There is a difference between the main idea of a passage or piece of literature and the supporting detail. Being able to identify, analyze, and intelligently discuss both aspects (and use them clearly in your own writing) will make you a more thoughtful analyzer and a stronger writer.
There are several aspects of a text to consider when you are reading and analyzing it. Here are the main concepts of which to be aware:
Topic vs. Main Idea
The topic of a passage is the subject about which it is written. Topics include things like school uniforms, mandatory drug testing in the workplace, or trains. It is usually possible to state or express a topic in a one- or two-word phrase. The main idea in a text is the writer’s interpretation of or ideas about the topic. For example, “school uniforms should be mandatory in every public school” (this is the author’s position or stance with regard to the topic of school uniforms), “mandatory drug testing in the workplace would help ensure the safety of all employees and customers,” or “trains are a symbol of a bygone era of American expansion and development.” Main ideas are more detailed than the topic but can generally be summarized in one or two sentences. It is this main idea that the body paragraphs work to develop as they support and provide evidence. The main idea should be evident to the reader by the end of the first paragraph, which is usually an introductory paragraph.
Supporting details are important because they answer questions of who, what, when, where, why, or how for the reader. Supporting details help back up claims made by the author and help develop the main idea so the reader can more easily understand it. They provide evidence that can be used to persuade readers to interpret a topic in the same way as the author. Supporting details can be present as facts, statistics, examples, anecdotes, and sensory details. A reader should check the details an author uses for credibility, if appropriate.
When we read, we come to a text with preexisting knowledge and experiences, but we should also be on the lookout for new information or support that is present in the text. Text evidence refers to the information found in the text itself and which supports the main idea to help a reader draw conclusions about a subject. It helps provide support or information so that the reader does not have to rely on his or her own thoughts or understanding. Text evidence should be precise, descriptive, and factual.
When you read a book or article for pleasure, it’s possible to just absorb whatever interests you and move on. On the other hand, when you are reading in preparation for answering questions or to seriously glean the author’s message, there are several things you can do to make your reading more productive. Some people call this being a critical or active reader. Here are some suggestions.
As tedious as it may sound, taking notes while you read is actually a very smart reading strategy. Studies have shown that taking notes while reading helps readers engage with a text on a more complex level. Rather than just having your eyes gloss over the words on the page, active reading through note-taking has you pause, consider, and respond to important or unclear ideas.
Note-taking can take on many forms, and you’ll need to find the ones that work most effectively for you. Notes can be written on sticky notes, in the margins of a text (as long as you have permission to write on it), in a notebook, or on a separate sheet of paper that can double as a bookmark. To be most effective, note-taking should be done as you read a text rather than as a summarizing activity after you read (though that’s another good reading practice).
Although your teachers or instructors might mandate what kind of notes they want you to take, ultimately your notes should be things that are meaningful to you. Consider marking and taking note of unfamiliar words, key ideas, specific terms or dates, asking questions of the text (Where are some places where you are unsure of what the author is trying to say? Are there any places where you would like to ask the author a question?), personal connections you can make to what is being said in the text, or comments you could make regarding what you are reading. Your notes don’t have to be long and involved, just a few brief comments. Jotting down these notes can also help you in the writing stage as your notes will bring you back to specific places in the text to which you can refer.
Response to Text
Your response to a text can be a valuable source of ideas when it comes to writing about a text. As you read, you should include comments about how you are reacting to an author’s claims, what you think about what the author has to say, or note places where you strongly disagree with an author’s claim. In a fictional text, you may be responding to how you feel about a character, questions you have regarding what a character says or does, how you feel about a plot twist the author might include, or your response to how things turn out (“unbelievable ending! not realistic!”).
Your response to text notes are an opportunity for you to record your initial reactions to a text, jot down questions you have about it, and what your reaction is to the claims made or ideas presented. These comments will help you determine what you really think about what you read and give you some guidance for writing a response to it.
Creating an outline as you read can help you to organize ideas and information in a logical pattern which may be helpful for comprehension, as well as responding to a text later. It’s like reaching into the author’s writing process so you can better understand the message. For example, as you make an outline, you are thinking about and examining what the author is doing: “The author wants me to think this, so he/she lists these reasons to convince me” etc. This type of thing will be helpful if you are later asked to evaluate the author’s presentation, such as telling if the point was proven or if the logic was sound. Remember that notetaking while reading should be quick, so your outline will be just quick notations of what you read.
An outline for a passage might look something like this, with each Roman numeral standing for a paragraph:
When you read a longer work, such as a book, it might begin like this, with each Roman numeral standing for a chapter or section:
Then, you would add numerals and letters, as needed.
It is a good idea to take quick breaks from reading to summarize what you have read so far. These summaries can go in your notebook or on the text itself. Summaries can be written at the end of a chapter or the end of a page, or even at the end of a paragraph if the text is very challenging. Summarizing means determining the important points in a text, condensing the ideas, and putting them into your own words. Summaries should still cover all of the main points presented in a text, but should be a briefer writing and avoid including all of the details and specifics. They should not include your personal opinion or thoughts, but just be an objective, big picture “retelling” of what you read. Think of summarizing as how you would explain what you’ve read to someone who hasn’t read it, in 30 seconds or less. Here’s a sample checklist you might use to make sure you have addressed all of the main parts:
Paraphrasing is not the same as summarizing. Summarizing condenses but paraphrasing does not, so you will want to paraphrase sparingly. Think of paraphrasing as “translating” a text into your own words. It is particularly useful when you encounter a part of a text that is difficult to understand because it requires you to thoroughly understand what you have read and can serve as a way to check your comprehension as you read. Then, if you are unable to paraphrase, you may want to go back and reread parts of the text that will help you to understand it better. Just be sure that you are putting the text in your own words—if you copy the original text and its wording, it is considered plagiarism (BAD!). Be sure to include details and specifics in your paraphrase. Remember, paraphrasing doesn’t require condensing or shortening the original, so you can include those details that you might leave out of a summary.
Sometimes, an author’s or character’s exact words will help with comprehension of a piece. Just be sure to record them using quotation marks (“) so, if you use your notes to write later, you’ll remember these were not your words and can cite the source.
Here is a chart to help you remember the differences between paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting:
Using the preceding strategies and your best critical reasoning skills, many things will become apparent to you from reading a text—things that aren’t specifically laid out, but require more thought to discover. These are the main things you’ll find.
Authors can present information or ideas in one of two ways: explicitly or implicitly. Explicit means that the author comes out and tells the reader directly what a character is like or what the issue really is and the reader does not have to do any independent thinking, considering, or figuring out; the information is outright stated by the author. Implicit means that an author may hint at or suggest information but does not come right out and state it. It is implied and the reader must “read between the lines” to determine the underlying message the author is trying to convey.
Implications can be dangerous because a reader may have an interpretation the author did not intend and therefore come to a conclusion the author hadn’t considered. Implications can also help keep the author out of trouble because he or she does not actually state anything that might be distasteful or offensive but offers hints and clues for the reader to infer such a message.
When we read, we draw conclusions about the material to which we are exposed. Using our previous knowledge and experience, coupled with the new understanding we gain from reading a text, we come to conclusions about the author’s ideas and stance. Conclusions are considered accurate if they can be supported with information that is found in the text. Conclusions should never be drawn based solely on previous knowledge without the incorporation and consideration of the information presented in a text.
Drawing logical conclusions is possible through note-taking, looking for evidence provided in a text, evaluating a text’s credibility, considering what is directly stated as opposed to what is implied, summarizing a text, and/or paraphrasing a text. Using these skills, readers can form their own conclusions about a text and about the author’s message.
Credibility means believability. Readers cannot draw accurate conclusions if the sources authors use are not credible or believable. Readers must also question the author’s credibility. Is this person trustworthy? Do they seem to know what they are talking about? Do they present themselves as unbiased and objective? In persuasive writing especially, authors want their audience to believe what they are saying and to trust their claims. Many uneducated people may just blindly accept the claims of an author. But careful, critical readers question the credibility of the author and his or her sources of evidence. Do they “pass the sniff test”?
Basis for Predictions
Readers use what they read as the basis for making predictions about how this information might work in other contexts. Standardized reading tests often ask you to take information directly presented and formulate predictions. Only credible text and sources should be used as the basis for predictions or the reader may make entirely inaccurate conclusions and apply ideas erroneously to a different context. Considering the facts and details, be sure to consider how relevant this information would be in a different situation?