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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-5. The Five Steps- Diagnose Author's Purpose
 
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Ask yourself: Why is the author telling me this? Why is he selecting the specific facts and drawing the specific conclusions that he is? What is the author's agenda?

It may not be to overthrow the world, but there's always some reason the author wrote the passage. Often, passages will have a policy idea or a suggestion to fix a problem described in the text. Sometimes, the author might simply want to educate people about a subject or clear up a misconception. And other times, there will be a more political/ideological motive for the claims being made.

Academic camouflage — confusing, assertive, or jargon-intensive writing — will often disguise the main idea. Writers try to sound objective, but don't let that fool you. The author always wants to convince you of something, or at least get you to learn something from the passage.

Be careful to distinguish fact from opinion. Though they look like facts, some statements in the passage may be false claims or unsupported opinions loaded with bias. Academics are “idea salesmen” and very tactful ones at that. They will write their persuasive and heavily biased essays in a manner that makes them seem factual. Pay close attention to the language used — in each sentence, and in the passage overall — in order to distinguish fact from opinion. The author's purpose in writing the essay and his or her convictions are found in these subtle statements of opinion.

For example take these excerpts from a passage on water management. Some of the author's statements are fact, but many are opinion.

"One of the most persistently troubling aspects of national domestic policy is the development and use of water resources."
OPINION: "The most troubling" indicates feeling, not fact. The author's opinion is that the development of water resources is one of the most troubling aspects of national domestic policy. This is not necessarily the ultimate truth. Some people may not think that development of water resources is problematic.
"In the arid parts of the land, it has recently become clear that climate varies over time, with irregular periods of serious drought followed by wet periods marked by occasional floods."
FACT: This statement is a review of recent scientific findings about climate. No opinion here. However, the author is using data regarding drought periods to back up later claims about water being mismanaged. (Note: the phrase "it has recently become clear" indicates a generally accepted finding; it's clear to everyone, not just to the author. )
"Again and again these shortcomings have proved to be the consequences of inadequate study of water flow: of soil, of factors other than construction technology and of faulty organization."
OPINION: This statement, though written in a professional and almost aggressive manner, is loaded with bias. "Again and again" indicates frustration on the author's part, as does the word "inadequate." The author is sure that administrative failure has caused "inadequate study” of water flow. (Note: while the word "proved" might seem to indicate a factual scientific finding, as used here the phrase "have proved" actually means something like "appear to be.")

"In 1959, the Senate Select Committee on National Water Resources found that twenty different national commissions or committees charged with examining these problems and seeking solutions had emphasized with remarkable consistency the need for coordination among agencies dealing with water."

FACT: The author is citing specific research conducted by a Senate committee. He or she is using these findings to back up the claim that water is mismanaged due to administrative failure. However, this statement, alone, contains no opinion. (Hint: names, dates and times - such as "in 1959" or "when John Smith..." or "in 19th century Russia" - almost always indicate statements of fact, unless specifically noted otherwise.)

 
 

Summary:
Every author has a purpose. The author's purpose may be found in subtle statements of opinion. Pay close attention to language that indicates conviction, so that you can distinguish statements of opinion from statements of fact.

 

4. Find the Big Idea

IV: Question Types