Paragraph Comprehension Study Guide for McGraw-Hill's ASVAB (page 2)

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 16, 2011

Learn How to Answer Each Question Type

There are four different types of Paragraph Comprehension questions. Each type asks you something different about the paragraph you read. Here is a list of the question types, along with tips for answering each type.

Type 1: Words in Context Questions

Some Paragraph Comprehension questions will ask you to determine the meaning of an unfamiliar word in the paragraph by looking at the context in which that word appears.


Space flight is a somewhat common experience these days. Nowadays the International Space Station generally is the home of several astronauts from the United States and Russia. Astronauts generally spend several months in a weightless condition. They sleep, eat, and work without the effects of gravity. One of the effects of lengthy space travel is the atrophy of major muscle groups and the stress of travel on the heart and lungs. When these space travelers return to Earth, it takes several days for them to adjust back to gravity and to walk normally.

    In this instance the word atrophy means
  1. strengthening.
  2. defining.
  3. weakening.
  4. breaking.

If the correct meaning was "strengthening" (choice A), then it probably wouldn't take several days for the space travelers to adjust back to gravity. If choice D, "breaking," was the correct answer, then the space travelers would probably not adjust at all, as their muscles would be in very poor shape. Muscles that are "defining," choice B, would result from exercise performed against gravity, not in a weightless environment. Choice C, "weakening," is the correct answer, because when muscles do not have a chance to work out, they get weaker.

Type 2: Main Idea Questions

Another kind of Paragraph Comprehension question asks about the main idea of the paragraph. In this kind of question, you may be asked to identify the main idea, to choose the best title for the paragraph (which is simply another way of stating the main idea), to identify the theme of the paragraph, or to identify the author's purpose in writing the paragraph.


Bologna, Italy, is a city with 26 miles of covered walkways dating from the 1200s. The atmosphere of this beautiful city and its residents envelope you like a warm hug. In the center piazza of the city are two leaning towers, forming the most notable landmarks. Around the corner is the famous Roxy coffee bar, a hangout for many of the young university students who are studying medicine and political science. The nearby open marketplace bustles with color and excitement. Listening closely, you can hear many languages spoken by the tourists who visit each year.

In the paragraph above, which of the following best states the main idea of the passage?

  1. Bologna is an old city.
  2. University students love Bologna.
  3. Bologna is an interesting place to visit.
  4. Bologna has two leaning towers.

Clearly, choice C is the best and correct answer. The main idea is that Bologna is an interesting and vibrant city that attracts visitors from many places.

The other answers may be true, but they do not sum up the gist of the entire passage.

Often in a paragraph there will be one sentence that sums up the main idea of the paragraph as a whole. The question may ask you to choose which sentence that is. A sentence that sums up the main idea of a paragraph is called the topic sentence. In the following example, the sentences are numbered. As you read, try to pick out the topic sentence.


(1) It was 6 p.m. on a cloudy, frigid day in the forest. (2) It had been sleeting the entire afternoon. (3) Simone was worried because her son hadn't returned home, as he usually did by this time. (4) Todd was always punctual, but tonight was different. (5) Todd had a basketball game after school, and a friend was supposed to drive him home. (6) Simone waited by the window in hopes of seeing Todd's smiling face as he came up the stairs.

Which of the following sentences best reflects he main idea of the paragraph?

  1. 1
  2. 3
  3. 4
  4. 5

The best and correct answer is choice B. In most paragraphs, the topic sentence is the first sentence. But in this case, as you might have noticed, it is not. Of the six sentences, sentence 3 best conveys the meaning of the entire paragraph. It tells you that for some reason, Todd was supposed to be home and wasn't, and that Simone was worried. Sentence 3 is the topic sentence. Sentences 1 and 2 just give an indication of the setting. Sentences 4 and 5 tell us that Todd was usually on time and that this day he had a basketball game. These sentences don't reflect the basic idea of the paragraph: that Simone was worried and why she was worried. Sentence 6 conveys no sense that there was any kind of problem or reason for worry, only that Simone was looking out the window hoping to see Todd.

"Best Title" Questions   Another kind of main idea question will ask you to choose the best title for the paragraph. The best title is the one that best expresses the main idea of the paragraph as a whole. Here is an example.


Visiting New York City and taking in a Broadway musical has always been a dream of Kevin's, but he knew a visit to the big city would be very expensive. He wanted to plan a short vacation to the city over a holiday weekend. Could he visit the city on a limited budget? Searching the Internet, he found opportunities for reduced-price hotels, half-price Broadway play tickets, and a special on train transportation. He was ecstatic as he started to pack his bags.

For the paragraph above, which of the following is the best title?

  1. New York—An Expensive City
  2. Kevin's Budget
  3. Finding Cheap Tickets
  4. Kevin Goes to the Big City

Of the options, choice D is the best and correct answer. You don't know about Kevin's actual budget, so choice B is not correct. You do know that New York City is expensive to visit, but that is not the major point of the paragraph. Finding cheap tickets is part of the process, but it is not by any means the major thrust of the paragraph. Kevin's dream and all its parts is the most important theme of the paragraph.

Note that there are a number of other possible good titles for this paragraph. A few include Kevin Goes to the Big City, New York City on a Budget, and Kevin's Dream Comes True. Each of these titles conveys the main idea of the paragraph and would make a possible correct answer choice.

Author's Purpose Questions   Another kind of main idea question will ask you to identify the author's purpose in writing the paragraph. Authors write for a variety of purposes: to describe, to raise issues or concerns, to move readers to action, to persuade readers to think in a particular way, to frighten, to give directions, to describe steps or procedures, to compare and contrast, or to entertain. Here is an example of this kind of question.


Global warming is an increasingly serious environmental problem. It is caused by "greenhouse gases," which are created by things we do to the environment every day. But there are many little things people can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You can do your part by carpooling to save gasoline. Four people can ride to school or work in a carpool instead of each person taking a car and driving alone. Save electricity by turning off the lights, the television, and the computer when you are through with them. Save energy by taking the bus or by riding your bicycle to school or to run errands. Walk to where you want to go. Recycle your cans, bottles, plastic bags, and newspapers. If you care about the future of this planet, help protect the environment! Get with the program!

In the paragraph above, what is the author's purpose?

  1. To entertain readers
  2. To describe global warming
  3. To offer directions
  4. To move readers to action

The best answer is choice D. The purpose of the paragraph is to move you to act to protect the environment. The paragraph makes no attempt to entertain readers (choice A), nor does it really describe what global warming is (choice B). It does give suggestions for fixing global warming, but these are not really directions, so choice C is also incorrect.

Author's Attitude or Tone Questions   Another kind of main idea question will ask you to identify the author's attitude or tone. In other words, you will need to determine how the author feels toward the subject of the paragraph. Is the author angry? Discouraged? Excited? Happy? For clues to how the author feels, look at the words he or she has chosen to use. Here is an example.


Shooting a cat with a BB gun or anything else is animal cruelty and is illegal. The recent incident in our neighborhood should be reported to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the local humane society, or the police. We must as a community band together to find the perpetrators, prosecute them, and get the person or persons into some serious counseling program. It's important for all of us to be watchful and to speak up about this horrific behavior. These incidents must be stopped before these individuals cause even more serious harm.

In the above paragraph, which of the following best describes the author's tone?

  1. Happy about the situation
  2. Biased in favor of cats
  3. Angry about the situation
  4. Depressed about the situation

The correct answer is choice C, "angry about the situation." The author's anger is apparent in words and phrases like "horrific," "we must as a community band together," "prosecute them," and "these incidents must be stopped," There is nothing in the paragraph to support any of the other choices.

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