Reading literature is a different experience than reading non-fiction works. Our imagination is more active as we review what we have read, imagine ourselves as characters in the novel, and try to guess what will happen next. Suspense, surprise, fantasy, fear, anxiety, compassion, and a host of other emotions and feelings may be stirred by a provocative novel.
Reading longer works of fiction is a cumulative process. Some elements of a novel have a great impact, while others may go virtually unnoticed. Therefore, as novels are read with a critical eye to language, it is helpful to perceive and identify larger patterns and movements in the work as a whole. This will benefit the reader by placing characters and events in perspective, and will enrich the reading experience greatly. Novels should be savored rather than gulped. Careful reading and thoughtful analysis of the major themes of the novel are essential to a clear understanding of the work.
One of the most important skills in reading comprehension is the identification of topics and main ideas. There is a subtle difference between these two features. The topic is the subject of a text, or what the text is about. The main idea, on the other hand, is the most important point being made by the author. The topic is usually expressed in a few words at the most, while the main idea often
needs a full sentence to be completely defined. As an example, a short passage might have the topic of penguins and the main idea Penguins are different from other birds in many ways. In most nonfiction writing, the topic and the main idea will be stated directly, often in a sentence at the very beginning or end of the text. When being tested on an understanding of the author’s topic, the reader can quickly skim the passage for the general idea, stopping to read only the first sentence of each paragraph. A paragraph’s first sentence is often (but not always) the main topic sentence, and it gives you a summary of the content of the paragraph. However, there are cases in which the reader must figure out an unstated topic or main idea. In these instances, the student must read every sentence of the text, and try to come up with an overarching idea that is supported by each of those sentences. While the main idea is the overall premise of a story, supporting details provide evidence and backing for the main point. In order to show that a main idea is correct, or valid, the author needs to add details that prove their point. All texts contain details, but they are only classified as supporting details when they serve to
reinforce some larger point. Supporting details are most commonly found in informative and persuasive texts. In some cases, they will be clearly indicated with words like for example or for instance, or they will be enumerated with words like first, second, and last. However, they may not be indicated with special words. As a reader, it is important to consider whether the author’s supporting details really
back up his or her main point. Supporting details can be factual and correct but still not relevant to the author’s point. Conversely, supporting details can seem pertinent but be ineffective because they are based on opinion or assertions that cannot be proven.
An example of a main idea is: “Giraffes live in the Serengeti of Africa.” A supporting detail about giraffes could be: “A giraffe uses its long neck to reach twigs and leaves on trees.” The main idea gives the general idea that the text is about giraffes. The supporting detail gives a specific fact about how the giraffes eat. As opposed to a main idea, themes are seldom expressed directly in a text, so they can be difficult to identify. A theme is an issue, an idea, or a question raised by the text. For instance, a theme of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is indecision, as the title character explores his own psyche and the results of his failure to make bold choices. A great work of literature may have many themes, and the reader is justified in identifying any for which he or she can find support. One common characteristic of themes is that they raise more questions than they answer. In a good piece of fiction, the author is not always trying to convince the reader, but is instead trying to elevate the reader’s perspective and encourage him to consider the themes more deeply. When reading, one can identify themes by constantly asking what general issues the text is addressing. A good way to evaluate an author’s approach to a theme is to begin reading with a question in mind (for example, how does this text approach the theme of love?) and then look for evidence in the text that addresses that question