Chapter 10 – Reading for Ideas or Main Points
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events–Eleanor Roosevelt
As noted in the intro, speed reading is not reading without comprehension. Otherwise, you are merely looking at words really fast. This is the reason this book dedicates an entire section solely to comprehension and grasping the meaning, message, and content of the material you read.
The first step to comprehension is seeking out the main points. When reading, it is critical to pay attention to the main idea or overarching point the writer is trying to communicate. That is, it’s one thing to make sense of a single sentence or paragraph but a whole other to grasp the overall message of a passage.
Paying attention only to details, such as facts, dates, and descriptions, without giving thought to the main points, can lead to missing crucial information essential for understanding and memory. While studying history, for example, you might read about events and be oblivious to the country or person to whom they relate. Or, you might read instructions without grasping the bigger picture of what they will help you do.
To illustrate, if you asked a friend how their weekend went, how would you like him or her to respond? Would you prefer to hear, I went on vacation? Or would you prefer, I pulled out my luggage, packed it with clothes, zipped it up, drove to the airport, checked in my bags, flew to Mexico, took a taxi to a hotel, and sat in front of a beach drinking mojitos?
This is how people read. They pay attention to the details, but not the main points. They pick up the packing, driving, and flying without understanding it is for vacation. The main point is vacation, the rest are details. If you don’t grasp the main point, you will get lost in the details.
To illustrate further, think back to Chapter 7, which discussed the eyes’ need to stop and fixate in order to focus. This was explained not to show off about the amazing features of the eyes but instead to illustrate the effect of fixation on reading speed and comprehension. The main point of the chapter was to explain how reducing the number and duration of fixations can improve reading.
If you failed to catch how the detail of fixation affects the big picture of reading speed, you would miss the fundamental lesson of the chapter. You might know what fixation is and why it is important to vision, and even be fascinated by how often the eyes jump and pause, but that knowledge won’t help improve reading.
Again, this is how most people read, especially students. They notice the details but miss the bigger context or point. As a result, they get lost and don’t understand what they’ve read.
To improve comprehension, pay attention to the main points or the big picture, so to speak, and the broader context. When sifting through a lot of details, take an occasional step back to identify how those details relate to the overall message the author is trying to communicate.
Most books, especially academic ones, are written with main points in mind, so it should not be difficult to identify them. Sometimes, it’s as simple as asking, what is the point of this sentence, paragraph, or passage?
This is not to imply that main points are more important than details—both matter. If a friend says he went on vacation, you naturally want to know more. On the other hand, if they simply recite a bunch of activities without explaining that it was for a vacation, you’d either be really confused or think they lost their minds.
A good way to recognize the main points is to recognize the levels embedded in any written composition. It begins with understanding the meaning of a sentence, then how that sentence fits into the paragraph, and then how the paragraph supports the larger chapter. Finally, how the chapter supports the overall piece.
A writer doesn’t pick random words to form sentences, then casually combine those sentences into paragraphs, and haphazardly order the paragraphs into chapters. Enormous work and intention go into the craft of writing to give the final work structure and coherence. Just as there is a purpose to why we read, there is a purpose to why writers write. To drive the point home, there is a point that a writer is trying to make, and it is your job as readers to understand that point.
You may think you understand the point of a passage, but unless you are actively seeking it, you will likely miss it. So always be on the hunt for the bigger meaning, idea, or purpose. Don't get caught in only the details.
The process can also be applied in reverse. Since the preview step gives you a general overview of a written piece, determine the overall message or point of the material during preview. Then, while reading, watch for how the author delivers and supports that message with the details. Think about the ways each chapter supports the overall book, how the individual paragraphs reinforce each chapter, and how specific sentences develop the paragraphs.
For example, the overall point of this book is to teach simple techniques to improve reading speed. Each chapter presents a specific technique that helps readers with that goal. The techniques are defined, explained, and illustrated within the subsections and paragraphs of the chapter.
Looking at chapter 8 on regression, the first subsection defines regression and its impact on reading, the second explains the causes of regression, and the third offers advice on how to overcome them. Diving further, each paragraph presents an argument, a cause, and a solution. Within the paragraph, each sentence supports the point the paragraph is making.
The more ideas you can identity and the more you can figure out how the details support those ideas, the easier it will be to comprehend the material fully. You will evolve from merely reading words and sentences to grasping whole concepts and positions. Comprehension will advance beyond facts and dates to truly understanding what is being communicated in the material and why.
Think back to the introduction and the last 9 chapters of this book, and reflect on the main points discussed in each chapter and how the details supported the points.
There’s no need to do this from memory—just yet. Revisit the chapters and review the content. In addition, scan the table of contents to get a better sense of the structure and organization of each chapter.
Think about what each chapter is trying to communicate and why. Although the chapter titles give away the main point, go beyond restating the title, and describe the underlying message. For example, as the title of chapter 2 suggests, the main point is preview. What is preview, and why is it important?
Each chapter also offers an assortment of details, such as examples, illustrations, stories, instructions, and exercises to support the main points. Think about what these details aspire to communicate. They are not there by accident.
For example, what was the point of the lengthy explanation in Chapter 2 of why humans make mistakes or the story of my friend in Belize? Those stories weren’t for entertainment. How did they support the overall topic of preview?
Again, if you focus only on the details of the story, you might miss the underlying purpose or argument. We all fall into this trap. It is easy to be captivated by a fascinating fact and settle on that as the main point.
After reviewing the chapters in this book, find the main points in the sample materials. If you’ve been doing the drills in the previous chapters, you should have read them multiple times by now. Think about what the writer of each piece wishes to share.
The concept of mining for the main point transitions nicely into the next chapter, which discusses the structure of a paragraph. This valuable knowledge will increase the speed with which you grasp meaning and intent in anything you read.
Chapter 11 – Topic Sentences
If a thesis is a road map to a paper, then a topic sentence is a guide to a paragraph–BCCC Tutoring Center
The previous chapter taught the importance of identifying the main points or ideas when reading. It also provided two ways to identify those points. This chapter will provide another way to do that, which involves recognizing the principal thought or purpose of a paragraph.
As you know, a paragraph is a group of sentences that discusses one idea. The idea can describe a place, detail a character, illustrate a process, or reveal information about an event. It can also argue or explain a point or help develop an argument or point.
Paragraphs are the fundamental units of all writing because they are the building blocks, much like bricks to a house, which hold together a piece of writing. An idea in one paragraph leads to an idea in the next, and so on, until the reader comes to understand the big picture the writer is trying to convey.
Since each paragraph discusses a distinct idea, as readers, our task is to locate that idea in each paragraph. The way to do this is to identify the topic sentence—the sentence that clearly states the idea. To understand what a topic sentence is and how to find it, it helps to understand the formal structure of a paragraph.
Structure of Paragraph
In formal writing, paragraphs consist of three parts: topic sentence, supporting sentences, and concluding sentence.
As mentioned, the topic sentence presents the paragraph’s main idea. It acts as the introduction that tells the reader what the rest of the paragraph will be about. The topic sentence also holds facts and details together. When a writer presents a series of facts or descriptions on the same idea, those facts are grouped together and summarized with a topic sentence.
As the name suggests, supporting sentences support the topic sentence. They are the details that describe, illustrate, communicate, or explain the topic sentence using facts, reasons, examples, definitions, comparisons, and other pertinent info. Supporting sentences sell the idea made by the topic sentence.
The concluding sentence brings the paragraph to a close. It does this either by restating the topic sentence or by summarizing the information presented in the supporting sentences. Since the concluding sentence restates and summarizes previous information, it is similar to, but not exactly the same as, the topic sentence. These sentences often lead the reader into the next paragraph.
In many ways, paragraphs resemble hamburgers. The top bun is the topic sentence, the bottom bun concluding sentence, and the meat and trimmings supporting sentences. Although the top and bottom buns look similar, they are not exactly the same. Nonetheless, both buns hold the core of the burger together in the same way that topic and concluding sentences hold together supporting sentences in a paragraph. Such is the nature of paragraphs.
Let’s use the previous paragraph to illustrate. The first sentence, In many ways, paragraphs resemble hamburgers, is the topic sentence, setting the stage for what will be discussed, which is how paragraphs resemble hamburgers. The next three sentences support and expand upon the relationship between paragraphs and hamburgers. The last sentence, Such is the nature of paragraphs, summarizes the main point while also concluding the paragraph.
This is the formal structure that teachers taught us, if we were so inclined to ...