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Lesson I

Topics to be familiar with:

  1. European colonization of North America
  2. The American Revolution
  3. Westward Expansion
  4. The Civil War
  5. Industrialization
  6. United States and the World

In this lesson, you will learn how to:

    1. Identify the main idea of a written passage

    2. Summarize ideas and recognize hidden assumptions

    3. Analyze cause and effect situations

    4. Recognize values

    5. Distinguish conclusions from supporting details

Skill Exercise: Identifying the Main Idea

When identifying the main idea in a textual excerpt, you should begin by noticing how many paragraphs it has and locating the main idea in each paragraph. This will help you identify the main idea of the entire excerpt. Each paragraph will have the main idea as its focus, which should be presented in the topic sentence - usually the first or last sentence of the paragraph. Once you have read the first and last sentence in each paragraph, you should have a general idea of what each paragraph is about. The other sentences in the paragraph support this topic sentence.

Read the following passage and determine which of the following two answer options best restates the main idea of the passage:

The nineteenth-century belief that the United States had a divinely inspired mission to expand, particularly across the North American frontier and towards the Pacific Ocean, was called Manifest Destiny. The phrase, which means undeniable fate, was created by the New York journalist John O’Sullivan in 1845, when he wrote that “It was the nation’s manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

Manifest destiny was never a specific policy or ideology; it was a general notion that combined elements of American exceptionalism, nationalism, expansionism, and racism.

a. The term Manifest Destiny refers to the American desire for expansion.

b. The term Manifest Destiny encompasses the feeling of the American pioneers that the nation’s ideals were of far-reaching importance and needed to be spread about the land, regardless of the ideals of the Native Americans already living there.

Answer: b. The idea expressed by Answer b is broad enough to include the information from both of the paragraphs in the excerpt. Answer a does not include enough information to be the main idea of the passage.

Skill Exercise: Summarizing Ideas

A summary is a short and accurate account of the main points of a piece of writing or visual material. The summary always includes the main idea of the material, restated in a shortened fashion. When you summarize a piece of visual material, like a map or a chart, make sure you look at the title, headings and labels as well. When writing a summary, you should answer as many of these questions as possible: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Read the following passage and decide which of the answer options below provides the best summary of the information in the passage:

The Boston Massacre was an event that occurred in 1770 and helped spark the American Revolution. The American colonists had been protesting British tax laws, as they had no voice in making the laws that affected them. Because of this, the British government sent soldiers to Boston to enforce the laws.

On Monday, March 5th, 1770, tensions caused by the military occupation of Boston by British soldiers escalated when the soldiers fired into a crowd of civilians who were protesting. Five American colonists were shot to death.

a. American colonists were mad at the British government for trying to tax them.

b. The Boston Massacre occurred in 1770, when British troops who were occupying Boston fired on angry American colonists, resulting in American deaths.

Answer: b. This sentence gives you the who, what, when, where and why of the two paragraphs.

Skill Exercise: Recognizing Hidden Assumptions

In many of the questions that you are confronted with on the GED® test, you will discover that writers make assumptions about what you already know. Because of this, they will not tell you everything in a piece of writing. For example, if you read in your local newspaper that the mayor will be speaking at City Hall in two days, you know that unless specifically stated otherwise, the writer is talking about the mayor of your town because it is your town's newspaper. The fact that you know the context of the paper, and thus can infer specifically who and what the author is talking about, is very important to your ability to comprehend. In the same way, writers will make assumptions about what beliefs or principles are true. These are often called biases, and it is important to be able to spot them in someone’s writing. In order to do this, as you read you should ask yourself: “What is this writer assuming to be true?”

Read the following paragraph and pick the answer that best describes the hidden assumptions of the author:

The process of westward expansion in the U.S. after the Revolutionary war was a long, arduous one full of many perils. The life of a settler living on the frontier territories required endurance and courage in the face of danger and opposition.

Dealing with the Indians - who did not want to leave the territories they inhabited - was difficult, as was forming new, cohesive American communities after the Indians were finally expelled. However difficult, creating true civilization was the final goal of the American settlers and, in the end, they achieved this goal.

a. The writer of this paragraph is assuming that the West had no civilization before the American settlers arrived.

b. The writer of this paragraph is assuming that the life of a settler was difficult.

Answer: a. This passage conveys a fairly clear message as to the values and beliefs of its author. The author valorizes the struggle of the settlers, without mention of the struggle of the Native Americans who inhabited the land. The author also makes it clear that the settlers brought civilization, therefore indicating that it did not exist prior to their arrival.

Skill Exercise: Analyzing Cause and Effect

A cause is what makes something happen, while an effect is what happens as a result of a cause. “I feel nauseous today,” Jessica moaned. “I ate a pound of chocolate last night.” In this example, Jessica’s nausea is the effect of her eating a pound of chocolate, which is the cause.

When reading about history, you will find that it is greatly concerned with both the causes and the effects of different historical events. To distinguish between the two, try to focus on the ways in which different events are connected. Does the writing explain why an event occurred? Or does it focus on the results or after-effects of an event?

Read the following paragraph and answer the question below:

The Emancipation Proclamation was a declaration by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln which stated that all slaves held in the rebelling confederate territory were freed. This statement was issued on January 1, 1863 and benefited the North in multiple ways. First, it deprived Southerners of the manpower needed to carry on the war, and it encouraged Northerners who were against slavery to support the war. As England had outlawed slavery thirty years earlier in 1833, it ensured that England would no longer be in favor of the South’s independence. In addition to all of this, almost 200,000 free African-Americans then joined the Union army in order to fight to free the slaves in the South.

1. Which of the following best describes an effect of the Emancipation Proclamation?

  1. The South gained the support of England
  2. Southern slave-owners willingly freed their slaves
  3. The South lost the war
  4. Support for the war decreased in the North
  5. The South’s war effort was significantly weakened

Answer: #5. In this case, the correct answer is that the South’s war effort was significantly weakened. While #3 is correct, it is not included in the passage and is outside information. Remember that just because something may be true, it does not make it the correct answer to the question. That’s why it is important to choose the response that BEST answers the question. Make sure that you are focusing on contextual clues for the correct answer.

Skill Exercise: Recognizing Values

Societies are held together by a core of underlying values that we share and that contribute to our system of beliefs, ideas, and opinions to make our lives meaningful. Values may be ethical, aesthetic, doctrinal, or inborn and are important to recognize, as they help us understand why people act as they do.

In the same way that many writings express bias or hidden assumptions, they also express some values - either those of the writer or of the people being discussed in the passage. For example, one person may write that westward expansion in America was an amazing accomplishment, while another may say that it was a disgusting, imperialist invasion of Native American land. These two statements express different ethical (and also perhaps doctrinal) values. The first statement values historical progress, while the second values concern for human suffering.

To be good at recognizing values in writing, you have to look behind the words, or read between the lines. Ask: “What matters the most to the writer or to the people discussed in the passage?”

Read the following passage and then pick the answer that best indicates the values of the factory owners:

The massive social, economic, and technological changes in 18th and 19th century Great Britain were called the Industrial Revolution. Beginning with the introduction of steam power and automated machinery, the economy shifted from farming to manufacturing. Instead of making products in the home, people began to use products created in factories, and factories began to replace hand labor.

Since the factory machines did not require a lot of personal skill to operate, the factory owners wanted to hire people who would work for the lowest wages possible, regardless of their skill. This made artisans and highly skilled individuals less marketable and not desirable for hire. Factory owners hired women, children, and new immigrants - who would work for long hours and for very low wages - in order to speed up production. This was done at the expense of the safety of the workers, who were often injured at work. The economic necessity for families at the time was so great that it overrode the fear of injury or maltreatment.

a. The factory owners were concerned with the well being of their employees.

b. The factory owners were concerned with the most efficient production of their goods.

Answer: b. While some of the factory owners may well have been concerned with their employees, the bottom line - production efficiency - took precedence over the other concerns.

Skill Exercise: Distinguishing Conclusions from Supporting Details

Supporting details lead to a conclusion. For example, “Today my dog sat, shook, and rolled over when I told him to,” John said. “He must be doing well in his dog training classes.” John’s last statement is a conclusion or judgment based on the supporting details or evidence that led to this conclusion. Writers will often use key words like thus or therefore to indicate that the conclusion is about to come, but sometimes the reader will have to figure out the conclusion without these verbal aides. Ask yourself, “What facts and details are given in the passage? What larger idea do they point to?”

Read the following passage and answer the question below:

The American colonists were divided around the time of the Revolutionary War. The patriots wanted independence, but the loyalists supported the British king. It has been estimated that less than half of the colonists were patriots, meaning that the remainder were either loyalists or did not take sides.

1. What conclusion about the war is supported the best by the information in the above paragraph?

  1.  The majority of colonists supported the British king
  2. The war caused large divisions in America
  3. The majority of colonists were patriots
  4. The war united all of the colonists

Answer: #2 The war caused large divisions in America. The war split the colonists into three different groups (the patriots, the loyalists, and the undecided), and the paragraph does not state that any one side had a large majority, therefore indicating the rift that resulted from such division.


That brings us to the end of Lesson 1. Hopefully, you have begun to get a good idea of the kinds of thinking skills that you will need to hone in order to do well on the Social Studies section of the GED® test. We will continue to practice these different methods of answering questions in the subsequent lessons. For now, let's move on to global history!

Back: Overview US History Part 2 | Next: Global History

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