Reading Comprehension Study Guide: GED Language Arts, Reading (page 2)
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:
Before considering the various types of literature that you'll find on the GED, you should start with some basic concepts on reading comprehension. The following chapters will address poetry and fiction and so forth, but those chapters will build on this chapter—you need the basic skills of reading comprehension before getting into the specifics of literary genres.
In this article, you will learn the six basic tools that are vital in understanding anything that you read:
- determining main ideas and themes
- identifying supporting facts and details of a main idea
- distinguishing between facts and opinions
- making inferences
- identifying cause-and-effect relationships
- understanding words in context
You will actually use these basic skills whenever you read virtually anything: fact, fiction, poetry, newspaper articles, and just about anything else. These form the basic toolbox of reading, so it will be important that you master these skills before proceeding to the next chapter.
Determining Main Ideas and Themes
In order to understand the main idea of a passage, you must first understand the difference between the passage's topic and the point that it's making—or its main idea. Consider the following passage, and ask yourself these questions: What is this passage talking about? What point is the author trying to make?
There are many different types of paint available today, from latex house paint to lacquer paints used on car bodies to the oil paints used by artists to paint great masterpieces on canvas. Selecting the right paint to use for your hobby can be a difficult matter if you don't know that different paints have different purposes for which they are designed. When painting miniature lead soldiers, for example, you would want to use paints that are specifically designed for use on metal. The selection is further complicated, however, by the fact that even metal paints are available in a variety of formats. You would need to choose between acrylic paints, which clean off with plain water, and enamel paints which require paint thinner to clean your brushes. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each type of paint will make your job much easier.
This passage is about paint, so paint is the topic of the selection. But paint is not the point that the author is making. The author is explaining that there are many different types of paint, and that each type has a specific application.
So the topic of this passage is what the author is talking about in general terms, while the main point is the idea that he is trying to get across—in this case, his main point is that it's important to select the right type of paint for your project.
One way to distinguish between topic and main idea is to ask yourself, What is the author trying to prove here? A main idea is generally an opinion or assertion that the writer is making, something that needs to be proven. In this passage, the writer is trying to prove that you must use the correct type of paint on your project, whether you're painting your house or working with miniature lead soldiers.
This concept of proving a point is important, and will lead into the next skill as you learn to identify the points of proof which an author provides in supporting the main idea—the supporting facts and details. These supporting details will often follow a main topic statement, so let's consider how to identify topic sentences.
The topic sentence of a paragraph or passage is frequently the very first sentence—frequently, but not always. So you cannot just assume that the first sentence in a paragraph is the topic sentence.
The topic sentence will lay out the general topic of a passage (which is why it's called the topic sentence), while other sentences will provide greater detail and proof of the topic sentence. Look again at the preceding passage about paints, and find the topic sentence in that paragraph.
Which of the following sentences is the topic sentence in the painting paragraph?
- "There are many different types of paint available today…"
- "Selecting the right paint to use for your hobby can be a difficult matter…"
- "When painting miniature lead soldiers, for example…"
- "You would need to choose between acrylic paints…"
- "Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each type of paint will make your job much easier."
The first sentence, choice a, is introducing the topic of the passage, which is paint. Therefore, a is the correct choice. Notice that all the other sentences make statements of opinion—such as "selecting the right paint can be a difficult matter"—and therefore, they are too specific to be the topic. Such specific statements are the main idea, the point that the author is trying to prove, whereas the topic is whatever general thing the main idea is about—in this case, paint. The main idea is also often a general idea that needs details to support it. Both the main idea and the topic are general. The difference between the two is that while the topic is merely the subject of the passage, the main idea is the point that the author is making about that subject.
This leads us to the next type of sentence: the thesis statement.
A topic sentence introduces the general topic of a passage, while a thesis statement makes a point that must be proven. As we've already seen, the topic sentence of the passage about paint was the first sentence in the paragraph, which introduced the topic of paint.
But the thesis statement is the sentence in that paragraph which makes a claim that could be considered a matter of opinion, an idea that must be proven. In our paint passage, the thesis statement is actually the very last sentence: Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each type of paint will make your job much easier.
A thesis is an idea, a proposition, a matter of opinion that can be debated. In the example under consideration, a person might conceivably argue that understanding the strengths and weaknesses of paint is actually not helpful to a hobbyist; it is a matter of opinion whether or not understanding paint will help you with any given project. This sentence, in other words, presents an opinion which is open to debate and requires support. This is what distinguishes a main idea (stated in the thesis statement) and a topic (introduced in the topic sentence).
As a general rule, the thesis statement is the main idea of a passage, so once you have identified the thesis statement, you've also identified the main idea.
Finding the Main Idea in Nonfiction
Most works of nonfiction that you will encounter are intended to persuade the reader of some point or opinion. Some writing may seem purely objective—news articles, for example—but in reality, even newspapers and magazines are presenting information that could be debated. This type of writing is therefore called persuasive writing.
Persuasive writing often follows a simple pattern, in which the author presents his or her opinion and then supports that opinion with details that prove the opinion to be true. Later in this chapter we will discuss these supporting details more, but for now it's important to know how to use supporting details to find a passage's main idea.
The following diagram will help to illustrate the pattern that you will notice in most nonfiction writing.
Most nonfiction passages that you'll encounter on the GED Language Arts, Reading exam will follow this basic pattern. The author will state a main idea, and then support that idea with evidence to prove that it's true. You must be on guard, however, because sometimes the main idea will be stated at the end or even in the middle of a paragraph—not necessarily at the very beginning. But as you learn to recognize supporting data, you will also gain the ability to quickly spot the main idea.
Read the following paragraph, underline supporting details, and circle the main idea.
Automobile airbags have been known to knock passengers unconscious, and can even threaten the life of a child when they deploy. Airbags expand at such a rapid pace, with such tremendous velocity, that they can actually hit a person in the face with more force than he would sustain if he merely hit the dashboard. The intended purpose of airbags is to cushion any impact which the passenger might sustain in a collision, but in reality they merely create a dramatic collision of their own. There is no doubt that airbags should be an option, not a requirement in modern cars.
Which sentence in that paragraph presents the main idea, and which are supporting details that prove the main idea correct? This paragraph is tricky because the main idea is actually not the first sentence—it's the last sentence. That's why it is important to pay attention to the whole passage and not let your attention trail off, because the last sentence is often just as important as the first. The author is presenting his opinion that airbags should be optional rather than mandatory in modern cars, but he opens the paragraph with supporting evidence that proves his opinion. So the main idea in this paragraph is found in the last sentence, while all other sentences provide supporting information.
Supporting data will usually be statements of fact, things that are accepted as true and not open to debate. Notice that the first sentence in the sample paragraph states that airbags have knocked people unconscious. This is a fact, not an opinion. The second sentence states that airbags expand so fast that they can create a severe impact to a person's face—again, another fact and not an opinion. The only opinion statement in the above paragraph is the final sentence, which suggests that airbags should be an option on cars. You know that this is an opinion because there will be readers who disagree.
Of course, facts themselves can be debated, such as the author's claim that the airbag's force is greater than hitting the dashboard. But your job on the GED is not to determine whether the facts are accurate; your job is merely to distinguish between the main idea of a passage and the supporting details. In other words, remember that the author is presenting what he or she considers to be facts in order to support a main idea, and you can use those supporting facts to help point out the passage's main idea.
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