Out of the three Reading subskills, finding details, understanding sentences and identifying main ideas, IELTS test takers often think that the latter is the easiest, because they mistakenly think that it's about having a general idea of the text. Far from it! When a task involves identifying main ideas, you have to think about the main point the writer is making in a text or part of a text, not just 'what the section is about'. In order to do that, you need to recognise how ideas relate to one another – for example the relationship between a generalisation and an example. You may also need to think about whether the text contains information or opinions.
Being able to identify the main idea is particularly important in multiple choice questions, matching information, matching headings and summary completion tasks. There is some crossover in these types of task with the other two subskills, as you have to be able to understand your different options at sentence level and you will have to look at nuanced differences between them. As with the other two skills, in order to improve this skill, there are three key areas you should look at: exam strategy, language and further study.
Strategy: You should identify the general area in which the particular combination of ideas from the question or task can be found. When you have found it, you should spend some time figuring out exactly how the ideas in the section relate to each other and if and how they relate to ideas in the task. So, you have to identify the main idea in each of the options or questions as well as in the text.
If you would like to see me demonstrate how to deal with these kinds of tasks in the test, check out my walkthrough of a real IELTS Reading test.
Language: As mentioned above, in order to understand the point a writer is making, you need to be able to understand how ideas relate to each other, so it is important to have a good understanding of a range of linking expressions. You also need to be able to identify when a writer is giving an opinion. Adverbs and adjectives can be very helpful here. For example, ‘effectively’ or ‘unfortunately’ tell you how the writer feels about a particular idea, as do words such as ‘great’ and ‘problematic’. You may also need to look at words that qualify ideas, such as ‘too’, ‘more’, and ‘fewer’ and possible synonyms for these ideas.
For example, these two sentences look quite different, but in essence, they express the same thing:
There were fewer students on the field trip in previous years.
There were more students travelling to study animals in the wild than in the past.
Let’s look at another example:
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The correct answer here is C, because “the public” and “ordinary people” are synonyms here and if we remove the relative clause between commas, we get the phrase “the public that has the power…”. This, public and power are closely related in the text just as in option C.
We may be tempted to answer B, because we see the word ‘ignores’ in the first line and ‘ignorance’ in answer B. However, the word ‘ignores’, does not relate to the public, but to responsibility and ‘ignores’ and ‘ignorance’ do not really have the same meaning anyway.
Similarly, we have the word ‘policies’ in the original and ‘politics’ as one of the options, but these two words don’t carry the same meaning either. Furthermore, in the text, there is no direct link between stopping the current situation and political action.
It is comparatively easy to discard option D, as we don’t really have the idea of education present in this paragraph at all.
Further study: The list of useful language is really too long for me to go into any kind of detail here, especially as each of you will have different language issues that might impact your performance in the test. It’s therefore really important that as part of your preparation routine and further study you identify weaknesses and gaps in your knowledge yourself and address them. In other words, don’t simply do practice tests and check your results. That way, you only test what you already know. Instead, you should spend some time following up where you failed to see the right answer in order to learn new language and improve your reading skills. For example: if you failed to spot that ‘too few’ and ‘not enough’ have the same meaning and instead you chose an answer which simply included the idea of ‘not many’, you know that you need to work on so-called ‘qualifiers’. Finding out where you went wrong and developing your skills and language is quite time-consuming, and as a rule of thumb, you should spend at least as much time following up after a practice test or exercise as it took you to complete the practice.
Additionally, as with the other two subskills, you could use the feedback from IELTS intelligence to help you. If you have access to a tutor, you should also make sure to ask them for specific areas of language to help you improve your reading performance in terms of finding main ideas. If you are working towards the exam on your own, you might find these three self-study resources useful: IELTS Trainer 2 and The Official Cambridge Guide to IELTS and the IELTS Vocabulary series.