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    Reading Comprehension
  I: Introduction  
  II: The Challenge  
  III: The Five Steps  
     1. Passage Classification  
     2. Breaking Down Each Passage  
     3. See the Organization  
     3a. Short Essays  
     3b. Long Essays  
     4. Find the Big Idea  
     5. Diagnose Author's Purpose  
  IV: Question Types  
  V: Tips  
  VI: Sample Essays  
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III-2. The Five Steps- Breaking Down Each Paragraph
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Each paragraph is the basic unit of the essay. By breaking down an unwieldy and cumbersome essay into bite-sized pieces, it is easier to comprehend ideas and follow the organizational structure.

When reading a paragraph and after finishing it, make a mental note or write down three things to help you answer the questions:

A. Main idea of each paragraph
Often the first sentence in a paragraph will be a topic sentence or transition sentence. It should tell you the main idea of the paragraph or the paragraph's relation to the preceding one. Pay close attention to the first sentence in each paragraph.

B. Tone of each paragraph
Recognizing an author's tone is very important to understanding the shape and purpose of an essay. Having a strong grasp on the author's tone will go a long way in answering main idea and author purpose questions.

Some common Reading Comprehension tones are:


Here's the last paragraph from a passage about artistic concepts; see if you can cue into the author's tone to discern his point:

For example, the "mimetic" theory holds that art reproduces reality, but although amateurs' photographs reproduce reality, most artists and art critics do not consider them art. Much of what is recognized as art conforms to the definition of art as the creation of forms, but an engineer and the illustrator of a geometry textbook also construct forms. The inadequacy of these definitions suggests a strong element of irrationality, for it suggests that the way in which artists and art critics talk and think about works of art does not correspond with the way in which they actually distinguish those things that they recognize as works of art from the things that they do not so recognize.

The words "inadequacy" and "irrationality" seem to establish an attitude of frustration and dismissiveness over the current method of defining and evaluating art. While not exactly "livid," we can sense that the author is sincerely exasperated by the current practice of critics.

C. Relation to preceding paragraph
Always look at the last sentence of the preceding paragraph and contrast it with the introductory sentence of the paragraph you are reading. A good writer will make a smooth transition to a new paragraph with a new idea. After each paragraph, mentally note the relation to the preceding paragraph. The paragraph is the main structural unit of any passage. To find a paragraph's purpose, ask yourself:

1. Why did the author include this paragraph?
2. What shift did the author have in mind when moving on to this paragraph?
3. What bearing does this paragraph have on the main idea of the passage so far?

Tone can shift suddenly in a new paragraph:

There are increasing indications that academic research has separated itself from practical concerns to such an extent that, in many academic arenas, the transition from theory to practice has vanished entirely. Indeed, public and private institutions alike are awakening to the need to infuse scholarship with an "ear" for the practically useful. Yet, the problem appears intractable, with a chasm between academics and practitioners that grows only wider. Only radical change will steer academia back toward a collaboration with practical concern. But who could devise such a radical, yet effective, strategy?

I can. I have the answer. All academic research must seek private funding. Scholarship without funding has no justification for existence. You, naturally, think my idea is preposterous. Surely I understand that commercial value is separate from scholarly significance? Yet it is you who are mistaken. You do not understand that the market is the most efficient measure of worth, be it commercial or scholarly. You again object, this time almost in a panic, that I speak nonsense. But you are merely afraid of what you know to be the one viable path for modern academia. Follow or be left behind in your blind fear of the most fundamental economic truths. This is the only way.

The first paragraph sets up the problem: academics have lost touch with real life. The second paragraph signals a tone shift from soberly explanatory to aggressively persuasive, reflecting a shift in purpose from explaining a problem to forcefully advocating a solution.

1. Passage Classification

3. See the Organization