Reading: Levels E, M, D, and A Study Guide for the TABE Test

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Key Ideas and Details (L, E, M, D, A)

Percentage of Test Level Specifically Assessing These Skills (— = Assumed)

28% 37% 47% 47% 47%

When you read, it is with a purpose. You may be trying to gather information, learn about something, or just be entertained by a good story. Regardless of your purpose for reading, your brain is looking for key ideas and details to help form understanding and create meaning. The key idea, sometimes referred to as the main idea, is what the reading passage is about or the main point the writer is trying to convey to the audience. The details are the bits of information that explain, address, or support the key idea and help to make meaning.

Essential Features of a Text

The basic features of a text are the topic, main idea, and theme. A piece of writing is generally about something the author wants the reader to know about or better understand. There is the topic, or what the text is about, and then there is the main idea, or what the author wants to tell the readers about the topic. To identify the topic and the main idea, readers look for details or information given by the author. Texts may also include a theme, or the message about the topic that the author wants the reader to consider, an underlying idea that unifies the whole text.

The Topic and Main Idea

The topic and main idea of a work are the focus of the work. Topic and main idea are not synonymous, but do share a relationship: the topic is the general focus of the piece, while the main idea is the narrowed focus. For instance, a topic for a paper might be “government”, while a main idea might be “the government needs to engage in better money management.” The two are closely related but not identical. Another way to think of it is that the topic is the subject, or what a text is about, and the main idea is what the author wants you to know about the topic.

The Main Idea

While it may be referred to by several different names, the main idea (or key idea, or central idea), is the primary concept or understanding about the topic that the author is trying to share with the reader. It is the essential idea behind the writing and may be identified by asking, “What’s the point?”

The Theme

The theme of a passage is the overarching topic or subject. The theme of a nonfiction work might be “the potential dangers of working night shifts,” while a fiction work might have a theme of “personal redemption.” In nonfiction pieces (including academia), the theme is typically more detailed, while a fiction work is likely able to be summed up in a single word or phrase. The theme is generally a message or lesson a reader can walk away with after reading a particular text.

The Details

Supporting details are the pieces of evidence found in a text that support the main idea and help the reader derive meaning. Using the example above, supporting details would provide more insight into why the government needs more effective money management and how it might go about achieving those money management skills. Reasons and facts are common examples of supporting details, but it is also important to consider where these details come from.

Textual Evidence

Textual evidence refers to the details present in a text that can be pointed to by a reader as supporting the main idea. For example, if the text is about why school buses are yellow and the author states “School buses are yellow because yellow is a highly visible color that helps ensure that drivers see the bus and take necessary safety precautions around it,” the textual evidence would be that yellow is a highly visible color. Textual evidence is presented as reasons or facts that can be found directly in the author’s writing.

Explicit Details vs. Inference

To answer many TABE Reading questions, you will not only need to understand what is printed, but you will also need to do something with that information. You might have to “read between the lines” to determine what the author meant by a statement. This is called making an inference.

Making an inference involves reading a passage, identifying clues in the passage, and determining information not explicitly laid out by the author. For instance, take the sentence, “Melissa ran away from the dog, shouting wildly.” Although the author does not explicitly state that Melissa is afraid of dogs, given her impulse to run away and her behavior (shouting), it is likely she is afraid of the animal in pursuit. While this is a basic example, making an inference is as simple as reading between the lines.


To draw a conclusion, first read the work or passage. From there, identify the purpose of the passage. Is it to inform? To persuade? Once you have the purpose, re-read the passage and determine what the conclusion or final argument is. In an essay regarding the discovery of America, for instance, the conclusion might be that Columbus was ill-informed. In an essay about the modern family, the conclusion might be that families look very different now than they did 50 years ago. Drawing a conclusion requires reading, determining purpose and tone, and putting the two together.

Predicting from Given Information

Predicting the outcome from given information can be tricky when studying English. The best means of doing this is to first skim through the passage. How is the information presented in the rest of the passage? Are things listed chronologically? Are ideas leading one into the other? Is the passage in question erratic in its layout? To predict the outcome with given information, identify key words and phrases in the text, identify the most important information using the question presented, and identify the most likely conclusion.

Responding to a Text

Effective readers don’t read in a vacuum. That is, they interact with the text from start to finish and their eyes don’t just wander aimlessly across the page. Active reading means that you’re reading with a purpose, that you question the text as you read, and that you are taking notes, either physically on paper or electronically, or actually in the book margins, if you are allowed to do so.

Responding to a text involves not only interacting with it during the reading, but also reflecting on it afterward. Some of the activities outlined below can happen as you read and afterward as you are reflecting on the text, making meaning of it, and applying your understanding of it.

Interacting with the Text as You Read

Have you ever tried to read with your eyes closed? It’s an impossible task. While we may not realize we’re doing it, it’s also nearly impossible not to respond to a text as you read it. In fact, even for reluctant readers or those who struggle with reading, they can’t help but interact with the words as they read. That’s because there are so many levels of interaction that can (and should) take place as you read.

Make Connections

The human brain is constantly looking for connections to the known to make sense of the unknown. This applies to reading too. When reading a text, a reader is looking to make connections between what they are reading and their own experiences in life. They are looking to make connections to other texts they have read. They are looking to make connections between what they are reading and the world they see around them. These connections help the reader make comparisons and gain understanding or insight about what they are reading.

Ask and Answer Questions about the Text

Active readers who are interacting with the text have internal dialogues with the author and/or the text. This means that they are asking questions in their head as they read, and they are looking for answers to those questions in the text as they read. This can be a lot to keep track of in your head, so often these thoughts and questions are recorded on paper as notes.

If you are able to write directly on the text you are reading, you may write questions you have in the margins and underline answers as you find them within the text. If you’re taking notes on the computer or in a notebook, the process is similar: note the questions that arise as you read and jot down the answers when you find them in the text.

One of the best ways to apply a question to the text and to start the dialogue with the reading is to turn the title into a question. Once you have a question based on the title, then you are reading to find the answer to that question.

Evaluating the Text after Reading

Effective readers don’t close the book, so to speak, and walk away from reading. Continuing to think about, evaluate, reflect on, and question a text means that you are still responding to what you have read and are making meaning and connections. Here are some post-reading activities you might consider to assess what you have read and to continue to make meaning from it.

Retell and Explain Key Details

One of the best ways to cement learning and really make something stick is to explain it to someone else. If you read a text and can retell it to someone who hasn’t read it, identifying the main idea and explaining some of the key details, you are more likely to remember it and make deeper meaning of it than if you don’t share your understanding.

On the TABE Reading test, you won’t be able to discuss the readings with anyone else, but you can still go through the process internally. Once you finish reading a passage, try to retell it in your own words and recall the key details that you remember.

Summarize the Text

Another activity to help make meaning of a reading is to write a short summary of the text. Summary means condensing things down to the most important key elements. It does not mean you cover every detail, but that you restate the main points and discern the most important ideas from a text.

Summaries should always be objective, that is, without the inclusion of your own opinions or judgments about the topic or the text, but just a listing of the facts presented in the reading. They are also almost always shorter in length than the original text because they don’t include irrelevant information or a lot of specific details.

Paraphrase the Text

Paraphrasing can be another tool to measure your understanding of a text. When you paraphrase, you put into your own words what you understood a text to mean. Different from summarizing in that you’re not condensing, paraphrasing doesn’t shorten things but requires you to figure out how to say the same thing differently from how the author said it. Whereas summaries are generally shorter than the original text, paraphrases will be roughly the same length because there’s no taking things out, just “translating” into your own words.

Quote from the Text

Sometimes writers use a certain phrase or expression that really resonates with the reader. These are usually quotable moments that will stick with a reader and be something they are likely to remember long after the reading. When you quote from the text, you are restating the material word for word as it was used by the writer. Doing this can help clarify the author’s message in your mind. When writing to share, credit must be given to the author when you quote to avoid plagiarism.

Evaluate the Sources

It’s important to be a critical reader and to evaluate the sources an author uses to provide evidence in their writing. Just because you read it doesn’t mean something is true. So, consider the sources used by the writer in the text.

Primary sources provide first-hand accounts from people who were there or experienced an event or time period. They are generally considered the most trustworthy type of source because these are actual witnesses.

Secondary sources are interpretations, analysis, or synthesis of first-hand accounts by people who have studied the topic, maybe, but who didn’t experience an event or period themselves.

Consider the ethos or credibility of the sources being used and what authority they have to speak on a particular subject. Consider the date of the information—is it new and relevant or old and outdated? Evaluating the sources an author uses and analyzing their credibility and relativity is important for a critical reader.

Analyze the Text

Sometimes a reader can glean information from a text just by looking at it. Analyzing the structure of the text, looking at how it’s organized, whether it’s broken down into sections, whether there are graphics or images that accompany it, if there’s anything bolded or italicized—all of these clues can help the reader make meaning and know what to look for as they read. They also give a sense of how the author expects the reader to interact with the text and what they might be emphasizing with the choices they make.

Identify Key Steps in a Process

Science and technical writing, especially, rely on presenting information in a series of steps. Understanding how to read through those steps and follow them from one to the next in a sequential manner is a critical reading skill.

Look for Character, Event, and Idea Development

In fictional writing, authors build their plot based on a particular formula that involves introducing the characters and the setting, then introducing some conflict during a series of events, then having the main character face a challenging or difficult decision, explaining what happens as a result of that decision, and then wrapping things up before the text ends. As you read, look to see how the author develops the characters, what order events are presented in, and how the ideas are developed over the course of the story.

Look for Causation

A common organizational structure for expository texts is cause-and-effect. As you are reading, look to see if you can identify a cause of action and then what happens as a result, or what the relationships are between the ideas or concepts presented in the text.

Thinking Critically about What You Read

Although reading can be a lot of fun, many literary works were created to be analyzed or used as a mirror, of sorts, placed up to the society of that time. For that reason, several critical tools have been developed, which include the following: fact, opinion, fallacy, bias, stereotype, circular reasoning, false dichotomy, overgeneralization, credibility of the author, and summarizing/paraphrasing.

A fact is an indisputable piece of information supported by evidence. Facts are not subjective, but objective. This would include the statement, “The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.”

An opinion is the opposite. Rather than providing an objective piece of information, an opinion provides the audience with a subjective piece of information, colored by the thoughts, background, and ideas of the author.

A fallacy is a faulty argument, in which an author appeals to a false authority to prove a point. This might include a red herring fallacy, wherein the author tries to distract the audience from the point at hand, using a seemingly relevant argument.

A bias is a prejudice in favor of one thing, one person, or one group. Bias comes in many shapes and forms. It may be as simple as seeing a situation only from one perspective or as complex as regarding an entire group of people in one way based on one person’s actions or antiquated ideas.

A stereotype is a belief that is widely held, but oversimplified. Stereotypes are frequently used in coined phrases, or simple statements, such as the stereotype that Americans are all loud and boastful.

Circular reasoning is reasoning wherein the conclusion is used as proof of the facts, rather than the other way around. This most often takes the form of “This is true because that is true. And that is true because this is true.”

A false dichotomy is an argument where only two options are given, when numerous options are available. This is most commonly seen in black-and-white thinking, or saying there is only one right way, when there are many ways to complete a task.

An overgeneralization is similar to a stereotype in that it makes judgments over a large group of people or things, without considering the nuances present within a large group. A large generalization might be the notion that all teenage girls frequent Starbucks, or that all elderly people are grumpy.

The credibility of the author is an important factor in analyzing an argument or literary work, as an author might make an argument without legitimate claims to authority. For instance, someone without any experience with the medical or nutrition fields might write an essay about health and nutrition. Without credible sources and studies, this individual is not likely to be a credible, believable author.

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