44. Overview Questions

A) Main Idea, Main Topic, and Main Purpose Questions

Usually, the first question after a passage is an overview question about the main idea, main topic, or main purpose of the passage. Main idea questions ask you to identify the most important thought in the passage. Answer choices for these questions are complete sentences.

Sample Questions

  • What is the main idea of the passage?
  • The primary idea of the passage is. . .
  • Which of the following best summarizes the author’s main idea?

When a single readily identified main idea is not available in the passage, the question may ask about main topic, instead. This kind of question ask you what the passage is generally “about.” Answer choices for these questions are noun phrases.

Sample Questions

  • The main topic of the passage is . . .
  • What does the passage mainly discuss?
  • The passage is primarily concerned with . . .

Main purpose question is another type of question usually ask right after the passage. Main purpose questions ask why an author wrote a passage. The answer choices for these questions usually begin with infinitives.

Sample Questions

  • The author’s purpose in writing is to . . .
  • What is the author’s main purpose in the passage?
  • The main point of this passage is to . . .
  • Why did the author write the passage?

Sample Answer Choices

  • To define . . .
  • To discuss . . .
  • To illustrate . . .
  • To distinguish between ____________ and ___________
  • To relate . . .
  • To propose . . .
  • To support the idea that . . .
  • To compare ____________ and _____________

Don’t answer the initial overview question about a passage until you have answered the other questions. The process of answering the detail questions may give you a clearer idea of the main idea, topic, or purpose of the passage.
The correct answers for main idea, main topic, and main purpose questions correctly summarize the main points of the passage; they must be more general than any of the supporting ideas or details, but not so general that they include ideas outside the scope of the passages.
Distractors for this type of question have one of these characteristics:

  1. They are too specific.
  2. They are too general.
  3. They are incorrect according to the passage.
  4. They are irrelevant (unrelated) to the main idea of the passage.

If you ‘re not sure of the answer for one of these questions, go back and quickly scan the passage. You can usually infer the main idea, main topic, or main purpose of the entire passage from your understanding about the main ideas of the paragraphs that make up the passage and the relationship between them.

B) Other Overview Questions

A number of other questions for a passage require an overall understanding of the passage. These are often the last question in a set of questions.

Tone questions ask you to determine the author’s feelings about the topic by the language that he or she uses in writing the passage. Look for vocabulary that indicates if the author’s feelings are positive, negative, or neutral.

Sample Questions

  • What tone does the author take in writing this passage?
  • The tone of this passage could be best described as . . .

Sample Answer Choices

  • Positive
  • Favorable
  • Optimistic
  • Amused
  • Pleased
  • Respectful
  • Humorous
  • Negative
  • Critical
  • Unfavorable
  • Angry
  • Defiant
  • Worried
  • Outraged
  • Neutral
  • Objective
  • Impersonal

If you read the following sentences in passages, would the tone of those passages most likely be positive or negative?

A) That was just the beginning of a remarkable series of performances by this brilliant actress.
B) Despite some minor problems, this device has a number of admirable features.
C) This practice is a waste of time and money.
D) At the time his poems were first published, they were very popular, but today most critics find them simplistic and rather uninteresting.

The italicized words in sentences A) and B) show a positive tone; in C) and D), the italicized words indicate a negative attitude. Notice that sentence B) contains negative words (“minor problems”), but the overall meaning of the sentence is positive. Sentence D) contains positive language (“very popular”), but overall, the tone is negative. (Words like despite, but, although, however, and similar words can “reverse” the tone of the passage.)

Most TOEFL Reading passages have a neutral tone, but sometimes an author may take a position for or against some point. However, answer choices that indicate strong emotion–angry, outraged, sad, and so forth–will seldom be correct.

Attitude questions are very similar to tone questions. Again, you must understand the author’s opinion. The language that the author uses will tell you what his or her position is.
What is the author’s attitude toward smoking on airplanes as expressed in the sentence below?

Although some passengers may experience a slight discomfort from not smoking on Iong flights, their smoking endangers the health of all the passengers and crew.

The author opposes smoking during flights. He admits that there is some argument in favor of smoking–some passengers may feel discomfort–but this is not as important as the fact that smoking can be dangerous to everyone on the flight. The use of the word although shows this.

Sample Questions

  • What is the author’s attitude toward . . .
  • The author’s opinion of __________ is best described as . . .
  • The author’s attitude toward __________ could best described as . . .
  • How would the author probably feel about . . .

Another type of attitude question presents four statements and asks how the author would feel about them.

  • Which of the following recommendations would the author most likely support?
  • The author would be LEAST likely to agree with which of the following statements?
  • The author of the passage would most likely be in favor of which of the following policies?

Organization questions ask about the overall structure of a passage or about the organization of a particular paragraph.

Sample Questions

  • Which of the following best describes the organization of the passage?

Sample Answer Choices

  • A general concept is defined, and examples are given.
  • Several generalizations are presented, from which a conclusion is drawn.
  • The author presents the advantages and disadvantages of ___________
  • The author presents a system of classification for ________________
  • Persuasive language is used to argue against ____________________
  • The author describes _____________________
  • The author presents a brief account of _________________
  • The author compares _____________________ and ____________________
  • To compare ____________ and _____________

Questions about previous or following paragraphs ask you to assume that the passage is part of a longer work: What would be the topic of the hypothetical paragraph that precedes or follows the passage? To find the topic of the previous paragraph, look for clues in the first line or two of the passage; for the topic of the following passage, look in the last few lines. Sometimes incorrect answer choices mention topics that have already been discussed in the passage.

Sample Questions

  • With what topic would the following/preceding paragraph most likely deal?
  • The paragraph prior to/after the passage most probably discusses . . .
  • It can be inferred from the passage that the previous/next paragraph concerns . . .
  • What most likely precedes/follows the passage?

Exercise 44.1

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