IN THIS LESSON, you will learn how to understand new vocabulary from the context of a passage. You will also learn about identifying ideas and supporting details.
Part 1: Word Skills
Using Content Clues
Use context clues from the passage to help you understand new words.
- Check for words that have similar meanings. These words we call Synonyms – different words that have almost the same meanings
Example: In humid climates, people often become fatigued. When they become tired, they should rest.
The word TIRED is a synonym. FATIGUED means to be VERY TIRED.
2. Check for words that have opposite meanings. These words are called Antonyms.
Example: The students could not recall the answers on the quiz. They had forgotten.
FORGOTTEN in the second sentence is an antonym. It gives us a clue to the meaning of recall. Recall simply means ABLE TO REMEMBER.
3. Check for words that give examples.
Example: Disasters, such as floods and tornadoes often cause a loss of property and much pain and sorrow.
The words, such as tell us floods and tornadoes are examples of a disaster. We also know from this sentence that disasters cause loss of property and pain and suffering. Therefore, a disaster is something that happens that causes loss or pain.
4. Check for words that define.
Example: Malnutrition, the lack of proper food, causes many deaths in third world countries.
The writer could have said, “Malnutrition is the cause for many deaths in third world countries”. But by adding the definition, “…the lack of proper food…”, we know exactly what he or she means.
5. Check for words that make inferences.
Example: Because the reading passage is subjective, you should understand the writer’s feelings and opinions before answering the questions.
The sentence infers that the writer’s feeling and opinions are important because the passage is SUBJECTIVE. Subjective must have something to do then with feelings and opinions.
6. No clues, or too difficult to understand.
If there are no clues, or they are too difficult to understand, then use your dictionary.
Part 2: Reading Skills
Main Ideas and Supporting Details
Identifying main ideas¹ and supporting details² in a reading passage is key to developing good reading habits. The main idea is the person, place, or thing the passage is about. Typically, a writer will state the main idea of the passage in the last sentence of the first paragraph. Then the writer will develop the main idea in each body paragraph. The first or second sentence in each body paragraph usually contains the topic sentence for that paragraph. The main idea can also be found in the conclusion, where the writer restates the main ideas.
Finding the Main Ideas
A good way to find the main idea is to:
- Read the passage from beginning to end and ask the question, “What’s the point?”
- Find the Thesis Statement³ in the first paragraph.
- Locate topic sentences in each paragraph and summarize them. (Remember, a topic sentence is a general statement that covers all the supporting details).
- Once you find the main ideas, ask what evidence4 the writer gives to support their point?
- ¹Main idea: The point the writer is making
- ²Supporting detail: Information that helps readers to understand the main idea.
- ³Thesis Statement: One or two sentences in the first paragraph that summarizes the essay. (To be covered in future lesson).
- 4evidence: facts or information showing something is true or not.
The Topic & The Main Idea
The topic is what a passage is about. The main idea is the point the writer is making about the topic. If we look at the topic sentence of a paragraph then we should have a basic understanding of the main idea.
For example: Cells phones today come equipped with HD cameras.
CELL PHONES is the topic. COMES EQUIPPED WITH HD CAMERAS tells us what the writer will say about the topic, and gives us a basic understanding of the main idea. What the writer says about the topic is also called the controlling idea.
(Topic + Controlling Idea = Topic Sentence) = Main Idea
Look at it this way, think of the topic sentence (or main idea) as an umbrella that covers all the other information that supports the point.
This graphic helps us picture the relationship between the topic sentence and the supporting details.
Let’s look at another example. This is a quote about Jaime Escalante taken from biography.com.
“Escalante’s classroom challenges and successes were the topic of much public discussion in 1988. That year his story was the subject of a book entitled Jaime Escalante: The Best Teacher in America and a film called Stand and Deliver starring James Edward Olmos. Both educators and students have found Escalante’s work at Garfield inspiring.”
In this paragraph, what is the main idea? What point is the writer making?
- A. Escalante’s classroom became a much-discussed subject.
- B. A book was written about Escalante.
- C. A film was produced about his experiences.
- D. Students and educators were inspired by what he did.
Which one is a general statement, or which one is the topic sentence? If we look carefully, we’ll see B, C, & D give examples of his classroom becoming “a much discussed subject.
So we can say, A. Escalante’s classroom became a much-discussed subject, is our general statement.
Supporting sentences add information about the topic. Writers often support their main idea with examples, explanations, reasons, and/or definitions.
In the following passage, the writer’s main idea is he has to ask his mother for some more money.
He then supports his main idea with two reasons. The first one is the camera cost more than expect, and the second one is he decided to buy a camera case as well.
I am not sure his reasons are sound enough to ask his mother for money. But I think you get the point. His two reasons give us a clearer picture of his main idea.
Let’s read a paragraph this time about why students have a hard time participating in morning classes.
As we read, see if you can find the three major details that support the main idea.
Students often find it hard to participate in their morning classes. First of all, they often go to bed late the night before. Because they don’t get enough sleep, they tend to take longer waking up in the morning. Secondly, they often either skip breakfast, or just grab something to eat. Without enough energy, they have a hard time concentrating in class. Finally, they often fail to do their homework. Therefore, they are not prepared to participate with other students.
What would you say the main idea of the paragraph is?
Remember, the main idea is in the topic sentence. So looking at the paragraph, which sentence would you say the topic sentence is.
If you said the first sentence, you are correct. Students often find it hard to participate in their morning classes.
Now that we have located the main idea, or topic sentence, all the other sentences should support the topic.
Writers generally use signal words to introduce supporting details, so let’s look for our signal words in the above paragraph. The writer uses First of all, Secondly, and Finally.
The other sentences in the paragraph are minor details, they elaborate, or give us more information about the major details.
*See List of Signal Words (Transitions)
When we read academically, we must learn to actively engage with the author by asking questions about word meanings, implied concepts, and context.
- What does the author mean when he/she use a particular word?
- What does this phrase mean, and how does it fit into the overall context of the passage?
- How is the author developing a particular concept, and why is the concept important?
- What conclusion is the author making, and why is it important?
Academic reading involves paying close attention to what the author is developing, and at the same time comparing the information with other parts of the text, and even other passages on the same topic.
Our world knowledge also plays an important role in understanding and evaluating the author’s points. Are their points well supported? Are they relevant? Are they adequate? Are they reliable? If the points are reliable, then we need to merge the new concepts into our understanding of the world. If they are not reliable, then we need to ask why.
This type of reading does not come easily. It requires training our thoughts to concentrate and focus on one line of thinking. But as we train our minds to read and think deeply, this type of reading becomes easier until we are able to do it habitually.
“It is a great work to educate, discipline, and train minds.”