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
Some common Reading Comprehension
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
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.