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Lesson I

Reading Prose and Poetry:

1. Read to find the main idea of the  passage.

2. Read to find the details that further explain and develop the main idea of the passage.

3. Read to make inferences by putting together expressed information to arrive at the implied information in the passage.


When reading prose, you will see that it appears in paragraph form. The great thing about reading prose is that the paragraphs will always begin with topic sentences, which we discussed earlier. The topic sentence expresses the main idea of the paragraph (not of the entire passage), and is therefore an invaluable tool to use for finding the main idea.

Example of a topic sentence:

In her classic novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wove a web of fantasy and melancholy out of the relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and the creature he brought into the world. Shelley paints a piercingly beautiful picture of  the sadness and isolation brought to the world of Frankenstein and his creator by the ignorance and fear of the townsfolk.

Sometimes, the topic sentence will come at the end of the paragraph. In this case, the topic sentence is actually referred to as the summary sentence, or conclusion. It is also possible that there will be no topic sentence in a paragraph. Now, while you should avoid doing this at all costs in your GED® essay, in other situations it is acceptable, and you will see that many authors do not include a direct topic sentence. Instead, you will find a group of sentences that imply a central thought. It is up to you, the reader, to determine what this thought is.

There are three basic steps you should follow in order to find the main idea of a passage. Ask yourself the following questions:

          1. What is the main idea of the passage?

          2. What is the topic sentence of each paragraph?

          3. What title would I give this passage?

Skill Exercise: Inferring Information from Details in a Passage

From this time I was most narrowly watched. If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called to give an account of myself. All this, however, was too late. The first step had been taken. Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell.

The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent on errands, I always took my book with me, and by doing one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me the more valuable bread of knowledge.

I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids;—not that it would injure me, but it might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offense to teach slaves to read in this Christian country. It is enough to say of the dear little fellows that they lived on Philpot Street, very near Durgin and Bailey’s shipyard. I used to talk this matter of slavery over with them. I would sometimes say to them, I wished I could be as free as they would be when they got to be men. “You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” These words seemed to trouble them; they would express for me the liveliest sympathy, and console with the hope that something would occur by which I might be free.

from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Question 1

 1. In reference to the above passage, how did Frederick Douglass learn to read?

a.  On his own
b.  With the help of his mistress
c.  With the help of young white boys
d.  By using his time in a clever way
e.  By going to school with the other children

Answer: C

First of all, remember to reference information that can be found outside of the passage indicated. For instance, the only reference to the name "Frederick Douglass" is in the citation at the bottom of the passage. Since this citation says that it is "the Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass," you know that the narrator in the passage is Frederick Douglass himself, and thus it is he who is learning to read.

Question 2

2. Based on information in this passage, when was Frederick Douglass’ Narrative written?

a.  During the Middle Ages
b.  During the Renaissance
c.  Before the Civil War
d.  Between 1880 and 1900
e.  After 1900

Answer: C

Question 3

3. How does Frederick Douglass repay his teachers?

a.  With gratitude
b. With knowledge
c.  With guilt
d.  With bread
e.  With books

Answer: D

Skill Exercise: Interpreting Fiction Prose

Read the following passage and refer to the questions below:

THE STRANGER came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it seemed from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand. He was wrapped up from head to foot, and the brim of his soft felt hat hid every inch of his face but the shiny tip of his nose; the snow had piled itself against his shoulders and chest, and added a white crest to the burden he carried. He staggered into the Coach and Horses, more dead than alive as it seemed, and flung his portmanteau down. "A fire," he cried, "in the name of human charity! A room and a fire!" He stamped and shook the snow from off himself in the bar, and followed Mrs. Hall into her guest parlour to strike his bargain. And with that much introduction, that and a ready acquiescence to terms and a couple of sovereigns flung upon the table, he took up his quarters in the inn.

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

Question 1

1. Why was only the stranger’s nose showing?

      a. Because he wanted to be invisible

      b. Because it was freezing cold outside

      c. Because he is a wanted man

      d. Because he has a great sense of smell

Answer: B. This is a simple comprehension question that refers to something that is directly stated in the text. The first line says that it’s February, a wintry day, and it’s snowing. The entire paragraph emphasizes the cold weather, as well as indicating that his whole body was wrapped up and the first words he utters are “a fire!” Now, if you have read this novel before and are thus privy to more information about the stranger, you may know that this is not exactly the reason. However, it will not help you to bring in any information outside of the text quoted here. If this were a longer passage, perhaps it would go on to elucidate why he was wrapped up in so specific a manner. But the passage here indicated that the only reason for being wrapped is due to the intense cold. When you are taking the reading test, it is imperative that you remember to stick to the text provided.

Question 2

2. What is the ‘burden’ that the snow adds to?

      a. The stranger’s water-logged clothes

      b. The stranger’s weary body

      c. A guilty secret

      d. A small child under his coat

Answer: B. Once again, the answer to this question can only be inferred from the information given in the passage. Thus far, all we know is that it is cold, the stranger is “more dead than alive” and that the “snow piled itself against his shoulders and chest, adding a white crest to the burden he carried.” This phrase indicates that the burden is his body, as the snow is being directly added to it. If we were given more information, perhaps we could infer that the burden is something different, something that is integral to the story as a whole, which is very likely.

For example, let’s continue with the next few paragraphs that follow the passage from above:

Mrs. Hall…noticed that the melted snow that still sprinkled his shoulders dropped upon her carpet. "Can I take your hat and coat, sir," she said, "and give them a good dry in the kitchen?"

"Leave the hat," said her visitor, in a muffled voice, and turning she saw he had raised his head and was sitting and looking at her.

For a moment she stood gaping at him, too surprised to speak.

He held a white cloth--it was a serviette he had brought with him--over the lower part of his face, so that his mouth and jaws were completely hidden, and that was the reason for his muffled voice. But it was not that which startled Mrs. Hall. It was the fact that all his forehead above his blue glasses was covered by a white bandage, and that another covered his ears, leaving not a scrap of his face exposed excepting only his pink, peaked nose. It was bright, pink, and shiny just as it had been at first. He wore a dark-brown velvet jacket with a high, black, linen-lined collar turned up about his neck. The thick black hair, escaping as it could below and between the cross bandages, projected in curious tails and horns, giving him the strangest appearance conceivable. This muffled and bandaged head was so unlike what she had anticipated, that for a moment she was rigid.

He did not remove the serviette, but remained holding it, as she saw now, with a brown gloved hand, and regarding her with his inscrutable blue glasses. "Leave the hat," he said, speaking very distinctly through the white cloth.

After reading this, the reader becomes privy to the information that the stranger has a secret that he was hiding under all of his clothes. This could change our interpretation of what the “burden” referred to in the first paragraph really is. Now we know that he has surprising bandages wrapped around his face, and does not want to expose his mouth to the innkeeper, Mrs. Hall. These are details that help explain the main idea as it develops: Mrs. Hall’s surprise and revulsion makes it clear that the stranger doesn’t just have a band-aid on his forehead. The insistence on his pink, shiny nose sticks out and appears bizarre. All of these small things set the scene and help us establish tone, mood, setting, and character. We will further discuss these literary tools in Lesson 2.


Now let’s move on to poetry, as it is a genre of writing that can be very difficult for many people.

The reason that poetry is problematic for so many people is due to the concentrated nature of the vocabulary used. Every word in a poem is carefully chosen, and usually indicates more than its obvious meaning. Because there are fewer words, each one has more individual importance, as does the punctuation and the general rhythm of the poem. It is a good idea to read the poem out loud (quietly) because you will be able to pick up on the rhythm of the poem better this way. Rhythm and meter greatly enhance the tone of the poem, which we will discuss more in the next lesson. Try reading the poem aloud before doing the skill exercise below. You will be surprised by how the poem sounds different read in your head and heard aloud.

Sometimes the poem will be rhymed simply, and sometimes it will follow a variety of different patterns of rhyme and meter. Sometimes, when the poem is in rhyme, you will see that there are two lines that do not rhyme exactly. While the words “stone” and “throne” are a perfect rhyme, you may see the words “stone” and “frown,” used as a rhyme. This is called a “slant” or “off” rhyme, and should draw your attention immediately to those words. Switching up the rhyme scheme is usually done for a reason, and it’s a good idea to look at inconsistencies in a poem to infer meaning from them.

Poetry is often full of metaphors, as the work of the poet is not to spell everything out for the reader but to paint a picture that helps the reader to see what they are writing about. Metaphor tells us things in fewer words. For example, “the river was a ribbon of moonlight” gives us a visual image of a curling, shining river illuminated under a moonlit sky.

Skill Exercise: Interpreting Poetry

When reading poetry, this is not quite as simple. Let’s take, for example, Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Emily Dickinson was a mid-19th century American poet. This poem would most likely be preceded by a purpose-question like: In this poem, how does the speaker seem to feel about Death and Immortality?

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Question 1

1. What is the main idea of the poem?

  • That death is a terrible, incomprehensible and fearful thing
  • That death is a kind guide who will lead you from life towards immortality
  • That time passes quickly
  • That death only takes adults, not children

Answer: B. Death is shown to be a civilized gentleman who knows no haste, and is neither fearful nor incomprehensible.

Question 2

2. In the above poem, how is death personified?

  • as a teacher
  • as a student
  • as a carriage driver
  • as a ghastly ghoul
  • as a child

Answer: C. From the very first paragraph, we can see that Death stopped for her and that they were the only two in the carriage. This gives a solid indication that Death is in charge of the carriage.

Question 3

3. How much time has passed since the narrator’s ride with Death?

  • A day
  • Less than a day
  • A year
  • Centuries

Answer: D. The narrator says explicitly, “Since then ‘tis centuries,” telling us how much time has passed. This can be confusing, as she continues to say, “and yet each/Feels shorter than the day.” If we do not read carefully, it is easy to mix up the statement of how much time has actually passed, and the feeling that it has passed so quickly.

Since poetry can be so tricky, let’s go over another example. This poet, Robert Frost, wrote the majority of his poetry during the beginning of the 20th century and, like Emily Dickinson, is a celebrated American poet.

Purpose question: How does the author view the relationship between hate and desire?

             Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,                 5

I think I know enough of hate

To know that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

Question 1

1. Why does the poet relate desire to fire and thus, the end of the world?
  • Because fire is hot and the earth is full of magma
  • Because desire is burning, all-consuming, and has destructive power like fire
  • Because desire is sinful and will send humanity to the flames of hell
  • He doesn’t.

Answer: B. Let’s go over the answer to this question using process of elimination (POE). The very first choice we can eliminate is C. You will never find a question that posits a moral or religious value on the GED® or any standardized test. Secondly, you can eliminate answer choice D, because the poet clearly does relate the three aspects. In lines 3 and 4, the poet indicates that since he has “tasted desire” he agrees with those who say “the world will end in fire.” Now we’re left with answers A and B. Nowhere in the poem does the poet mention magma or the scientific makeup of the earth. He is speaking in metaphorical terms, so we can eliminate choice A because it doesn’t have anything to do with the meaning of the poem. The answer is B.

Question 2

2. Why does the poet say that ice is as destructive as fire?

  • Because it is cold, hard and difficult to break
  • Because freezing is as uncomfortable as burning
  • Because of the insidiousness of the slow takeover by the rigid coldness of ice
  • Because fire burns out so quickly

Answer: C. Ice can be as all-encompassing as fire, but it’s a slow, stealthy process that can take you by surprise. Ice causes things to become immobile and then crack and break into pieces. Fire burns intensely and leaves ashes in its wake.

Question 3

3. If the poet equates desire to fire, to what emotion is he logically relating ice?

  • love
  • sadness
  • fear
  • hate

Answer: D. Ice is equated to hate with the same poetic devices that equate fire to desire. Lines 6 and 7 say: “I think I know enough of hate/To know that for destruction ice…” showing that he equates the cold, sneaky rigidity of ice to hate.

Question 4

4. What do you see as being the overall message of the poem?

  • That the poet would rather be burned than frozen
  • That overly rigid thoughts are as destructive for society as overly passionate thoughts
  • That passion is a terrible thing
  • That firm beliefs are a terrible thing

Answer: B. From the poem as a whole, we can see that the poet is saying that the world may end in violent war over things or ideas. He is saying, however, that the end of the world could easily be caused by people becoming too rigid, unmoving and set in their ways and ideas which will make people divide into warring factions.

Back: Reading Tips | Next: Reading Lesson 2

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