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PTE Success: Identifying the Topic and Main Idea

This article provides a guide to improve your ability to read and listen to gather information and identify the topic and main idea in your PTE test.

Many items in PTE, test your ability to read and listen to gather information, key ideas and concepts in a text.

This requires you to use a wide range of skills and strategies to comprehend what you read and hear. To understand the meaning of a reading or listening passage in PTE, you must first identify the topic and main idea.

Identifying the topic

The topic answers the question of who or what a reading or listening passage is about and can usually be expressed in a word or a phrase.

Topic of a reading passage

To find the topic of a reading passage, skim the text to form a FIRST impression. Use the mnemonic (memory trick) to help you remember strategies for finding the topic:

  • F = First sentence: Read the first sentence of a few paragraphs
  • IR = Ideas repeated: Look for words, phrases and ideas that are repeated.
  • ST = Survey titles: Quickly look at titles, headings, pictures, or graphs (if included).

Skimming the text also allows you to see how the information is organised and to understand the topic. Look for key words like causes, results, compare, advantages which provide organisational clues.

Topic of a listening passage

To find the topic of a listening passage, you need to listen for gist to quickly understand the general meaning. This means that you should listen in a general way and think about what the speaker is trying to communicate and how they might feel about the topic based on their tone of voice. In the PTE you only hear each audio or video clip once, but when practising for the test, try listening once for the gist. Then listen for a second time more intensively for specific information.

In the Listening: Highlight Incorrect Words item type, you are presented with a transcript of an audio recording that contains some errors. While listening and reading you need to select the words that differ from what the speaker says.

You will have 10 seconds before the recording begins. This is not enough time to read every word so instead you should skim the transcript using the FIRST technique to determine the topic.

Here’s an example of the task. Skim the transcript below using the FIRST technique to determine the topic.

Paragraph with purple green and red shading to mark correct and incorrect words

The first sentence (F) in purple and the ideas repeated (IR) in green indicate that the passage is about introduced plants and animals. Identifying this as the topic will help you pick out the content words that do not fit this topic area as you read and listen.

In this example the words in red are incorrect. Words such as spouses, waterfront and homelands are not connected to the topic of introduced plants and animals and give you a clue that they may be incorrect as you listen.

Listen to the recording and read the transcription in the question prompt above again. Note the incorrect words as you listen.

Even though the context may give you a hint, you need to concentrate on every single content word you hear. The incorrect words will most likely be nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, and are often easily-confused words that are similar in sound, spelling or meaning eg spouses and species, waterfront and waterways, problems and predators, multiplicate and multiply, homelands and habitat.

Now listen to a new recording and Listening: Highlight Incorrect Words. Use the FIRST technique to identify the topic of the transcription before you listen.

For more information about the Listening: Highlight Incorrect Words item type, how it is scored and test tips, watch the video tutorial in the SEE ALSO section below.

Identifying main ideas

The main idea is the most important information about the topic in a reading or listening passage. It is often expressed directly, or it can be implied.

Main idea of a reading passage

Often the main idea of a reading passage is located in the topic sentence. Main ideas can also be found in concluding sentences and expressed as a summation of the information in a paragraph.

The main idea is not always clearly stated and may need to be drawn from facts, reasons, or examples that give hints for suggestions about the main idea.

To identify the main idea in the texts you read in PTE, quickly ask yourself the following 5W questions after reading a passage:

  • What: What point is the author trying to make?
  • When: Does the information contain a reference to time?
  • Who: Does this passage discuss a person or group?
  • Where: Does the text indicate a place?
  • Why: Is there a reason or explanation?

Main idea of a listening passage

At the beginning of a listening passage the speaker usually tells you what the main topics are and in what order they will come. You can use this information to quickly understand the main ideas of the text.

There are several language signals you can listen for to notice main ideas:

  • phrases like: begin, let’s start, talk about, introduce, look at
  • ideas or words that are repeated often in the passage
  • signals that indicate important information is coming next: we are going to discuss…, it is important to note…
  • words and phrases that signal general information: in general, overall, on the whole


Columbia College. (2020). Finding the Main Idea. Retrieved from here

Silva, F. O. J. C. C. J. H. (2020). Pearson Test of English Academic Practice Tests Plus and CD-ROM with Key Pack (1st ed.). Pearson Longman.

Western, V & Gasper, V. (2018). PTE Academic Lesson Plan Ideas. Pearson

Disclaimer: The question prompts are for practice purposes only and are not official PTE Test materials.

© Griffith University
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PTE Success: The Skills You Need

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