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 Home >> GRE>>GRE Comprehension


The Five Questions

The key to performing well on the passages is not your particular reading technique, but in your familiarity with the types of possible questions. In general, there are only five question types explored on the reading comprehension test:

a) Main Idea
b) Details
c) Organization
d) Extension / Application
e) Attitude / Tone

As you become familiar with the different question types, you will gain an intuitive sense for the places from which they are likely to be drawn. You can then approach these questions quickly and efficiently. Generally, the order in which the questions are asked corresponds to the order in which the main issues are presented in the passage. Early questions should correspond to information given early in the passage, and so on.

a) Main Idea Questions

Main idea questions test your ability to identify and understand an author's intent. The main idea is usually stated:

i) in the last (occasionally the first) sentence of the first paragraph
ii) in last sentence of the entire passage.

Main idea questions are usually the first questions asked in the question set.
Some common main idea questions are:

Which of the following best expresses the main idea of the passage?
The primary purpose of the passage is to ...
In the passage, the author's primary concern is to discuss. ..
Which of the following would be an excellent title for the passage?

Main idea questions are usually not difficult. If you don't catch the main idea after your first reading, review the first and last sentence of each paragraph. These will give you a quick overview of the passage.

Because main idea questions are relatively easy, the test writers try to obscure the correct answer by surrounding it with close answer-choices that either overstate or understate the author's main point. Answers that stress specifics tend to understate the main idea, while choices that go beyond the scope of the passage tend to overstate the main idea. The correct answer to a main idea question will summarize the author's argument, yet be neither too specific nor too broad. In most cases, the main idea of a passage is found in the first paragraph or in the final sentence of the entire passage.

b) Detail Questions

Detail questions refer to a minor point or to incidental information in the passage, but not to the author's main point. These questions take various forms:

According to the passage. .
In line 25, the author mentions....for the purpose of ...
The passage suggests that which one of the following would....

The answer to a detail question must refer directly to a statement in the passage, not to something implied by it. When answering a detail question, find the point in the passage from which the question is drawn. Don't rely on memory, as many tactics are used with these questions to confuse test takers. Not only must the correct answer refer directly to a statement in the passage, it must refer to the relevant statement. The correct answer will be surrounded by wrong choices which refer directly to the passage but don't address the question. These choices can be tempting because they tend to be quite close to the actual answer.

Once you locate the sentence to which the question refers, you must read a few sentences before and after it to put the question in context. If a question refers to line 30, the information needed to answer it can occur anywhere from line 25 to 35. Even if you spot the answer in line 28, you should still read a few more lines to ensure you have the proper perspective.

c) Organization of the Passage

Because they are derived from diverse subject areas, passages can cover an infinite number of topics. While main idea questions ask the purpose of the piece, organization questions ask how the author presents his ideas. While authors can theoretically use an endless number of writing techniques, most test passages use one of just three organizational styles:

i) Compare and contrast two positions

This technique simply develops two ideas and then explains why one is better than the other. Some common comparison phrases include "by contrast" or "similarly".

Typical questions for these types of passages are:

According to the passage, a central distinction between a woman's position and a man's is:
In which of the following ways does the author imply that birds and reptiles are similar?

ii) Show cause and effect

The author demonstrates that a particular cause leads to a specific result. Sometimes this method introduces a sequence of causes and effects: A causes B, which causes C, which causes D, etc. Hence B is both the effect of A and the cause of C.

iii) State a position and then offer supporting evidence

This technique is common with opinionated passages. Many authors prefer the reverse order, where the supporting evidence is presented first and then the position or conclusion is stated.

Following are some typical questions for these types of passages:

According to the author, which of the following is required for one to become proficient with a computer?
Which of the following does the author cite as evidence that the species is dangerous?

d) Extension / Application Questions

Extension questions require you to go beyond what is stated in the passage, asking you to draw an inference, to make a conclusion, or to identify one of the author's tacit assumptions. You may be asked to draw a conclusion based on the ideas or facts presented:

It can be inferred from the passage that. ..
The passage suggests that. ..
From this we can conclude that.....

Since extension questions require you to go beyond the passage, the correct answer must say more than what is stated in the passage. The correct answer to an extension question will not require a quantum leap in thought, but it will add significantly to the ideas presented in the passage.

While extension questions ask you to apply what you learned from the passage to derive new information about the same subject, application questions go one step further, asking you to apply what you have learned from the passage to a different or hypothetical situation.

The following are common application questions:

Which one of the following is the most likely source of the passage?
Which of the following is an appropriate title for this piece? The author would most likely agree with which one of the following statements?
Which one of the following sentences would the author be most likely to use to complete the last paragraph of the passage?

To answer an application question, consider the author's perspective. Ask yourself:

what is he arguing for?
what might make his argument stronger?
what might make it weaker?

Because these questions go beyond the passage, they tend to be the most difficult. They require you to pick up subtleties of the author's attitude.

e) Attitude / Tone Questions

Tone questions discuss the writer's attitude or perspective. Does he feel positive, negative or neutral? Does he give his own opinion or objectively present those of others? Before reading the answer choices, decide whether the writer's tone is positive, negative or neutral. If you didn't get a feel for the writer's attitude on the first reading, check the adjectives used (they nearly always have a strong positive or negative connotation).

Beware of answer choices that contain extreme emotions. Passages are usually taken from academic journals, where strong emotions are considered inappropriate. The writers usually display opinions that are considered and reasonable, not spontaneous or off-the-wall. The tone or attitude of a passage closely parallels the main idea. If the author's intent is to explain the reasons for abolishing slavery, the tone is explanatory or encouraging, not negative or discouraging. The correct answer will also be indisputable. The test writers NEVER allow the correct answer to be vague, controversial or grammatically questionable



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