Reading Comprehension: GED Test Prep (page 3)
Reading, like writing, is based on a few fundamental skills. This article reviews five essential reading comprehension strategies, including finding the main idea and drawing logical conclusions from the text.
To understand what you read, you use a combination of skills that together enable you to obtain meaning from a text. These skills can be grouped into five essential reading comprehension strategies:
- Determining the main idea or theme
- Identifying specific supporting facts and details
- Distinguishing between fact and opinion
- Making inferences
- Identifying cause and effect relationships
Determining the Main Idea or Theme
Standardized reading comprehension tests always have questions about the main idea of the passage. But just what is the main idea, anyway, and why is it so important? And how is the main idea different from the theme?
Often, students confuse the main idea, or theme, of a passage with its topic. But they are two very different things. The topic or subject of a passage is what the passage is about. Main idea and theme, on the other hand, are what the writer wants to say about that subject. For example, take another look at the poem you read in the pretest, "The Eagle":
- The Eagle
- He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
- Close to the sun in lonely lands,
- Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
- The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
- He watches from his mountain walls,
- And like a thunderbolt he falls.
- —Alfred Lord Tennyson, "The Eagle" (1851)
This poem is about an eagle, so an eagle is the topic of the poem. But that is not the theme of the poem. Main ideas and themes must express an attitude or an idea; they need to say something about their subject and they should be stated in complete sentences.
Main idea and theme are so important because they are what the text adds up to. The main idea or theme is what holds all of the ideas in the passage together; it is the writer's main point. Indeed, it is why the writer writes in the first place: to express this idea.
In "The Eagle," the action and word choice in the poem reveal how the poet feels about his subject. The image of a noble eagle standing on a mountain crag and then suddenly plummeting toward the sea captures the writer's respect for this awesome bird. This reverence for the power and beauty of the eagle is the theme of the poem.
To hold all of the ideas in the passage together, a main idea or theme needs to be sufficiently general. That is, it needs to be broad enough for all of the other ideas in the passage to fit underneath, like people underneath an umbrella. For example, look at the following choices for the theme of "The Eagle":
- Eagles often live on mountains.
- Eagles can swoop down from the sky very quickly.
- Eagles are powerful, majestic birds.
The only answer that can be correct is c, because this is the idea that the whole poem adds up to. It's what holds together all of the ideas in the poem. Choices a and b are both too specific to be the theme. In addition, they do not express attitude or feelings. They simply state specific facts.
Finding the Main Idea in Nonfiction
Most nonfiction texts follow a very basic pattern of general idea → specific support. That is, the writer will state the main idea he or she wants to convey about the topic and then provide support for that idea, usually in the form of specific facts and details. This format can be diagrammed as follows:
In the following paragraph, for example, notice how the first sentence states a main idea (makes a general claim about surveillance cameras). The rest of the paragraph provides specific facts and details to show why this statement is true:
Surveillance cameras can provide two immensely important services. One, they can help us find those who commit crimes, including thieves, kidnappers, vandals, and even murderers. Two, they can serve as a powerful deterrent to crime. A thief who plans to steal a car may think twice if he knows he will be caught on video. A woman who hopes to kidnap a child may abandon her plans if she knows she will be captured on film.
This main idea → support structure works on two levels: for the text as a whole and for each individual section or paragraph within the text.
Distinguishing Main Ideas from Supporting Ideas
If you're not sure whether something is a main idea or a supporting idea, ask yourself the following question: Is the sentence making a general statement, or is it providing specific information? In the following paragraph, for example, most of the sentences except one are too specific to be the main idea of the paragraph. Only one sentence—the first—is general enough to serve as an "umbrella" or "net" for the whole paragraph.
Many people are afraid of snakes, but most snakes aren't as dangerous as people think they are. There are more than 2,500 different species of snakes around the world. Only a small percentage of those species are poisonous, and only a few species have venom strong enough to kill a human being. Furthermore, snakes bite only 1,000–2,000 people in the United States each year, and only ten of those bites (that's less than 1%) result in death. Statistically, many other animals are far more dangerous than snakes. In fact, in this country, more people die from dog bites each year than from snake bites.
Notice how the first sentence makes a general claim about snakes (that they "aren't as dangerous as people think they are"). Then the rest of the sentences in the paragraph provide details and specific facts that support the main idea.
Writers often provide clues that can help you distinguish between main ideas and their support. Here are some of the most common words and phrases used to introduce specific examples:
These signal words usually mean that a supporting fact or idea will follow. If you are having trouble finding the main idea of a paragraph, try eliminating sentences that begin with these phrases. (Notice that one of the sentences in the snake paragraph begins with one of these transitional words.)
In nonfiction texts, the main idea is supported by ideas expressed in paragraphs. Each of these paragraphs also has its own main idea. In fact, that's the definition of a paragraph: a group of sentences about the same idea. The sentence that expresses the main idea of a paragraph is called a topic sentence. The first sentence in both the surveillance camera and snake paragraphs state their main ideas. Those sentences are therefore the topic sentences for those paragraphs.
Topic sentences are often located at the beginning of paragraphs, but not always. Sometimes writers begin with specific supporting ideas and lead up to the main idea. In this case, the topic sentence would probably be at the end of the paragraph. Notice how we can rewrite the snake paragraph to put the topic sentence at the end of the passage:
There are more than 2,500 different species of snakes around the world. Only a small percentage of those species are poisonous, and only a few species have venom strong enough to kill a human being. Snakes bite only 1,000–2,000 people in the United States each year, and only ten of those bites (that's less than 1%) result in death. Statistically, many other animals are far more dangerous than snakes. In fact, in this country, more people die from dog bites each year than from snake bites. Clearly, snakes aren't as dangerous as people think they are.
Sometimes the topic sentence is not found at the beginning or end of a paragraph but rather somewhere in the middle. Other times, there isn't a clear topic sentence at all. But that doesn't mean the paragraph doesn't have a main idea. It's there, but the author has chosen not to express it in a clear topic sentence. In that case, you will have to look carefully at the paragraph for clues about the main idea.
Finding an Implied Main Idea
When the main idea is implied, there is no topic sentence, so finding the main idea requires some good detective work. If you look carefully at what is said and at the structure, word choice, style, and tone of the passage, you can figure out the main idea. (These terms will be discussed in more detail later in the chapter.)
For example, take a look at the following paragraph:
This summer I read The Windows of Time. Though it's over 100 pages long, I read it in one afternoon. I couldn't wait to see what happened to Evelyn, the main character. But by the time I got to the end, I wondered if I should have spent my afternoon doing something else. The ending was so awful that I completely forgot I'd enjoyed most of the book.
There's no topic sentence here, but you should still be able to find the main idea. Look carefully at what the writer says and how she says it. What is she suggesting?
- The Windows of Time is a terrific novel.
- The Windows of Time is disappointing.
- The Windows of Time is full of suspense.
- The Windows of Time is a lousy novel.
The correct answer is choice b, the novel is disappointing. How can you tell that this is the main idea? First, we can eliminate choice c, because it's too specific to be a main idea. It deals only with one specific aspect of the novel (its suspense).
Choices a, b, and d, on the other and, all express a larger idea—a general assertion about the quality of the novel. But only one of these statements can actually serve as a "net" for the whole paragraph. Notice that while the first few sentences praise the novel, the last two criticize it. (The word "but" at the beginning of the third sentence signals that the positive review is going to turn negative.) Clearly, this is a mixed review. Therefore, the best answer is b. Choice a is too positive and doesn't account for the "awful" ending. Choice d, on the other hand, is too negative and doesn't account for the suspense and interest in the main character. But choice b allows for both positive and negative—when a good thing turns bad, one often feels disappointed.
Here's another example. In this passage, word choice is more important, so read carefully.
Fortunately, none of Toby's friends had ever seen the apartment where Toby lived with his mother and sister. Sandwiched between two burnt-out buildings, his two-story apartment building was by far the ugliest one on the block. It was a real eyesore: peeling orange paint (orange!), broken windows, crooked steps, crooked everything. He could just imagine what his friends would say if they ever saw this poor excuse for a building.
Which of the following expresses the main idea of this paragraph?
- Toby wishes he could move to a nicer building.
- Toby wishes his dad still lived with them.
- Toby worries about what his friends would think of where he lives.
- Toby is sad because he doesn't have any friends.
From the description, we can safely assume that Toby doesn't like his apartment building and wishes he could move to a nicer building (choice a). But that idea isn't general enough to cover the whole paragraph, because it doesn't say anything about his friends. Choice d doesn't say anything about his building, so it's not broad enough either. Besides, the first sentence states that Toby has friends. We know that Toby lives only with his mother and little sister, so we might assume that he wishes his dad still lived with them (choice b). But there's nothing in the paragraph to support that assumption and this idea doesn't include the two main topics of the paragraph—Toby's building and Toby's friends.
What the paragraph adds up to is that Toby is embarrassed about his building, and he's glad none of his friends have seen it (choice c). This is the main idea. The paragraph opens with the word "fortunately," so we know that he thinks it's a good thing none of them have been there. Plus, look at the word choice. Notice how the building is described. It's "by far the ugliest on the block," which is saying a lot since it's stuck between two burnt-out buildings. The writer calls it an "eyesore," and repeats "orange" with an exclamation point to emphasize how ugly the color is. Everything's "crooked" in this "poor excuse for a building." He's ashamed of where he lives and worries about what his friends would think if they saw it.
Determining Theme in Literature
Theme is the overall message or idea that the writer wants to convey. Like a main idea, the theme is different from the subject in that the theme says something about the subject. For example, take John Donne's poem "Death Be Not Proud." The subject of the poem is death. But the theme of the poem says something about death. The poem's message is that death is a gift for those who believe in God.
Sonnet 72. "Death be not proud, though some have called thee"
- DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
- Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
- For those whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
- Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
- From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures bee,
- Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
- And soonest our best men with thee do go,
- Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
- Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
- And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
- And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
- And better then thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
- One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
- And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
The main idea of a text is the thought that holds everything together. Likewise, the theme of a work of literature is the thought that holds together the characters and action. It's the idea that guides every choice the writer makes throughout the text.
For example, look at the poem "A Poison Tree," from William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. The poem has four stanzas (groups of lines in a poem, much like a paragraph is a group of lines in an essay or story). Read the poem carefully and read it out loud, too, because poetry is meant to be heard as well as read.
- A Poison Tree
- I was angry with my friend:
- I told my wrath, my wrath did end. wrath = anger
- I was angry with my foe; foe = enemy
- I told it not, my wrath did grow.
- And I water'd it in fears,
- Night & morning with my tears;
- And I sunned it with smiles, deceitful = causing others
- And with soft deceitful wiles. to believe what is not true wiles = trickery, deceit
- And it grew both by day and night,
- Till it bore an apple bright.
- And my foe beheld it shine, beheld = saw
- And he knew that it was mine.
- And into my garden stole
- When the night had veil'd the pole; veiled = hidden
- In the morning glad I see
- My foe outstretch'd beneath the tree.
To understand Blake's theme, you need to look carefully at what happened and then look at why it happened. In the first stanza, Blake sets up two situations. First, the speaker (the "voice" or "narrator" of the poem) is angry with his friend (line 1) and he tells his friend about it (line 2). As a result, the anger goes away (line 2—"my wrath did end"). But he acts differently with his enemy. He doesn't tell his foe about his anger (line 4) and, as a result, the anger grows (line 4).
In the second stanza, the speaker "water'd" his wrath in fears and "sunned" his wrath with smiles and wiles. Blake isn't being literal here; rather, he's drawing a comparison between the speaker's anger to something that grows with water and sun. It's like some kind of plant. How do you know exactly what it is? Blake tells you in two key places: in the title and in the last line. The poem is called "The Poison Tree." "Tree" is mentioned again in the last line of the poem.
The kind of comparison is called a metaphor, and it is an important clue to the meaning of the poem. Blake could have compared the speaker's anger to anything, but he chose to compare it to a tree. Trees have deep, strong roots and often flower or bear fruit. (This tree bears an apple.) They need some nurturing (sun and water) to grow.
In the third stanza, the foe sees the speaker's apple. In the fourth, he sneaks into the speaker's garden at night. Finally, at the end of the poem, the foe is killed by the poisonous apple (the apple poisoned by the speaker's wrath).
That is what happens in the poem, but what does it all add up to? What does it mean? In other words, what is the theme?
Look again at the action. Cause and effect are central to the theme of this poem. What does the speaker do? He tells his friend about his anger. What doesn't the speaker do? He doesn't tell his enemy about his anger. What happens to his anger, then? It grows and grows and it offers fruit that tempts his enemy. And what happens to his enemy? He steals the apple, but it is the fruit of anger. It is poisonous and it kills him. Thus, the idea that best summarizes the idea of the poem is this: If you don't talk about your anger, it can be deadly. This is the message or "lesson" of the poem.
In many poems, the theme is an idea, while in others, the theme is an emotion. That is, the poet wants readers to feel an emotion very strongly. Poets can accomplish this through language. "The Eagle" is a good example of a poem whose theme is emotional. The next poem, written by Stephen Crane in 1899, combines both action and language to convey theme. Read the poem out loud at least twice.
- A Man Said to the Universe
- A man said to the universe:
- "Sir, I exist!"
- "However," replied the universe,
- "The fact has not created in me
- A sense of obligation."
Look carefully at the language in the poem. What kinds of words has the poet chosen? Are they warm, friendly words, or are they cold, distancing words? Do they make you feel comfortable, welcome? Or uncomfortable, rejected? Are they specific or general? Do you feel like there's a personal relationship here? Or are things formal, official?
Crane's word choice helps convey his theme. The words "sir," "fact," and "obligation" are cold and formal. There's no sense of personal relationship between the man and the universe. This is heightened by the general nature of the poem. It's just "a man"—not anyone specific, not anyone you know. Not anyone the universe knows, either. It's also written in the third-person point of view. The poem would have a different effect if it began, "I said to the universe."
The tone of the poem is cold and uncaring. That combined with action and word choice conveys Crane's theme: The universe is indifferent to humans (however one might wish it were otherwise).
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