SSAT Middle Level Reading : Recognizing the Main Idea in Narrative Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SSAT Middle Level Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Ideas In Contemporary Life Passages

"The Aging of Public Transportation Systems" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

As cities develop, their public transportation systems often show signs of aging that are mixed with aspects that are quite up-to-date. An example of such a situation can be found in the transportation system in Washington DC. This system is made up of a mixture of buses and trains that connect people to locations in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. While the system has been well maintained and updated over the years, it still shows evidence that certain sections are older than others.

This is particularly noticeable when one considers the multiple lines that connect in Washington DC itself. Within the city, there are five different sets of tracks that run in various directions and to sundry places. A number of the newer lines are in excellent condition and rarely break down; however, the case of the red line is somewhat different. This oldest line of the metro train system often has issues because of its age, experiencing a number of track and signal issues even at rush hour when the overall system is its most efficient. Admittedly, the transportation authority is working to update this line and make it less problematic. Still, until this work is completed, it is obvious to all who are familiar with the metro train system that the red line is the oldest and most out of date.

What is the main idea that this passage seeks to express?

Possible Answers:

Transportation systems in cities often are a mix of the old and the new, as is evident from the example of the Washington DC transportation system.

The Washington DC metro train system is perhaps the most vexing of all such systems in the United States.

Transportation systems in cities are always up-to-date, though an exception can be found in the example of the Washington DC transportation system.

City transportation systems often connect multiple states together, as can be seen in the example of the Washington DC transportation system.

Transportation systems in cities are almost always out of date, as is evident from the example of the Washington DC transportation system.

Correct answer:

Transportation systems in cities often are a mix of the old and the new, as is evident from the example of the Washington DC transportation system.

Explanation:

The main idea for this selection is directly state in the opening sentence: "As cities develop, their public transportation systems often show signs of aging that are mixed with aspects that are quite up-to-date." Although the second paragraph does focus on issues with the Washington DC red line, it likewise makes the point that this is in contrast to the newer lines that rarely break down; therefore, the best way to express the main idea of this selection is by stating, "Transportation systems in cities often are a mix of the old and the new, as is evident from the example of the Washington DC transportation system."

Example Question #1 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Humanities Passages

Adapted from The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903)

 I am told that while I was still in long dresses I showed many signs of an eager, self-asserting disposition. Everything that I saw other people do I insisted upon imitating. At six months I could pipe out "How d'ye," and one day I attracted every one's attention by saying "Tea, tea, tea" quite plainly. Even after my illness I remembered one of the words I had learned in these early months. It was the word "water," and I continued to make some sound for that word after all other speech was lost. I ceased making the sound "wah-wah" only when I learned to spell the word.

They tell me I walked the day I was a year old. My mother had just taken me out of the bathtub and was holding me in her lap, when I was suddenly attracted by the flickering shadows of leaves that danced in the sunlight on the smooth floor. I slipped from my mother's lap and almost ran toward them. The impulse gone, I fell down and cried for her to take me up in her arms.

These happy days did not last long. One brief spring, musical with the song of robin and mockingbird, one summer rich in fruit and roses, one autumn of gold and crimson sped by and left their gifts at the feet of an eager, delighted child. Then, in the dreary month of February, came the illness that closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a newborn baby. They called it acute congestion of the stomach and brain. The doctor thought I could not live. Early one morning, however, the fever left me as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come. There was great rejoicing in the family that morning, but no one, not even the doctor, knew that I should never see or hear again.

I fancy I still have confused recollections of that illness. I especially remember the tenderness with which my mother tried to soothe me in my wailing hours of fret and pain, and the agony and bewilderment with which I awoke after a tossing half sleep, and turned my eyes, so dry and hot, to the wall away from the once-loved light, which came to me dim and yet more dim each day. But, except for these fleeting memories, if, indeed, they be memories, it all seems very unreal, like a nightmare. Gradually I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different, until she came—my teacher—who was to set my spirit free. But during the first nineteen months of my life I had caught glimpses of broad, green fields, a luminous sky, trees and flowers which the darkness that followed could not wholly blot out. If we have once seen, “the day is ours, and what the day has shown."

What or who is mentioned near the end of the passage as having brought the narrator hope after her illness?

Possible Answers:

The warmth of sunshine

The narrator's mother

A teacher

Books

Music

Correct answer:

A teacher

Explanation:

In the passage's last paragraph, the narrator writes, "Gradually I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different, until she came—my teacher—who was to set my spirit free." So, the narrator was provided with a teacher that brought her hope, or in her words, "set [her] spirit free."

Example Question #286 : Isee Lower Level (Grades 5 6) Reading Comprehension

Adapted from The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903)

 I am told that while I was still in long dresses I showed many signs of an eager, self-asserting disposition. Everything that I saw other people do I insisted upon imitating. At six months I could pipe out "How d'ye," and one day I attracted every one's attention by saying "Tea, tea, tea" quite plainly. Even after my illness I remembered one of the words I had learned in these early months. It was the word "water," and I continued to make some sound for that word after all other speech was lost. I ceased making the sound "wah-wah" only when I learned to spell the word.

They tell me I walked the day I was a year old. My mother had just taken me out of the bathtub and was holding me in her lap, when I was suddenly attracted by the flickering shadows of leaves that danced in the sunlight on the smooth floor. I slipped from my mother's lap and almost ran toward them. The impulse gone, I fell down and cried for her to take me up in her arms.

These happy days did not last long. One brief spring, musical with the song of robin and mockingbird, one summer rich in fruit and roses, one autumn of gold and crimson sped by and left their gifts at the feet of an eager, delighted child. Then, in the dreary month of February, came the illness that closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a newborn baby. They called it acute congestion of the stomach and brain. The doctor thought I could not live. Early one morning, however, the fever left me as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come. There was great rejoicing in the family that morning, but no one, not even the doctor, knew that I should never see or hear again.

I fancy I still have confused recollections of that illness. I especially remember the tenderness with which my mother tried to soothe me in my wailing hours of fret and pain, and the agony and bewilderment with which I awoke after a tossing half sleep, and turned my eyes, so dry and hot, to the wall away from the once-loved light, which came to me dim and yet more dim each day. But, except for these fleeting memories, if, indeed, they be memories, it all seems very unreal, like a nightmare. Gradually I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different, until she came—my teacher—who was to set my spirit free. But during the first nineteen months of my life I had caught glimpses of broad, green fields, a luminous sky, trees and flowers which the darkness that followed could not wholly blot out. If we have once seen, “the day is ours, and what the day has shown."

According to the passage, what caused the narrator to recover from her illness?

Possible Answers:

The illness simply ran its course and the narrator recovered afterward, as the doctor thought she would.

It is not clear what caused the narrator to recover from her illness.

A specific type of medicine recommended by the narrator's doctor

Rest and a lot of sleep

Vitamin supplements and drinking lots of water

Correct answer:

It is not clear what caused the narrator to recover from her illness.

Explanation:

The passage does not mention anything about rest, lots of sleep, vitamin supplements, drinking lots of water, or taking specific medicine as causing the narrator to recover from her illness. This leaves us with two answers to pick between: "The illness simply ran its course and the narrator recovered afterward, as the doctor thought she would," and "It is not clear what caused the narrator to recover from her illness." While these answer choices may appear to be very similar, one says that the doctor thought she would recover, and the other does not make this claim. In the passage's third paragraph, the narrator states, "Then, in the dreary month of February, came the illness which closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a new-born baby. They called it acute congestion of the stomach and brain. The doctor thought I could not live. Early one morning, however, the fever left me as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come." So, because the narrator tells us that "The doctor thought [she] could not live," this means that the answer choice "The illness simply ran its course and the narrator recovered afterward, as the doctor thought she would" is incorrect, so the correct answer is "It is not clear what caused the narrator to recover from her illness."

Example Question #91 : Ssat Middle Level Reading Comprehension

Adapted from "The Loon" by Henry David Thoreau in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

As I was paddling along the north shore one very calm October afternoon, for such days especially they settle on to the lakes, like the milkweed down, having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself. I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before.

He maneuvered so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he coolly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the wildest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon.

He was indeed a silly loon, I thought. I could commonly hear the plash of the water when he came up, and so also detected him. But after an hour he seemed as fresh as ever, dived as willingly and swam yet farther than at first. It was surprising to see how serenely he sailed off with unruffled breast when he came to the surface, doing all the work with his webbed feet beneath. His usual note was this demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like that of a waterfowl, but occasionally when he had balked me most successfully and come up a long way off, he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like that of a wolf than any bird, as when a beast puts his muzzle to the ground and deliberately howls. This was his looning—perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide. I concluded that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources.

This passage could best be described as __________.

Possible Answers:

A narrative that tells the story of one man’s successful pursuit of a wild Loon.

A narrative that tells the story of one man’s futile attempts to track down a loon.

An academic consideration of the benefits of spending time amongst nature.

An academic consideration of the behavior of a loon.

An academic consideration of the different tactics one might employ when trying to track down a loon.

Correct answer:

A narrative that tells the story of one man’s futile attempts to track down a loon.

Explanation:

This passage tells a story, so it is a narrative. It tells the story of the author’s unsuccessful (“futile”) attempts to track down and capture a loon that he encounters. The story does not have the tone or theme of an academic consideration, so you can immediately eliminate all three of those answer choices. From there it is merely a matter of determining whether the author is successful in his pursuits or not, which is made clear when the author says “I concluded that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources.”

Example Question #12 : Main Ideas In Humanities Passages

Adapted from The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon (1921)

During the first twenty years of his life, young Napoleon was a professional Corsican patriot—a Corsican Sinn Feiner, who hoped to deliver his beloved country from the yoke of the bitterly hated French enemy. But the French revolution had unexpectedly recognised the claims of the Corsicans and gradually Napoleon, who had received a good training at the military school of Brienne, drifted into the service of his adopted country. Although he never learned to spell French correctly or to speak it without a broad Italian accent, he became a Frenchman. In due time he came to stand as the highest expression of all French virtues. At present he is regarded as the symbol of the Gallic genius.

Napoleon was what is called a fast worker. His career does not cover more than twenty years. In that short span of time he fought more wars and gained more victories and marched more miles and conquered more square kilometers and killed more people and brought about more reforms and generally upset Europe to a greater extent than anybody (including Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan) had ever managed to do.

He was a little fellow and during the first years of his life his health was not very good. He never impressed anybody by his good looks and he remained to the end of his days very clumsy whenever he was obliged to appear at a social function. He did not enjoy a single advantage of breeding or birth or riches. For the greater part of his youth he was desperately poor and often he had to go without a meal or was obliged to make a few extra pennies in curious ways.

He gave little promise as a literary genius. When he competed for a prize offered by the Academy of Lyons, his essay was found to be next to the last and he was number 15 out of 16 candidates. But he overcame all these difficulties through his absolute and unshakable belief in his own destiny, and in his own glorious future. Ambition was the main-spring of his life. The thought of self, the worship of that capital letter "N" with which he signed all his letters, and which recurred forever in the ornaments of his hastily constructed palaces, the absolute will to make the name Napoleon the most important thing in the world next to the name of God, these desires carried Napoleon to a pinnacle of fame which no other man has ever reached.

Which of the following best states the main idea of the passage?

Possible Answers:

Without Napoleon, Europe would be a much different place.

The French Revolution produced the unique circumstances that allowed someone like Napoleon to rise to power.

Napoleon was disadvantaged throughout his whole life and made it to the top through a combination of hard work and miraculous luck.

Napoleon was a self-made man who rose to prominence through an unflinching belief in his own greatness.

Napoleon does not deserve the accolades that have been poured on him by historians.

Correct answer:

Napoleon was a self-made man who rose to prominence through an unflinching belief in his own greatness.

Explanation:

Many of these statements are part of the author’s argument, like that the French revolution allowed Napoleon to rise to power and that without Napoleon, Europe would be very different. However, only one answer captures the author’s main argument throughout the passage: “Napoleon was a self-made man who rose to prominence through an unflinching belief in his own greatness.“ The author spends much of the passage describing how the circumstances of Napoleon’s life did not favor his rise to greatness and then focuses in the concluding paragraph on how Napoleon’s self-belief played an enormous role in his rise to greatness. If you are ever unable to determine the main idea of a passage, it is wise to pay extra attention to the opening and concluding paragraphs because it is in these two sections that the author usually ties together his or her argument most clearly.

Example Question #1 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Humanities Passages

Adapted from "The Dartmoor Ponies, or the Wandering of the Horse Tribe" by Arabella B. Buckley in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

It was a calm misty morning one day last week, giving promise of a bright and sunny day, when I started off for a long walk across the moor to visit the famous stone-circles, many of which are to be found not far off the track called Abbot’s Way, leading from Buckfast Abbey to the Abbey of Tavistock.

My mind was full of the olden times as I pictured to myself how, seven hundred years or more ago, some Benedictine monk from Tavistock Abbey paced this narrow path on his way to his Cistercian brothers at Buckfast, meeting some of them on his road as they wandered over the desolate moor in search of stray sheep. For the Cistercians were shepherds and wool-weavers, while the Benedictines devoted themselves to learning, and the track of about twenty-five miles from one abbey to the other, which still remains, was worn by the members of the two communities, the only variety in whose lives consisted probably in these occasional visits to each other.

Yet even these monks belonged to modern times compared to the ancient Britons who raised the stone-circles over the moor; and my mind drifted back to the days when, long before that pathway was worn, men clad in the skins of beasts hunted wild animals over the ground on which I was treading, and lived in caves and holes of the ground.

I wondered, as I thought of them, whether the monks and the ancient Britons delighted as much in the rugged scenery of the moor as I did that morning. For many miles in front of me the moor stretched out wild and treeless, while the early mist was rising off the hill-tops. It was a pleasure, there on the open moor, with the lark soaring overhead, and the butterflies and bees hovering among the sweet-smelling furze blossoms, to see horses free and joyous, with no thought of bit or bridle, harness or saddle, whose hooves had never been handled by the shoeing-smith, nor their coats touched with the singeing iron. Those little colts, with their thick heads, shaggy coats, and flowing tails, will have at least two years more liberty before they know what it is to be driven. Only once a year are they gathered together, claimed by their owners and branded with an initial, and then left again to wander where they will.

Which of these themes is most relative to this text?

Possible Answers:

The passage of time

The cost of travel

Hatred of horses

The love of religion

The joy of the wilderness

Correct answer:

The joy of the wilderness

Explanation:

Throughout this passage, the author expresses a great deal of joy about her experience of walking through the wilderness. This can be seen in excerpts such as “I wondered, as I thought of them, whether the cultured monks and the ancient Britons delighted as much in the rugged scenery of the moor as I did that morning.” She also says, “It was a pleasure, there on the open moor, with the lark soaring overhead, and the butterflies and bees hovering among the sweet-smelling furze blossoms, to see horses free and joyous, with no thought of bit or bridle, harness or saddle." This suggests that the primary theme of this text is “the joy of the wilderness.” Although the author does discuss the passage of time, with relation to the various groups of people that have lived on the moor in centuries past, this is part of her general reflection on the joy of walking through the land.

Example Question #92 : Ssat Middle Level Reading Comprehension

Adapted from Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

It is remarkable how many creatures live wild and free, though secret, in the woods, and still sustain themselves in the neighborhood of towns, suspected by hunters only. How retired the otter manages to live here! He grows to be four feet long, as big as a small boy, perhaps without any human being getting a glimpse of him.

The primary argument of this passage is that __________.

Possible Answers:

That many animals live off of human waste and yet go unnoticed.

That many animals somehow live so close to human settlements without ever being noticed.

That the otter is unusual among woodland creatures for its ability to elude human notice.

That several types of animals live in and around human settlements without being seen.

That the author is a keen lover and observer of animals.

Correct answer:

That many animals somehow live so close to human settlements without ever being noticed.

Explanation:

The key point of this passage is that animals live closely to human settlements without being noticed, which is represented by two of the answer choices: “many animals somehow live so close to human settlements without ever being noticed” and “several types of animals live in and around human settlements without being seen.” However, there is one crucial difference between the two answer choices: the word “somehow.” This accurately conveys the author’s evidence on the “remarkable” nature of this achievement by the animals, and so this is the best answer choice.

Example Question #2 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Humanities Passages

Adapted from Scientific American Supplement No. 1082 Vol. XLII (September 26th, 1896)

The rowboat Fox, of the port of New York, manned by George Harbo, thirty-one years of age, captain of a merchantman, and Frank Samuelson, twenty-six years of age, left New York for Havre on the sixth of June. Ten days later the boat was met by the German transatlantic steamer Fürst Bismarck proceeding from Cherbourg to New York. On the eighth, ninth and tenth of July, the Fox was cast by a tempest upon the reefs of Newfoundland. The two men jumped into the sea, and thanks to the watertight compartments provided with air chambers fore and aft, it was possible for them to right the boat; but the unfortunates lost their provisions and their supply of drinking water. On the fifteenth they met the Norwegian three-masted vessel Cito, which supplied them with food and water. The captains of the vessels met with signed the log book and testified that the boat had neither sail nor rudder. The Fox reached the Scilly Islands on the first of August, having at this date been on the ocean fifty-five days. It arrived at Havre on the seventh of August.

Cost what it might, the men were bent upon reaching this port in order to gain the reward promised by Mr. Fox, of the Police Gazette. Thanks to the wind and a favorable current, they made one hundred and twenty-five miles in twenty-four hours. One slept three hours while the other rowed. Their skins and faces were tumefied by the wind, salt water, and sun; the skin of their hands was renewed three times; their legs were weakened; and they were worn out.

George Harbo and Frank Samuelson were trying to __________.

Possible Answers:

be the first men to sail across the Atlantic ocean unassisted by others

swim across the Atlantic ocean

reach America from Europe without stopping for additional fuel

row across the Atlantic without the help of a sail or a rudder

reach Europe from America without stopping for additional fuel

Correct answer:

row across the Atlantic without the help of a sail or a rudder

Explanation:

It is clear that these two men were trying to cross the Atlantic ocean in some fashion that would be considered difficult. You have to read carefully to determine how exactly they were trying to do so. The author notes that when they met with a Norwegian ship, the captain "signed the log book and testified that the boat had neither sail nor rudder.” So, the two men were trying to row across the Atlantic without using a sail or a rudder to guide and power their ship.

Example Question #3 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Humanities Passages

Adapted from The Boy Heroes of Crecy and Poitiers by Treadwell Walden (1879)

There was only one road to success or fame in those days, and that was the profession of fighting. The ambition of every high-born young fellow was to become a knight. Knighthood was something that both king and nobles regarded as higher in some respects than even the royalty or nobility to which they were born. No one could be admitted into an order of the great brotherhood of knights, which extended all over Europe and formed an independent society, unless he had gone through severe discipline, and had performed some distinguished deed of valor. Then he could wear the golden spurs; for knighthood had its earliest origin in the distinction of fighting on horseback, while ordinary soldiers fought on foot. Although knighthood changed afterward, the word "chivalry" always expressed it, from the French word cheval, a horse. And in addition to valor, which was the result of physical strength and courage, the knight was expected to be generous, courteous, faithful, devout, truthful, high-souled, high-principled. Hence the epithet, "chivalrous," which, even today, is so often heard applied to men of especially fine spirit. "Honor" was the great word which included all these qualities then, as it does in some measure now.

Why did some of the kings and nobles regard knighthood higher than royalty? 

Possible Answers:

Because you have to earn knighthood whereas royalty is just given by birth right

Because kings and queens are subject to the desires of the people

Because knights sacrifice themselves for the good of the kingdom

Because knights do not have to pay taxes

Because knights go out on the battlefield and fight

Correct answer:

Because you have to earn knighthood whereas royalty is just given by birth right

Explanation:

The author tells us that many nobles regarded knighthood as higher than royalty because “No one could be admitted into an order of the great brotherhood of knights, which extended all over Europe and formed an independent society, unless he had gone through severe discipline, and had performed some distinguished deed of valor.” Basically, if you wanted to be a knight, you had to earn it, whereas people were often born into royal families and didn't have to earn royal status.

Example Question #1 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Humanities Passages

Adapted from Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads by John A. Lomax (1910)

The big ranches of the West are now being cut up into small farms. The nester has come, and come to stay. Gone is the buffalo and the free grass of the open plain—even the stinging lizard, the horned frog, the centipede, the prairie dog, the rattlesnake, are fast disappearing. Save in some of the secluded valleys of southern New Mexico, the old-time round-up is no more; the trails to Kansas and to Montana have become grass-grown or lost in fields of waving grain; the maverick steer, the regal longhorn, has been supplanted by his unpoetic but more beefy and profitable Polled Angus, Durham, and Hereford cousins from across the seas. The changing and romantic West of the early days lives mainly in story and in song. The last figure to vanish is the cowboy, the animating spirit of the vanishing era. He sits his horse easily as he rides through a wide valley, enclosed by mountains, clad in the hazy purple of coming night,—with his face turned steadily down the long, long road, "the road that the sun goes down." Dauntless, reckless, without the unearthly purity of Sir Galahad though as gentle to a woman as King Arthur, he is truly a knight of the twentieth century. A vagrant puff of wind shakes a corner of the crimson handkerchief knotted loosely at his throat; the thud of his pony's feet mingling with the jingle of his spurs is borne back; and as the careless, gracious, lovable figure disappears over the divide, the breeze brings to the ears, faint and far yet cheery still, the refrain of a cowboy song.

Which of the following does NOT fit with the author’s description of the cowboy?

Possible Answers:

Romantic

Heroic

Hot-headed

Symbolic

Daring

Correct answer:

Hot-headed

Explanation:

The author describes the cowboy in a very positive light: “Dauntless, reckless . . . he is truly a knight of the twentieth century.” From that passage alone, we can tell that the author thinks of the cowboy not only as daring, but also as a romantic hero and a symbol of the era. He does not mention anything about the cowboys’ temper, and “hot-headed” does not fit with this description.

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