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2.5: Reading Comprehension Techniques

Skills to Develop

  • Recognize patterns and identify key words to differentiate between main and supporting ideas
  • Apply pattern identification words to reinforce understanding of main ideas
  • Make inferences from implied information

In the last chapter, we looked at ways to approach reading to help you understand, process, analyze, synthesize, and, ultimately, remember information better. In this chapter, we will take this a step further by developing your skills in how to understand the material you read by helping you to distinguish the main ideas in a passage from the more specific supporting details. One way to do this is to recognize patterns, which will help you organize your thinking in systematic ways that parallel the presentation in the source. Key terms for such patterns are:

  • Main/controlling ideas (located in topic sentences)
  • Key details (located within paragraphs)
  • Patterns (form the structure of the paragraph or section)
  • Inferences (are not usually written and must be concluded by the reader)

Many people read to remember everything and do not distinguish between key concepts, key supporting details, positions relative to these concepts, and inferences that can be drawn. Creating a road map with these highlights helps you both to understand and to remember what you read. This section includes a few exercises to practise identifying the main and supporting ideas in passages representing the different patterns.

Reading for Main Ideas and Details

Creating or identifying main ideas is like creating a skeleton that holds all the rest of the information together—creating a body. Key facts are like muscles. The point of view and its implications are like the blood that gives life to the body. Some main ideas are directly stated; others are implied, and you must infer a statement yourself. When you read, you can identify the main idea of a paragraph, section, chapter, or book by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is the topic or subject matter? What/who is this about?
  • What am I supposed to understand about this? (This is the idea about the topic.)
  • Are there any sentences that help clarify what I am supposed to understand about the topic? (Often the first or last sentence will state the main idea.)
  • How do I know for sure? All the important information in the paragraph is covered by the main idea sentence. Does it help me to understand what is being said about the topic?

Exercise 2.12

Read the three passages below and identify the main idea in each. With the first two examples, the controlling idea is directly stated. Identify the main idea in both (expressed in the topic sentence).

In the third passage, the main idea in the third passage is implied: choose the statement from the list given that best represents the entire paragraph and then explain why the other three statements do not work.

Passage 1: Identify the main idea in this paragraph.

When we think about it, is there really something that we can call “the public”? The population of communities is really made up of a set of publics. The needs and interests of a population are uniform on only the broadest matters, such as health and the security of the person and his or her property. Beyond those very broad areas of policy, needs and interests differ, sometimes very markedly, and sometimes in ways that cause conflict between competing interests. It is highly unlikely that diverse needs or interests of all groups or individuals can all be satisfied at the same time. Thus, industrial firms that produce hazardous wastes may need sites to dispose of such undesirable by-products. Such firms can be thought of as one “public.” and it is apparent that their need will conflict with the interests of another public—the people who live near the proposed disposal site.

Main idea:


Passage 2: Identify the main idea in this paragraph.
Marketing research is a major component or subsystem within a marketing information system. It is used in a very wide variety of marketing situations. Typically, in a marketing research study the problem to be solved is first identified. Then a researcher decides whether to use secondary or primary sources of information. To gather primary data, the researcher may use the survey, observation, or experimental method. Normally, primary data are gathered by sampling. Then the data are analyzed, and a written report is prepared.

Main idea:


Passage 3: Identify the implied main point in this paragraph.

According to psychiatrist Richard Moscotti, the ability to work well is one key to a balanced life. He feels both underworking and overworking are to be avoided. A second key is the ability to love, which requires a certain amount of openness. The ability to be loved is the third key to a balanced life. This is difficult for those who feel unworthy of love. The last key is the ability to play, which involves knowing how to relax.

Main idea:

  • The first key to a balanced life, according to Moscotti, is the ability to work well.
  • According to Moscotti, some people having trouble receiving love.
  • The final key to a balanced life, according to Moscotti, is the ability to play.
  • According to Moscotti, there are four keys to a balanced life.

State why the other three answers are not the unstated main idea.


  • _____________________________________________________________
  • _____________________________________________________________
  • _____________________________________________________________

Passage 1 main idea: The population of communities is really made up of a set of publics.
Passage 2 main IdeaMarketing research is a major component or subsystem within a marketing information system.
Passage 3 main idea (implied): According to psychiatrist Richard Moscotti, the ability to work well is one key to a balanced life (main elements: psychiatrist, R.M., four keys, balanced life).

D is the answer: The unstated main idea is that, according to Moscotti, there are four keys to a balanced life.
AToo detailed to be the main idea; it expresses just one key
BA detail of the third key
CToo detailed to be the main idea; it is only one of four keys

Examples taken from: Langan, J. & Kay, G. (1989). Ten Steps to Building College Reading Skills. Marlton, NJ: Townsend Press. 


How did you do? Were you able to identify which were the more general statements from the supporting details? Most of the time, the topic sentence (= the controlling/main idea) is at or near the beginning of the paragraph, but sometimes it is not. Always remember that when identifying the topic sentence, all of the other ideas in that paragraph need to be an example or detail relating to that main point. If one of the ideas does not fit, either you have chosen a statement or idea that is too specific (or the writer did not create a strong topic sentence in the paragraph). When we look at creating paragraphs and topic sentences in the next chapter, you will learn what creates a strong topic sentence, and this will help you with identifying them in the future.

Reading for Patterns

Depending on the writer’s purpose and the information being shared, there are four general groupings by which information is organized:

  • Definitions, details, and illustrations
  • Time sequences, process descriptions, experiment/instructions, and simple listing
  • Comparison and contrast
  • Cause and effect

Reading for Key Details

Some details are more important than others in explaining, supporting, or developing the main idea. Others are further illustrations of details.

Table 2.2: Key Words for Identifying Idea Patterns shows key words you can use to help you identify patterns with ideas in relation to the four groupings listed above. Whichever words from whichever group are used, they will help the reader follow the logical organization of the material.


Key Words

Definitions, details, and Illustrations

Usually when you see these, a definition or concept preceded it.

  • for example
  • for instance
  • as an illustration
  • to illustrate
  • such as
  • to be specific
  • specifically
  • including one

Time sequence, process description, experiment/instructions, simple listing

Some of these can be used to both show sequence in time and ideas.

Time order Additive listing
  • first, second, third, etc.
  • then, since, next, before, after, as soon as, now, until, later, while, during, when, finally
  • also, another, and, in addition, moreover, next, first of all, first, second, furthermore, last of all, finally

Compare and contrast

Compare Contrast
  • similarly
  • similar to
  • just as with
  • in comparison
  • likewise
  • like
  • liken
  • both
  • compared to
  • in the same way
  • in a similar fashion
  • on the other hand
  • conversely
  • rather
  • on the contrary
  • but
  • however
  • alternatively
  • differ
  • instead of
  • in contrast to
  • despite
  • nevertheless

Cause and effect

  • thus
  • because
  • because of
  • causes
  • as a result
  • results in
  • result
  • affects
  • therefore
  • since
  • leads to
  • brings about
  • consequently

Table 2.2: Key Words for Identifying Idea Patterns categorizes key words that can help you identify main and supporting ideas when you are reading. You will also need to apply these throughout the rest of the chapters when developing sentences, paragraphs, and essays. In Chapter 12, we will look at the punctuation that you need to use with these words.

The next exercises will give you opportunities to practise identifying the main and key ideas in paragraphs.

Exercise 2.13

Survey, read, and identify the main points and key details in this paragraph.

Eidetic imagery is the technical term for what most people know as photographic memory. People with eidetic imagery can recall every detail of a memory as clearly as if they were looking at a photograph. People often wish they had this ability, but it can lead to trouble. For example, a law student with eidetic imagery was accused of cheating on an examination because his test paper contained exactly the words in his textbook. To prove his innocence, he studied an unfamiliar passage for five minutes and then wrote down more than 400 words from it without making a mistake.


Main term: eidetic imagery
Definition: photographic memory
Details: can recall every detail of a memory as clearly as if they were looking at a paragraph
Example: a law student with eidetic imagery was accused of cheating on an examination because his test paper contained exactly the words in his textbook.

Example taken from: Langan, J. & Kay, G. (1989). Ten Steps to Building College Reading Skills. Marlton, NJ: Townsend Press.


Exercise 2.14

Highlight the several effects caused by the condition described.

Suffering from debilitating guilt causes many self-defeating behaviours in adulthood. We see adults submitting to the outrageous demands of partners or employers. We see individuals who appear to be constantly angry and then, almost immediately, guilty. We see adults who have felt lifelong depression. The rage felt when shamed in childhood and when suffering from debilitating shame in adulthood is turned against the self because of the dependency on the other for survival. When we are rejected in adulthood by a mate or lover, the feelings we experience are anger at being rejected. Furthermore, if we suffer from debilitating shame, we have not been able to gain autonomy. We continue to feel dependent upon attachment figures. It is from them, from their feelings, attitudes and opinions of us, that we feel worthwhile. To be angry at someone depended upon for survival causes us enormous guilt. Anger is redirected on the vulnerable self. We become trapped in a circular bind of shame, anger, anxiety, guilt, and depression.

  • childhood shame
  • rage
  • anger turned against self out of guilt
  • dependence on others opinions of us for worth
  • rejection or outrageous demands from partners or employers
  • anger
  • guilt
  • anger turned against self, resulting in depression

 Example taken from: Middleton-Moz, J. (1990). Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications Inc., p.62.

Reading for Implications/Inferences: Tracing a Theme to its Conclusion

The methods of recognizing patterns discussed above are concrete and easy to identify. Inferences, on the other hand, are more subtle. When a writer implies something, he or she is giving hints but does not state the point directly. Think about a time, for example, when you had people visiting you at home; it was late, and you wanted them to leave. Did you ask them directly, “Hey, can you leave now”? Probably not, but you may have hinted that you had to wake up early in the morning, or you may have subtly yawned. Hopefully, those people picked up on your cues and inferred it was time to leave: meaning they put the pieces together to arrive at the conclusion you wanted them to leave, yet you did not say it directly.

When a writer does this, the reader may not actually pick up on the hints or maybe even interpret them differently. Sometimes readers make inferences that are based more on their own preferences and experience than on the information provided. This also means that two readers may interpret the same information differently because of differing individual experiences that led them to arrive at their conclusions. For you as a writer, you need to remember that it is your responsibility to give the readers everything they need in order for them to arrive at the conclusions you want them to make. If you are not direct, readers may be left confused or not catch your point.

There are also times that you as a reader will need to read passages requiring you to make inferences. The next exercises will help you to practise reading for inference. Remember, if your answers are different than the ones given, it means you interpreted the information differently and may have missed the author’s point. In these passages, you can also use a process of elimination and ask yourself statement best completes the passage.

Exercise 2.15

Read each passage and choose the answer that best completes the thought of the passageThink about why the other answers would not be a correct conclusion to the passage.

Check your answers against the key at the bottom of the exercise. If you missed an answer, look back and try to figure out why. What clues did you focus on? What did you miss?

  • To a manufacturer, the wages paid to employees are a large portion of production expenses. The fact that wages also determine the buying power of the consumer is sometimes overlooked. In times of overproduction, the manufacturer tries to lower operating costs by decreasing the number of employees. This reduces expenditures of money in wages, but it also:
  • maintains the status quo
  • increases population
  • raises costs
  • reduces consumption
  • Totally new cities that will be built in the future may be better planned than the large cities that already exist. Old cities were not properly planned for the great growth in population and industry that they have had, and many are in the process of tearing down and rebuilding large sections. This process is helping to improve some old cities—both large and small ones—but it does not give them the choice of complete city designing that will be available to:
  • richer cities
  • larger cities
  • foreign cities
  • new cities
  • The director of this company believes that there is a growing awareness by management that business corporations are, and should be, guided by policies that are designed to satisfy human needs as well as material needs, and that there is nothing inconsistent between this and the making of:
  • educational opportunities for workers
  • good and satisfying profits
  • political enemies in some quarters
  • better opportunities for workers
  • Knowledge and pleasure are inextricably interlocked. It is impossible for us to learn what we do not enjoy, and we cannot enjoy that which does not impart:
  • a lesson
  • a novelty
  • a practical use
  • strong emotion
  • Oratory is to be best estimated on different principles from those that are applied to other productions. Truth is the object of philosophy and history. The merit of poetry is in its truth even though the truth is understood only through the imagination, which is aroused by poetry. The object of oratory is not truth but persuasion. A speaker who exhausts the whole philosophy of a question, who displays every grace of style, yet produces no effect on an audience, may be a great essayist, a great politician, a great master of composition, but:
  • essentially a persuader
  • not a poet
  • essentially an orator
  • not an orator
  1. D
  2. D
  3. B
  4. A
  5. D

 Exercises taken from: Science Research Associates. (1978). Reading for Comprehension Exercises. SRA Achievement Series. Chicago: Science Research Associates.


Check back if you missed any of the answers in this self-exercise. In which instances did you read into the passages your ideas when selecting an answer versus what is stated in the passage?

In the next chapter, we will practise taking these main ideas and supporting ideas and put them into our own words, or paraphrase, to compose summaries which are very useful not only for remembering and studying information before tests but also for looking at sources and incorporating the information in them into your essays—essentially providing backing evidence to make your arguments more convincing.

Journal entry #2

Write a paragraph or two responding to the following.

What did you notice about your writing style? Do you write more subjectively or objectively? Did you find that you struggled with one perspective or angle of vision over the other? What do you think you need to work on in regards to this?

Which, if any, of the spelling and word choice issues do think you will have to focus on throughout the semester and in your writing in general?

Reflect on the goals you set in Chapter 1. Is there anything you would like to add or already feel more confident with doing?

Remember as mentioned in the Assessment Descriptions in your syllabus:

  • You will be expected to respond to the questions by reflecting on and discussing your experiences with the week’s material.
  • When writing your journals, you should focus on freewriting—writing without (overly) considering formal writing structures—but you want to remember that it will be read by the instructor, who needs to be able to understand your ideas.
  • Your instructor will be able to see if you have completed this entry by the end of the week but will not read all of the journals until week 6.
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