Reading Literature: GED Test Prep (page 4)
On the GED Language Arts, Reading Exam, you will find many different kinds of literature from many different time periods. This article shows you how to read actively and describes the three time periods included on this exam.
Reading literature is a search for meaning. Even in the most functional texts, your job as a reader is to discover what the writer wants to say. In most functional texts, writers make a point of making their goals and main ideas very clear to their readers. Literary texts, however, are much more subtle in expressing their themes. For both types of texts, and especially for literary texts, you will understand more if you read actively.
Though reading often seems like a rather passive activity, there are many things you can (and should) do as you read. These active reading strategies will help you better comprehend and more fully enjoy what you read.
Before You Read
To help you better understand what you read, take a few steps before you begin to read.
- Read the title carefully. This will give you a clue to the subject and theme of the text. For example, if the excerpt is from a novel called Crime and Punishment, you can get a pretty good idea of one of the central issues of the novel.
- Note the name of the author and date of publication, if provided. If it's an author you have read before, you may already know something about the passage or the kinds of themes the writer deals with. Even if you have never read the author before, you may still have some knowledge about the writer. (You probably know, for example, that Stephen King writes horror novels, even if you have never read one of his books.) The date of publication can help you prepare for the historical context of the piece and set up your reading expectations. Consider what you know about the time period in which the text was written—the historical, political, social, and religious contexts.
- Read the questions about the passage. By reading the questions before you read the passage, you help "train" your mind to look for those answers as you read. But be sure not to read just for those answers. Often, the answer comes only from understanding the whole, especially with literary texts (and with poetry in particular).
Note: On the GED Language Arts, Reading Exam, each passage will typically be preceded by a question. This is not the title of the text, though it may look that way. You will need to look at the end of the passage for the author's name, title of the text, and date of publication. The question still serves the same purpose as a title, though: It gives you a strong clue about the main theme of the passage and what information you should get from reading the text.
As You Read
- Mark up the text. Whenever possible, underline key words and ideas in the text. Record your questions and reactions in the margins or on a separate piece of paper. When you are not permitted to write on the text—and you will not be allowed to write in the GED test booklet—use a piece of scrap paper to write down key words, questions, and reactions.
- Be observant. Look carefully at the words, the structure, everything you see. Did you notice, for example, that the word shame was repeated five times in a passage? Or did you notice that the writer capitalized the words love and hate? In literary texts, meaning is conveyed not just through words but also through form, and writers are always making choices that will help convey their ideas.
To cover the breadth of literary forms and themes, the texts are selected from three different time periods: pre-1920, 1920–1960, and 1960–present. The emphasis is on works from more recent history, with approximately two-thirds of the texts from the last 80 years. This is in part because the last century has seen a great deal of experimentation and change in literary forms, and also because modern and contemporary literature and themes are likely to be most familiar to, and have the most profound impact upon, today's readers.
Pre-1920: Ancient and Classical Literature
This period, of course, covers a very large time span. Texts may be as old as a seventeenth-century Shakespearian sonnet or a fifth-century B.C. Greek tragedy. Many different literary movements fit into this time period, including Renaissance literature (1450–1600), Romanticism (1800s), and Realism (late 1800s–early 1900s).
While knowing about these literary periods may be helpful, you do not need this knowledge to do well on the exam. As different as these older texts may be, the reason we still read them (the reason they are classics) is that they have characters and themes that still matter to today's readers. As different as life may have been in ancient Greece or sixteenth-century Italy, today's readers can still relate to Oedipus's desire to be a good leader and find his true father.
Still, older texts are different from today's texts, and because of differences in language and style and their historical contexts, they can be more challenging to understand. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you read older texts:
- Setting. Historical context is important. Note when the text was written and try to identify the specific time and place in which the story takes place. Try to recall any significant facts about the social, political, and religious contexts of that time. For example, if a story is set in Virginia in 1860, you know that this is just one year before the outbreak of the American Civil War, and tensions between the North and South over slavery are running high.
- Style. In many older texts, you will find longer and more complex sentences and a more formal style than in contemporary texts. Don't let this daunt you. Simply take it one sentence at a time. You can also try paraphrasing the text in contemporary terms (how would you write it if you were writing for a classmate?).
- Vocabulary. Because word usage and writing styles change over time, you are likely to find some words and phrases that are unfamiliar. Look carefully at context (the words and sentences surrounding the unfamiliar word) for clues to meaning. You will not be expected to know these words and you will not find questions about their meaning unless the meaning can be determined from context.
- Theme. Most themes will be timeless: the depth of love, the pain of betrayal, how easily power corrupts. Though the setting may be very specific and may provide the circumstances for the theme, the theme is likely to be one that can apply to many different time periods and places. Look for an overarching idea that someone today could still write about.
1920–1960: Modern Literature
While scholars may differ on exactly when the "modern" period begins and ends, they do agree on the defining events of the time period: World War I (1914–1917), the Great Depression (1929–1939), World War II (1939–1945) and the beginning of the Cold War.
The setting, style, and vocabulary of modern texts will not differ greatly from contemporary works. But literature is always a product of its time, so historical context is important. As you read works from this time period, remember the key events and how they affected society. Following are some general notes about the modern period that can help you better understand the concerns of modern writers and their themes:
- questioning of authority and tradition, especially traditional roles; greater emphasis on the rights and importance of the individual
- demand for equal rights of all individuals
- tremendous advances in science and technology; increasing mechanization and specialization
- Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis: new understanding of the self and of hidden motivations and desires
- great politico-economic battle: capitalism versus communism
- experimentalism in form, style, and theme as ways of more accurately reflecting the reality of our human experience (e.g., stream of consciousness writing, fragmented texts)
- great sense of uncertainty and loss; the incredible scale of World War I (an estimated 37 million dead) left a generation feeling lost, fragmented, and insecure. This was increased by World War II (World War I, after all, was supposed to be the war that ended all wars) and was further intensified by the dawn of the nuclear age.
1960–Present: Contemporary Literature
Contemporary literature will present settings, characters, and themes in language that will be very familiar to most readers. Contemporary literature will include a broader range of voices and acknowledgement of writers and themes that in the past had often been marginalized (left out). Some key defining moments, issues, and characteristics of our contemporary period include:
- the civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights movements
- space exploration
- globalization and increasing interdependence
- the end of the Cold War and the expansion of democracy
- the computer revolution and the beginning of the Information Age; advances in and increasing dependence upon technology
- questioning of reality (artificial intelligence, virtual reality)
- the AIDS epidemic
- multiculturalism and celebration of roots
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