (in the introduction), or at the end (in the conclusion). In all of these examples, the central idea is more clearly stated.

When it’s not so explicit, we need to know what to look for. A main idea may be implied. This means we need to rely on details (facts, reasons, and examples) to uncover the central idea in literature.

There are specific questions to ask that can help pull out the main idea.

  • Who – Does this passage discuss a person or group of people?
  • When – Does the information reference a specific time?
  • Where – Does the text name a certain place?
  • Why – Is there a reason or explanation for something that happened?
  • How – Does this information include a plan or a theory?

Additional strategies

Finding the central idea can be tricky for students, but luckily there are several ways to more easily identify it.

  • Ask this simple question: “Who or what is this text about?”
  • Focus on the first lines of the text or the last few lines. There’s a good chance the central idea lives in there. This is especially true if in a shorter text.
  • Look for repeated ideas. Does the author keep going back to the same concept?
  • When the child is ready to locate the central idea in a paragraph, have them cross out the sentences that are not as important.
  • Have the child summarize the reading in their own words.

Start small 

  • Have your child find the central idea in a sentence, before moving on to bigger texts.  This will help them gain confidence in the skill. Eventually, they will be able to locate the central idea in a full-length book.
  • Use pictures first – You could start even smaller and wait to use text. Start with pictures instead. Show your child a simple picture of something common like an apple. Ask them, “what’s the main idea of this picture?” or “what is this picture about?”. Explain to them that “apple” is the central idea of the picture. After mastering simple pictures, show them a more complex picture.