Problem with Main Idea Questions (Skill 1)

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Previous Article: Reading Comprehension Strategy

Almost every reading passage on the TOEFL test will have a question about the main idea of a passage. Such a question may be worded in a variety of ways; you may, for example, be asked to identify the topic, subject, title, primary idea, or main idea. These questions are all really asking what primary point the author is trying to get across in the passage. Since TOEFL passages are generally written in a traditionally organized manner; it is not difficult to find the main idea by studying the topic sentence, which is most probably found at the beginning of a paragraph.If a passage consists of only one paragraph, you should study the beginning of that paragraph to determine the main idea.

Example I

The passage:

Basketball was invented in 1891 by a physical education instructor in Springfield, Massachusetts, by the name of James Naismith. Because of the terrible weather in winter, his physical education students were indoors rather than outdoors. They really did not like the idea of boring, repetitive exercises and preferred the excitement and challenge of a game. Naismith figured out a team sport that could be played indoors on agymnasium floor, that involved a lot of running, that kept all team members involved, and that did not allow the tackling andphysical contact of American-style football.

The question:

What is the main idea of this passage?

(A) The life of James Naismith
(B) The history of sports
(C) Physical education and exercise
(D) The origin of basketball


The first sentence of this passage discusses the invention of basketball, so this is probably the topic. A quick check of the rest of the sentences in the passage con firms that the topic is in fact the beginnings of the sport of basketball. Now you should check each of the answers to determine which one comes closest to the topic that you have determined. Answer (A) mentions James Naismith but not basketball, so it is not the topic. Answer (B) is too general; it mentions sports but does not mention basketball. Answer (C) is also too general; it mentions physical education but does not mention basketball. The best answer is therefore answer (D); the origin of basketball means that the invention of basketball is going to be discussed.

The following chart outlines the key information that you should remember about main idea questions.


Study each of the passages, and choose the best answers to the questions that follow. In this exercise, each paragraph is followed by two main idea, topic, or title questions so that you can practice this type of question. On the TOE FL test, one passage would probably not have two such questions because they are so similar.

PASSAGE ONE (Questions 1 - 2)

Most of the ice on the Earth, close to 90 percent of it, is covering the surface of the continent Antarctica. It does not snow very much in Antarctica, but whatever snow does fall remains and grows deeper and deeper. In some areas of Antarctica, the ice has perhaps been around for as much as a million years and now is more than two miles deep.

1. The main idea of the passage is that
    (A) the Earth is a cold planet
    (B) most of the Earth’s ice is found in Antarctica
    (C) it snows more in Antarctica than in any other place on Earth
    (D) Antarctica is only two miles wide but is 90 percent ice

2. The best title for the passage is
    (A) Snowfall in Antarctica
    (B) The Icy Earth
    (C) The Cold, Cold Snow
   (D) The Causes of Antarctica’s Ice

PASSAGE TWO (Questions 3 - 4)

The extremely hot and humid weather that occurs in the United States in July and
August is commonly called the “dog days” of summer’ This name comes from the star
Sirius, which is known as the Dog Star. Sirius is the brightest visible star, and in the hot
summer months it rises in the east at approximately the same time as the Sun. As
ancient people saw this star rising with the Sun when the weather was at its hottest,
they believed that Sirius was the cause of the additional heat; they believed that this
bright star added its heat to the heat of the Sun, and these two together made summer
weather so unbearably hot.

3. The topic of this passage is
    (A) how dogs like to play during the summer
    (B) the causes of hot and humid weather
    (C) why the hot summer days are known as the “dog days”
    (D) the days that dogs prefer

4. The main idea of this passage is that
    (A) the name for the summer days came from Sirius, the Dog Star
    (B) dogs generally prefer hot summer days
    (C) the hottest days occur in the summer because of the movements of the Sun and stars
    (D) Sirius rises at almost the same time as the Sun during the summer months

PASSAGE THREE (Questions 5 - 6)

The term “primitive art” has been used in a variety of ways to describe works and
styles of art. One way that this term has been used is to describe the early period within
the development of a certain style of art. Another way that this term has been used is to
describe artists who have received little professional training and who demonstrate a
nontraditional naivete in their work.

A example of this second type of primitive artist is Grandma Moses, who
spent all her life living on a farm and working at tasks normally associated with farm
life. She did not begin painting until she reached the age of seventy-six, when she
switched to painting from embroidery because the arthritis in her hands made
embroidery too difficult. Totally without formal education in art, she began creating
panoramic images of everyday life on the farm that have achieved international fame.

5. The subject of this passage is
    (A) an example of one of the types of primitive art
    (B) Grandma Moses’s life on the farm
    (C) how primitive art differs from formal art
    (D) Grandma Moses’s primitive lifestyle

6. Which of the following best expresses the main idea of the passage?
    (A) Grandma Moses spent her life on a farm.
    (B) Art critics cannot come to any agreement on a definition of primitive art.
   (C) Grandma Moses is one type of primitive artist because of her lack of formal training.
   (D) Many artists receive little professional training.

PASSAGE FOUR (Questions 7 - 8)

In the first half of the nineteenth century, a New York newspaper, the New York Sun, successfully carried out a hoax on the American public. Because of this trick, readership of the paper rose substantially.
On August 25, 1835, the Sun published reports that some wonderful new discoveries
had been made on the moon. The article described strange, never-before-seen animals
and temples covered in shining jewels. Many members of the American public were
fooled by the story, even some prominent members of the scientific community.
The effect of the false story on sales of the paper was dramatic. Paper sales
increased considerably as people eagerly searched out details of the new discoveries.
Later, the newspaper company announced that it had not been trying to trick the public;
instead, the company explained the moon stories as a type of literary satire.

7. Which of the following best states the topic of the passage?
    (A) A nineteenth-century discovery on the moon
    (B) The New York Sun
    (C) A hoax and its effect
    (D) The success of a newspaper

8. The main point of the passage is that
   (A) the New York Sun was one of the earliest American newspapers
   (B) the Sun increased sales when it tricked the public with a false story
  (C) a newspaper achieved success by writing about the moon
  (D) in 1835 some amazing new discoveries were made about the moon

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Alease Tolbert said...

It has almost developed around more of the common objects and meaning for the students which they must needed to understand and for the future would help them. do my history homework

Joshua said...

Great post. Am confident of getting my main points now

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