English is a topic-centered language. In every paragraph, or any longer text, the writer focuses on discussing a single main topic. All the details provided are used to support his ideas about that topic. In all good paragraphs you will therefore find three essential elements, i.e. a topic, a main idea, and some details. In relation to this, your understanding of a paragraph depends on your to determine the topic and main idea.
A topic is the one thing the whole paragraph is about. It is the unifying factor, which every sentence and idea contained in the paragraph relate to. To find the topic of a paragraph, ask yourself this question: “Which person, event, practice, theory, or idea is most frequently mentioned or referred to in the paragraph?” Usually, the topic of a paragraph can be expressed in one word or a phrase consisting of two or more words. That’s why a topic could also be defined as the word or phrase that best describes what all of the sentences in the paragraph are about. To illustrate, let’s use the following paragraph.
Computer chips have changed our way of life. With computer chips, we can make very small computers. Space scientists use these small computers in satellites and space ships. Large companies use these small computers for business. We can make very small calculators with computer chips. Some calculators are as small as a credit card, and these calculators are not very expensive. Computer chips are also used for making digital watches. A normal watch has a spring and moving hands, but a digital watch has no moving parts. A digital watch show the time and date with numbers, and some digital watches even have an alarm and a stopwatch. The computer chip makes all of this possible.
The phrase “computer chips”, as indicated by the underlining, is the most frequently mentioned thing in this paragraph. It is the one that best describes what all of the sentences in the paragraph are about. Thus, this is the topic of the paragraph.
Most paragraphs state the topic, but some writers frequently imply the topic. Thus, to identify the topic, readers have to synthesize, or combine; different words in the paragraph To be useful, the topic you select or create should be general enough to include everything discussed in the paragraph. At the same time, it should be specific enough to exclude what isn’t. To illustrate, read the following paragraph.
Traffic is directed by color. Pilot instrument panels, landing strips, road and water crossings are regulated by many colored light and signs. Factories use color to distinguish between thoroughfares and work areas. Danger zones are painted in special colors. Lubrication points and removable parts are accentuated by color. Pipers for transporting water, steam, oil, chemicals, and compressed air, are designated by different colors. Electrical wires and resistances are color-coded.
In this paragraph, the topic is not directly stated. However, by considering the whole sentence, it is clear that the paragraph discusses about the uses of color in modern technological instrument. This is the topic of the paragraph.
Here is another example.
Frances Wright was a brilliant and determined woman who believed that she could have changed an unjust world. Inspired by her belief, Wright founded, in 1826, an experimental community called Nashoba. It was to be a place where black men and women could work together until they were able to purchase their freedom from slavery. But for all its good intentions, the community was a failure. Plagued by bad weather and illness, Nashoba produced nothing but debts. By 1830, it was only a memory, forgotten by everyone but the people who helped start it.
Initially, as you begin reading this paragraph, you might think that “Nashoba” is the topic. But as you continue reading, you discover that the paragraph does not focus on the working of the community called Nashoba. Instead it focuses on the community’s failure. However, the word failure does not appear until the fourth sentence of the paragraph. In order to express the precise topic of the paragraph, i.e. “failure of Nashoba“, you have to construct it by combining words from different sentence.
A main idea is what the author says, thinks, or wants to communicate about the topic. It is the central or most important thought in the paragraph. Every other sentence and idea in the paragraph is related to the main idea. The main idea is usually directly stated by the writer in a sentence called the topic sentence which is usually but not always placed in the beginning of the paragraph. The topic sentence tells what the rest of the paragraph is about.
Since the main idea is what the author says, thinks, or wants to communicate about the topic, to determine it, you should first decide what the topic of the paragraph is. Then ask yourself these questions: What is the main idea—what is the author trying to say about the topic? Which sentence states the main idea? To illustrate, let’s take the paragraph about “computer chips” above. The whole sentences in the paragraph explained what the writer thinks about computer chips. He shows that computer chips are used to make very small computers, calculators, and digital watches which have changed our way of life. This idea is stated in the first sentence which runs “Computer chips have changed our way of life.” This is the main idea of the paragraph.
Occasionally, a writer does not directly state the main idea of a given paragraph in a topic sentence. Instead, he or she leaves it up to the reader to infer, or reason out, what the main idea of the paragraph is. This type of paragraph contains only details or specifics which relate to a given topic and which substantiate an unstated main idea. To read this type of paragraph, start as you would for paragraphs with stated main idea. Ask yourself the question for finding the topic: What is the one thing the author is discussing throughout the paragraph? Then try to think of a sentence about the topic that all the details included in the paragraph would support.
Read the paragraph in the example below. First, identify the topic. Then study the details and think of a general statement that all the details in the paragraph would support or prove.
Thomas Alva Edison invented or improved on the telegraph, phonograph, stock ticker, microphone, telephone, light bulb, battery, motion picture projector, and many other things. He held more than 1,300 US and foreign patents and was the first American director of a research laboratory for inventors. His various companies later combined to become General Electric.
In this paragraph the writer returns again and again to Thomas Alva Edison. Therefore the topic this paragraph is. Having been identifying this topic, it is not hard to figure out what the author wants to say about it. The sentences in the paragraph combine to suggest a main idea that would, if put into a sentence, read something like this: “Thomas Alva Edison was a great inventor.” This is the main idea.
Pattern of Organization
For many kinds of reading, such as reading textbooks or articles in your own field, in addition to the author’s topic and main idea, you also need to recognize how he developed them. That way of idea development is called the pattern of organization. In some paragraph information are presented in sequence of events, some others in sequence of steps, in comparison and contrast, in cause and effects, in list of characteristics, or in the mixture of two different paragraph types. Once you recognize the pattern, you will understand and follow their ideas more efficiently. According to Mikulecky and Jeffries (2007: 134), there are six major pattern of organization, i.e. listing, sequence, comparison/contrast, cause/effect, problem/solution, and extended definition. The following explanations are based on Mikulecky and Jeffries’ work.
In the listing pattern, the writer states the main idea in the form of a generalization and gives a list of details or examples to support that general statement. Common key words/phrases found in the main idea are: many, several, a number of, a variety of, a few, kinds of. Transitional words/phrases used in this organizational pattern are: for example, for instance, first, second, another, also, besides, in addition, final, last, most important. Look at the following paragraph.
There are several different theories about the origin of the Moon. One theory, called the fission’ theory, states that early in the life of Earth, a piece broke off, and that piece became the Moon. A second, closely related theory is that the Moon is composed of several pieces of Earth that broke away from our planet. Yet another theory is that the Moon formed elsewhere in the solar system and was captured by Earth’s gravity.’ The final theory states that a huge piece of planetary rock struck Earth and broke up into pieces. One of the pieces became the Moon. (From: Mikulecky, B. S. and Jeffries, L. 2007: 135)
This paragraph discusses about “Theories about the origin of the Moon”. This is the topic. In relation to the topic, writer states, “There are several different theories about the origin of the Moon.” This is the main idea. To make this idea convincing, he lists four theories. That’s why the organizational pattern of this paragraph is listing.
In the sequence pattern, the writer explains the main idea with a series of events or steps in a process that follow one after the other in time order. The common key word/phrases in the main idea are: began, account, story, process, history, sequence. The common signal words/phrases are: first, second, then, next, after, while, since, then, soon, finally, at last, in 1965, last June, later, over time, the next step, the following week. Look at the following paragraph.
The years between 1918 and 1945 brought violence and upheaval to the newly formed Polish nation. In 1918, Poland was declared independent, and army officer Jozef Pilsudski took control of the government. After 1926, the government became a dictatorship, first under Pilsudski and later, after his death in 1935, under officers loyal to him. The officers, however, did not rule for long. In 1939, Germany and Russia invaded Poland, and both powers divided up the country. During the war years that followed, the Germans murdered anywhere from three to five and a half million Polish Jews; they killed more than half of the population of Warsaw, and the capital itself was completely destroyed. Warsaw, once one of the most beautiful capitals n Europe, was reduced to rubble.
This paragraph focuses on “political events in Poland between the years 1918 and 1945,” and this is the topic of the paragraph. In addition to the sequence of political dates and events, this paragraph also expresses the writer’s idea that “Poland underwent violence and upheaval during 1918-1945.” This is the main idea of the paragraph, which is contained in the first sentence. So, this sentence functions as the topic sentence.
The following paragraph also employs the sequence organizational pattern. However, different from the paragraph above which uses a series of events, the next paragraph uses a series of steps (process).
Not all stars are the same age, so it is possible to see stars at every stage of their life cycle. From their observations, astrophysicists can explain the process of the formation of a star. A star begins life inside a nebula, a huge cloud of gas and dust in outer space. Over time, the force of gravity pulls some of the gas and dust together to form into clumps. Then the temperature inside the nebula begins to rise. Next, several clumps come together and become denser and hotter, and they form a protostar (an early form of a star). After that, the protostar continues to grow until it has become about as large as our Sun. At that point, nuclear reactions begin to occur in its core (center), and these reactions send energy to the surface of the protostar. Finally, the energy escapes as heat and light and a new star begins to shine.
This paragraph discusses about “The process of the formation of a star”. This is the topic. According to the writer, “a star is formed in a process during which clumps of gas and dust form a protostar that becomes large and hot.” This is the main idea.
In the comparison/contrast pattern, the writer’s main idea is a general statement about two things and how they are similar and/or different. A comparison can include both similarities and differences, or only the similarities. A contrast states only differences. The common key words/phrases in the main idea: similarities, differences, both, in common, same, different, compare, comparison. The usual signal words/phrases for similarities are similarly, also, in the same way, as, like, both, in common. The common signal words/phrases for differences are: however, but, on the other hand, although, while, in contrast, than, conversely, yet, unlike. Look at the following paragraph.
When Gerald Ford, the thirty-eighth president of the U.S., came to office, he was fond of emphasizing his resemblance to one of his famous predecessors, Harry S. Truman. Like Ford, Truman had been a vice president who became president only by chance. Truman took over when Franklin Roosevelt died in office, a circumstance that resembled Ford’s own ascent to the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned from office. Truman, like Ford, was not an intellectual, and he tended to exaggerate his lack of learning, insisting that he was just a simple man with simple tastes. Ford also like to emphasize that both he and Truman came to office at a difficult time. Truman led the nation during the final months of World War II, and Ford entered office after the nation had been faced with the Watergate scandals.
This paragraph focuses on some similarities between Ford and Truman. This is the topic of the paragraph. The main idea appears in the first sentence: “Gerald Ford liked to point out how similar he was to Harry Truman. The remaining supporting sentences develop that main idea by listing the similarities between them.
Different from the paragraph above, which focuses on similarities, the following paragraph focuses on differences.
Earth differs greatly from its two closest neighboring planets, Venus and Mars. The Venusian and Martian atmospheres are composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide, while Earth’s atmosphere contains very little. The dominant material in our atmosphere is nitrogen (77 percent). The other major component of Earth’s atmosphere is oxygen (21 percent), a gas that is almost nonexistent on Venus and Mars. Our planet has an abundance’ of water, which covers about 70 percent of Earth’s surface and supports life on our planet. In contrast, Venus and Mars are extremely dry planets and incapable of supporting life.
This paragraph focuses on some differencies between Earth and Venus and Mars. This is the topic of the paragraph. The main idea appears in the first sentence: “The Earth differs greatly from that of its two closest neighboring planets, Venus and Mars. The remaining supporting sentences develop that main idea by listing the differences among them.
In this pattern, the writer’s main idea is that one event or action caused another event or action. Common key words/phrases in the main idea and the signal words for details are the same and often include: causes, leads to, is the cause of results in, creates, brings about, makes, provokes, produces, gives rise to, contributes to, is due to, is the result of, comes from, results from, is produced by, is a consequence of, follows, is caused by. Look at the following paragraph.
There are more old people in the world today because of an increase in medical services. Today, more people can get medical services from doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics. As a result, fewer people get fatal disease such as yellow fever, malaria, cholera, and typhoid. This decrease in fatal diseases causes a decrease in the number of people who die from these diseases. Because of this decrease in number of deaths, people can live longer today. As a result, there has been an increase in the number of old people living in the world today.
The topic of this paragraph is the cause of increase in the number of old people. According to the writer, there are more old people in the world today because of an increase in medical services. This is the main idea. To support his idea, the author shows how the increase in medical services has caused the increase in the number of old people living in the world today.
In this pattern, the main idea names a problem and indicates that one or more solutions. The paragraph always consists of two parts: 1) a statement and 2) a description and explanation of how it was solved. There are often no signal words for the details. The common key words/phrases in the main idea are situation, trouble, crisis, dilemma or issue. The common key words in the body of the paragraph include: solve, solution, resolved. Look at the following paragraph.
Beginning in the 1600s, astronomers had realized that their telescopes had serious limits. They had managed to build stronger and better telescopes, but no matter how strong the new telescopes were, they were less than satisfactory. The astronomers were able to view objects only when the objects were in view of Earth. At the same time, however, Earth’s light and atmosphere made it difficult to see many heavenly objects. Thanks to the Hubble Telescope, this has been solved, because the Hubble is not just a telescope. It is a digital camera on a satellite that travels about 370 miles (600 km) above Earth, making a complete orbit every ninety-seven minutes. Since 1990, Hubble has been able to take digital pictures of planets, galaxies, comets, and more, and these are sent back to Hubble headquarters for scientists to study.
The topic of this paragraph is “the problem caused by telescope limitation”. According to the writer, the new Hubble telescope has solved the problem.” This is the main idea.
6. Extended Definition
In this pattern, the writer names a concept or complicated process that the paragraph will define and explain. Usually, the main idea or first sentence of the paragraph states a dictionary definition of the concept or process, followed by a description and/or an explanation. There are usually no signal words for the details. The common key words/phrases in the main idea are: consists of, is, seems to be, are. Look at the following sample paragraph.
A solar eclipse is an astronomical event during which the Moon seems to cover the Sun. When the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, all or part of the Sun’s light is blotted out. The Moon, in fact, is much smaller than the Sun, but it is also a great deal closer to the Earth. As a result, both the Sun and the Moon seem to be about the same size to us. During a total eclipse, the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth are all in a straight line and the Moon completely hides the Sun from view. A partial eclipse occurs when the three bodies are not exactly in a straight line. In an annular solar eclipse, the Sun is visible as a bright ring around the Moon because the Moon is farthest from the Earth.
The topic of this paragraph is “Solar eclipse”, whereas the main idea is the one stated in the first sentence, i.e. “A solar eclipse is an astronomical event during which the Moon seems to cover the Sun.”
Brandon, Lee & Brandon. Kelly. 2011. Paragraphs and Essays with Integrated Readings (11th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Mikulecky, Beatrice S. and Jeffries, Linda. 2007. Advanced reading power: extensive reading, vocabulary building, comprehension skills, reading faster. New York: Pearson Education
Read the following paragraphs and determine the topic, the main idea, and the organizational pattern employed in each of them.
- Between 1890 and 1900, millions of people from southern and eastern Europe left their home in search of the American dream. The new immigrants had hoped to find a comfortable place where they could settle and live out their lives. But the cities to which they came were not prepared for the new arrivals, and many immigrant families ended up in ugly tenements that were poorly supplied with light, heat and water. They had dreamt of finding work, work that could make them independent, even rich. Instead they found that jobs were scarce. Frequently they had to take jobs for which they were unsuited, and the work left them exhausted and depressed. Many immigrants found that instead of the warm welcome they expected, they were treated as outsiders, with funny customs and even funnier way of speaking.
Human digestion begins when we use our teeth to cut and grind food. As we chew, saliva moistens and softens food so it can be easily swallowed. After being swallowed, the food passes into a tube that connects the mouth and stomach; this tube is called esophagus. After the food reaches the stomach, muscles in the stomach will mix it together and combine it with a gastric juice that consists mostly of water and hydrochloric acid. The gastric juice reduces the food to a liquid that can pass into the small intestine. The passage takes about eight hours. During this time, enzymes break down the food even more, preparing it for absorption into the blood stream.
- Liberty Statue is a colossal statue in Liberty Island in the Upper New York Bay, U.S., made to commemorate the friendship of the peoples of the United States and France. Standing 305 feet (93 meters) high including its pedestal, it represents a woman holding a torch in her raised right hand and a tablet bearing the adoption date of the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776) in her left. The torch, which measures 29 feet (8.8 meters) from the flame tip to the bottom of the handle, is accessible via a 42-foot (12.8-metre) service ladder inside the arm (this ascent was open to the public from 1886 to 1916). An elevator carries visitors to the observation deck in the pedestal, which may also be reached by stairway, and a spiral staircase leads to an observation platform in the figure’s crown.
The atmosphere of Earth acts like any window in serving two very important functions: to let light in and to permit us to look out and to guard Earth from dangerous or uncomfortable things. A normal glazed window lets us keep our house warm by keeping out cold air. In such a way, the Earth’s atmospheric window helps to keep our planet to a comfortable temperature by holding back radiated heat and protecting us from dangerous levels of ultraviolet light. Just like a window which prevents rain, dirt, and unwelcome insects and animals from coming in, scientists have discovered that space is full of a great many very dangerous things against which our atmosphere guards us. (Adapted from: Brandon & Brandon, 2011: 289).
Astronauts face many problems in space caused by weightlessness. One of these problems is floating around the cabin. To solve this problem, astronauts wear shoes that are coated with a special adhesive. This adhesive sticks to the floor of the cabin. Serving food is another problem. It won’t stay put on the table! Experts solved this problem by putting food and drinks in pouches and tubes. It only needs to be mixed with water. Weightlessness also causes problems when an astronaut tries to work. The simple task of turning a wrench or a doorknob can be difficult. Since there is no gravity to keep him down, when he exerts a force in one direction, the opposite force may flip him over completely. To solve this problem, he must be very careful about how much force he uses to do these simple tasks. Here on earth, life is much simpler, thanks to gravity. (From: http://e-writing.wikispaces.com/ Problem+and+Solution+Paragraph)