On the Reading test, you will need to determine the main idea of passages and locate and analyze details. Let’s review these concepts now.
The main idea of a text is the “big picture,” or what the text is mainly about. A simple way to determine the main idea of a text is to ask yourself, “What is this text about?,” and to answer in a few words.
Many species of parrots have been brought to the United States to live in captivity as pets. About 25 of those species are now breeding in the wild. Based on research, one of the parrot species that most commonly establishes breeding populations in the U.S. is the red-crowned Amazon.
The red-crowned Amazon is an endangered species native to Mexico, and it is now more commonly found in the wild in the U.S. than in its native population. Both logging and the pet trade have caused the red-crowned Amazon population to dwindle in its native home.
Another introduced parrot species that can be found breeding in the wild in the U.S. is the monk parakeet. Unlike the red-crowned Amazon, the monk parakeet is not endangered. The monk parakeet breeds readily not only in the U.S., but in its native habitat, South America.
The monk parakeet is considered a nuisance by some. It is estimated to cause millions of damage to urban buildings each year because it uses these structures as nesting places.
So, what was this passage mainly about? You should automatically know that the word parrots should be found in the answer as it is included in the passage several times. The author mentions problems related to the parrots and advantages experienced by the parrots, but what accounts for these problems and advantages?
The answer is that parrots are living in the United States, where they are non-native. So, the main idea is that untamed, non-native parrot species are currently living in the U.S.
You would not say, for example, that the main idea is that the red-crowned Amazon is an endangered species. That, of course, is just a minor detail.
When you understand the main idea of the text, you are able to understand why the details are there. Think about the passage you just read about parrots. The author gives the detail that monk parrots nest on man-made structures and damage them.
This detail is included because it supports the main idea by giving evidence that non-native parrot species are now in their new habitat in the U.S.
You can expect to see some questions on the test which ask you to find specific details in the text. It is also likely that you will be asked why particular details are included. Read the following passage and answer the detail questions:
The common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) has by far the most extensive geographic range of any North American reptile, covering most of the continental United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from south of the Mexican boundary far north into Canada and southeastern Alaska. Of the several recognized subspecies, the eastern T. s. sirtalis has the most extensive range, but that of T. s. parietalis in the region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains is almost as large. The more western T. s. fitchi occurring from the Oregon and California coasts east through the northern Great Basin, has the third largest range, while the far western subspecies pickeringi, concinnus, infernalis and tetrataenia, and the Texan T. s. annectens all have relatively small ranges.
Source: Occurrence of the Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis, in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, by Henry S. Fitch and T. Paul Maslin (public domain)
Based on the passage, which species has the broadest range?
- T. s. sirtalis
- T. s. fitchi
- T. s. Parietalis
- T. s. annectens
You don’t need to worry that the names of the species are in Latin and it isn’t important to be familiar with the species. According to the second sentence, T. s. sirtalis has the “most extensive range.”
The author mentions that common garter snakes can be found as far north as Canada. This detail helps to show that:
- garter snakes are pests.
- snakes generally prefer cool climates.
- garter snakes can be studied in many countries.
- garter snakes have a broad range.
In order to answer this question, think about the main idea of the passage. The passage is intended to describe where garter snake species live.
You can eliminate A and B because pests and climates are not mentioned. Choice C also strays from the main idea. D is correct because the information is included to describe the range of garter snakes and helps readers to understand that it spans from Mexico into Canada.
Some texts have very obvious sequences, or orders. For example, think about the recipe you read earlier which included numbered steps to show a sequence. Other texts have less obvious sequences, but it is still important to understand the order in which events occur.
You can use details in the text to understand a sequence of events. Look for words and phrases which relate to time. Here are a few examples:
- “One day later…”
- “When this happened…”
- “As soon as this occurred…”
Take a look at the passage below and answer the question:
Tarzan had long since reached a decision as to what his future procedure should be. He had had time to recollect all that he had read of the ways of men and women in the books at the cabin. He would act as he imagined the men in the books would have acted were they in his place.
Again he rose and went into the trees, but first he tried to explain by means of signs that he would return shortly, and he did so well that Jane understood and was not afraid when he had gone.
Only a feeling of loneliness came over her and she watched the point where he had disappeared, with longing eyes, awaiting his return. As before, she was appraised of his presence by a soft sound behind her, and turned to see him coming across the turf with a great armful of branches.
Then he went back again into the jungle and in a few minutes reappeared with a quantity of soft grasses and ferns.
Two more trips he made until he had quite a pile of material at hand.
Then he spread the ferns and grasses upon the ground in a soft flat bed, and above it leaned many branches together so that they met a few feet over its center. Upon these he spread layers of huge leaves of the great elephant’s ear, and with more branches and more leaves he closed one end of the little shelter he had built.
Source: Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (public domain)
Tarzan tries to communicate with Jane by making signs:
- as he returns to the shelter.
- as he builds a shelter.
- before he goes into the trees.
- after he goes into the trees.
The correct answer to this question is C. The words “but first” are included in the second paragraph to show that Tarzan tries to communicate with signs before going into the trees.
Cause and Effect
Many texts have a cause and effect structure. As you encounter passages on the Reading test, pay attention to what causes events to happen or characters to change.
Sometimes, a passage may use phrases such as “because of” or “as a result of” to show a cause and effect relationship, but this is not always the case. When asked a question about why something happens in the text, you may need to go back and refer to the text to find the answer.
Sometimes, it is helpful to map passages for this reason. To map a passage, you would simply write down a few words to describe each paragraph. Then, you can refer to your map in order to know which part of the text to reread to find an answer.
Let’s practice identifying causes and effects right now. Read the following passage and the question which accompanies it.
The magnificent diamond locket which hung about Tarzan’s neck, had been a source of much wonderment to Jane. She pointed to it now, and Tarzan removed it and handed the pretty bauble to her.
She saw that it was the work of a skilled artisan and that the diamonds were of great brilliancy and superbly set, but the cutting of them denoted that they were of a former day. She noticed too that the locket opened, and, pressing the hidden clasp, she saw the two halves spring apart to reveal in either section an ivory miniature.
One was of a beautiful woman and the other might have been a likeness of the man who sat beside her, except for a subtle difference of expression that was scarcely definable.
She looked up at Tarzan to find him leaning toward her gazing on the miniatures with an expression of astonishment. He reached out his hand for the locket and took it away from her, examining the likenesses within with unmistakable signs of surprise and new interest. His manner clearly denoted that he had never before seen them, nor imagined that the locket opened.
Source: Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (public domain)
What causes Jane to become astonished?
- Jane is impressed by the diamonds on the locket.
- Jane is surprised to see the images of people in the locket.
- Jane cannot understand why Tarzan has never opened the locket.
- Jane cannot believe that Tarzan owns something pretty.
So, the effect is Jane’s astonishment. You can go back in the text and find that Jane makes “an expression of astonishment.” Immediately before this, she sees the images of the people in the locket. You can make an inference that images are responsible for her surprise.