Understanding a reading passage begins with understanding the explicit, or clearly stated, information in the text. Using that information, the reader can make conclusions or inferences about what the text suggests or implies but does not explicitly say.
To draw a conclusion, readers must consider the details or facts in a passage, then determine what event or idea would logically follow at the end of the passage. For example, a story describes an old man sitting alone in a café. The young waiter says that the café is closing, but the old man continues to drink. The waiter starts closing up, and the old man tries to order another drink. Based on these details, the reader might conclude that the waiter will not bring the man another drink.
An inference is slightly different from a conclusion. An inference is an educated guess that readers make based on details in the text as well as their own knowledge and experiences. Returning to the story about the old man, the reader might use her own experiences to infer that the old man is lonely and so is reluctant to leave the café. Note that nothing in the passage explicitly states that the man is lonely—it is simply a possible interpretation of the situation.
An author selects details to help support the main idea. The reader must then evaluate these details for relevance and consistency. Though the author generally includes details that support the text’s main idea, it’s up to the reader to decide whether those details are convincing.
Sometimes, the author’s bias—an inclination toward a particular belief—causes the author to leave out details that do not directly support the main idea or that support an opposite idea. The reader has to be able to notice not only what the author says but also what the author leaves out. Discovering the author’s bias and how the supporting details reveal that bias is also key to understanding a text.
Writers will often use specific techniques, or rhetorical strategies, to build an argument. Readers can identify these strategies in order to clearly understand what an author wants them to believe, how the author’s perspective and purpose may lead to bias, and whether the passage includes any logical fallacies.
Common rhetorical strategies include the appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos. An author uses these to build trust with the reader, explain the logical points of their argument, and convince the reader that their opinion is the best option.
An ethos (ethical) appeal uses balanced, fair language and seeks to build a trusting relationship between the author and the reader. An author might explain their credentials, include the reader in an argument, or offer concessions to an opposing argument.
A logos (logical) appeal builds on that trust by providing facts and support for the author’s opinion, explaining the argument with clear connections and reasoning. At this point, the reader should beware of logical fallacies that connect unconnected ideas and build arguments on incorrect premises. With a logical appeal, an author convinces the reader to accept an opinion or belief by demonstrating that it is the most logical option and that it satisfies the reader’s emotional reaction to a topic.
A pathos (emotional) appeal does not depend on reasonable connections between ideas. Rather, it reminds the reader, through imagery, strong language, and personal connections, that the author’s argument aligns with the reader’s best interests.
Some reading questions ask candidates to compare texts with similar themes or topics. You will have to identify the similarities and differences in main ideas, styles, supporting details, and text structures. Previewing the questions and noting similarities and differences in texts while reading will be helpful.
When reading paired passages, keep the following questions in mind.