SSAT Elementary Level Reading : How to Recognize and Analyze Main Ideas in Nonfiction Passages

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

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Example Questions

Example Question #11 : Nonfiction Passages

Adapted from "Life Growth - Frogs" by Margaret Warner Morley in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

Our common frogs, like many of the fishes, do not trouble themselves about the fate of their eggs after they are carefully laid in a safe place. They trust Mother Nature to see the little tadpoles safely through the perils of childhood, to help them avoid being eaten or starving, and cut, not their teeth, but their arms and legs.

In Venezuela, however, there dwells a frog with well developed maternal instinct. The mothers have pockets on their backs, not for their own convenience, but as cradles for their babies. The fathers put the fertilized eggs into the pockets of the mothers, and there they remain, well guarded, until the young are able to care for themselves.

How does the frog found in Venezuela differ from frogs generally found elsewhere?

Possible Answers:

It has no concept of self-preservation.

It is pregnant for a longer period of time.

It protects its young after they are born.

It feeds its young for a much longer period of time.

It lays its eggs in a much more dangerous environment.

Correct answer:

It protects its young after they are born.

Explanation:

In the first paragraph, the author talks about how “common frogs” generally do not worry about the fate of their eggs after they have been laid in a safe place. The author then contrasts this with the “maternal instincts” of a certain frog found in Venezuela. “Maternal” means motherly. So, this particular frog in Venezuela differs from other frogs in that it “protects its young after they are born.”

Example Question #12 : Nonfiction Passages

Adapted from A Catechism of Familiar Things: Their History and the Events Which Led to Their Discovery by the Benziger Brothers (1881)

Iron is one of the most useful and abundant metals, being found in all mineral earths, stones, plants, and animal fluids. Iron is found in great masses, in various states, in the bowels of the earth; it is usually, however, compounded with stone, from which it is separated by the action of fire. In some parts of the world, whole mountains are formed of iron; among these may be mentioned the Pilot Knob and the Iron Mountain, in Missouri, being unsurpassed by anything of the kind found elsewhere.

It is hard, fusible, not very malleable, but extremely ductile, and very tenacious; it is of a greyish color, and nearly eight times heavier than water. Without iron, society could make no progress in the cultivation of the ground, in mechanical arts or trades, in architecture or navigation; it is therefore of the greatest use to man.

The primary argument of this essay is that __________.

Possible Answers:

The large amount of iron in the world is of great importance and benefit to mankind.

Without iron, mankind would be forced to rely on less useful metals, such as copper or bronze.

The wholesale destruction of the environment required to mine iron renders iron less useful than it otherwise would be.

Iron is a durable and tough substance that has long been used to wage war and construct buildings.

Man has a complex relationship with iron.

Correct answer:

The large amount of iron in the world is of great importance and benefit to mankind.

Explanation:

The author is making two points in this essay. Firstly, he says that there is a large quantity of iron in the world. This can be seen in excerpts such as “Iron is found in great masses, in various states, in the bowels of the earth." Secondly, he says that this great quantity of iron is of great importance and benefit to mankind. This second point can be seen in statements such as “Without iron, society could make no progress" and  "it is therefore of the greatest use to man.” The correct answer is therefore the one that reflects the author’s two main points and the relationship between the two—there is a lot of iron, and mankind needs iron, so it is important that there is a lot of iron.

Example Question #13 : Nonfiction Passages

Adapted from "Sea-slugs and Cuttlefish" by Charles Darwin in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

I was much interested, on several occasions, by watching the habits of a cuttlefish. Although common in the pools of water left by the retiring tide, these animals were not easily caught. By means of their long arms and suckers, they could drag their bodies into very narrow crevices; and when thus fixed, it required great force to remove them. At other times they darted, with the rapidity of an arrow, from one side of the pool to the other, at the same instant discoloring the water with a dark chestnut-brown ink. These animals also escape detection by a very extraordinary, chameleon-like power of changing their color. They appear to vary their tints according to the nature of the ground over which they pass: when in deep water, their general shade was brownish-purple, but when placed on the land, or in shallow water, this dark tint changed into one of a yellowish green.

This cuttlefish displayed its chameleon-like power both during the act of swimming and whilst remaining stationary at the bottom. I was amused by the various arts to escape detection used by one individual, which seemed fully aware that I was watching it. Remaining for a time motionless, it would then stealthily advance an inch or two, like a cat after a mouse; sometimes changing its color, it proceeded, till having gained a deeper part, it darted away, leaving a dusky train of ink to hide the hole into which it had crawled.

The main idea of this passage is that __________.

Possible Answers:

Cuttlefish have many different abilities that help them to avoid capture.

The author is very interested in the habits of cuttlefish.

Cuttlefish are very common in the rock pools near where the author lives.

The author has never successfully caught a cuttlefish.

Cuttlefish are very small and agile creatures.

Correct answer:

Cuttlefish have many different abilities that help them to avoid capture.

Explanation:

The main idea of this passage is that cuttlefish are very difficult to catch because they have many different skills that allow them to avoid capture. The author talks about their “chameleon-like power of changing their color,” their “long arms and suckers” with which “they could drag their bodies into very narrow crevices,” and their ability to dart “with the rapidity of an arrow, from one side of the pool to the other, at the same instant discoloring the water with a dark chestnut-brown ink.” The main thesis of the text is probably “Although common in the pools of water left by the retiring tide, these animals were not easily caught.” The other answer choices are common features of this text, but not the main idea of the passage.

Example Question #1 : Ideas In Contemporary Life Passages

"Soccer" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Soccer is considered by some Americans to be a European and Latin American sport. For numerous reasons, the sport has struggled to take hold professionally in the United States, but there is growing participation in the sport at the youth level. This can probably be attributed to the relative dangers faced by those playing soccer and those playing America’s traditional favorite youth sport—American football.

Young children who play American football are at high risk of several catastrophic injuries such as concussions, fractures and spinal damage. The universal concern among parents to protect the health of their children has lead many to encourage their child to take up soccer as opposed to American football. If this trend continues, which it almost certainly will as our society becomes more aware of the degree of damage done by repeated collisions in American football, it will not be long before the popularity of soccer spreads upwards to the professional level.

What is the main idea of this passage?

Possible Answers:

Soccer is growing in popularity versus American football, but the author is unsure why this is the case.

Soccer is a game for young children and is never going to be popular at the professional level.

Soccer cannot compete with the immense popularity of American football in the United States despite massive youth participation.

American parents are overly concerned about the health and well-being of their children.

The relative safety of playing soccer for young children will lead to an increased popularity of the sport professionally.

Correct answer:

The relative safety of playing soccer for young children will lead to an increased popularity of the sport professionally.

Explanation:

The main idea of this passage is that soccer is a relatively safe game for American children compared to American football. The author clearly believes that the growing emphasis of American parents to protect the health of their children means that soccer will continue to grow in popularity at the professional level. This argument is stated by the author when he says “it will not be long before the popularity of soccer spreads upwards to the professional level" at the end of the passage.

Example Question #1 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In Contemporary Life Passages

"The Dangers of Sugar" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Sugar is a highly addictive substance that plays a dangerous role in the health and well-being of people around the world. It is particularly threatening to American health, as it is placed in everything from carbonated sodas to beef jerky and vegetable juice. The average American consumes seventy-five pounds of sugar every year—that is roughly the weight of a elementary school child. Many health experts believe that sugar is the number one contributing factor in the high rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes that can be found in the contemporary United States.

Why does the author believe that sugar is “particularly threatening to American health”?

Possible Answers:

Because it is consumed by such a large percentage of the population

Because it is grown and harvested in the United States

Because it is found in so many different products in the United States

Because the government refuses to ban or regulate sugar consumption

Because it is especially addictive to American people

Correct answer:

Because it is found in so many different products in the United States

Explanation:

Answering this question first requires understanding what “particularly threatening” means. Something that is “threatening” looks like it could cause harm. When the author says “particularly,” he means that Americans are more threatened by sugar than people in other countries. The reason the author gives for this is that, in America, sugar “is placed in everything from carbonated sodas to beef jerky and vegetable juice.” So, you can say that sugar is “particularly threatening to American health” because “it is found in so many different products in the United States.”

Example Question #16 : Nonfiction Passages

"The Dangers of Sugar" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Sugar is a highly addictive substance that plays a dangerous role in the health and well-being of people around the world. It is particularly threatening to American health, as it is placed in everything from carbonated sodas to beef jerky and vegetable juice. The average American consumes seventy-five pounds of sugar every year—that is roughly the weight of a elementary school child. Many health experts believe that sugar is the number one contributing factor in the high rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes that can be found in the contemporary United States.

What is the author’s main point in this passage?

Possible Answers:

That sugar consumption is dangerously high in the United States

That sugar has only recently been understood as bad for you

That the United States eats more sugar than any other country

That sugar is produced from the maple-tree

That sugar is unhealthy

Correct answer:

That sugar consumption is dangerously high in the United States

Explanation:

It is true that in the second paragraph the author talks about how too much sugar “is unhealthy” and he does seem to suggest that “the United States eats more sugar than any other country.” Both of these factor as parts of the author’s main point, which is “that sugar consumption is dangerously high in the United States.” This is shown by excerpts such as “The average American consumes seventy-five pounds of sugar every year - that is roughly the weight of a elementary school child.” And, “Many health experts believe that sugar is the number one contributing factor in the high rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes that can be found in the contemporary United States.”

Example Question #11 : How To Recognize And Analyze Main Ideas In Nonfiction Passages

Adapted from "America the Old World" by L. Agassiz in Wonders of Earth, Sea, and Sky (1902, ed. Edward Singleton Holden)

There is, perhaps, no part of the world where the early geological periods can be studied with so much ease and precision as in the United States. Along their northern borders, between Canada and the United States, there runs the low line of hills known as the Laurentian Hills. Insignificant in height, nowhere rising more than fifteen hundred or two thousand feet above the level of the sea, these are nevertheless some of the first mountains that broke the uniform level of the earth's surface and lifted themselves above the waters. Their low stature, as compared with that of other more lofty mountain ranges, is in accordance with an invariable rule, by which the relative age of mountains may be estimated. The oldest mountains are the lowest, while the younger and more recent ones tower above their elders, and are usually more torn and dislocated also. So it is known the Alps, Rockies, and Himalayas are considerably younger than the Appalachian mountains.

How do we know that the Appalachians are older than the Alps?

Possible Answers:

Because the Appalachians are much taller than the Alps.

Because geologists have studied rock samples from both.

Because the Alps are much taller than the Appalachians.

Because the Appalachians contain fossils from a much earlier period than the Alps.

Because the Alps are closer to the sea.

Correct answer:

Because the Alps are much taller than the Appalachians.

Explanation:

Answering this question requires understanding the main idea of the passage, namely that the taller a mountain range is, generally speaking, the younger it is. So if the Appalachians are not as tall as the Alps, then we know the Appalachians are older than the Alps.

Example Question #12 : How To Recognize And Analyze Main Ideas In Nonfiction Passages

Adapted from Early European History by Hutton Webster (1917)

The Phoenicians were a Syrian people whose country was a narrow stretch of coast, about one hundred and twenty miles in length, seldom more than twelve miles in width, between the Lebanon Mountains and the sea. This tiny land could not support a large population. As the Phoenicians increased in numbers, they were obliged to betake themselves to the sea. The Lebanon cedars furnished soft, white wood for shipbuilding, and the deeply indented coast offered excellent harbors. Thus, the Phoenicians became preeminent sailors. Their great cities, Sidon and Tyre, established colonies throughout the Mediterranean and had an extensive commerce with every region of the known world.

Why could the Phoenician land not support a large population?

Possible Answers:

Because it was a very small country

All of these answers

Because the people suffered under a cruel dictator

Because it was not very fertile

Because the Phoenicians were always attacking one another

Correct answer:

Because it was a very small country

Explanation:

The author states that the reason why the Phoenician land could not support a large population is because “their country was a narrow stretch of coast, about one hundred and twenty miles in length, seldom more than twelve miles in width, between the Lebanon Mountains and the sea. This tiny land could not support a large population.”

Example Question #19 : Nonfiction Passages

Adapted from Early European History by Hutton Webster (1917)

The Phoenicians were a Syrian people whose country was a narrow stretch of coast, about one hundred and twenty miles in length, seldom more than twelve miles in width, between the Lebanon Mountains and the sea. This tiny land could not support a large population. As the Phoenicians increased in numbers, they were obliged to betake themselves to the sea. The Lebanon cedars furnished soft, white wood for shipbuilding, and the deeply indented coast offered excellent harbors. Thus, the Phoenicians became preeminent sailors. Their great cities, Sidon and Tyre, established colonies throughout the Mediterranean and had an extensive commerce with every region of the known world.

Which of these is NOT one of the reasons why the Phoenicians became "preeminent sailors"?

Possible Answers:

Their population was growing beyond the capacity of their lands.

They had a coastline perfectly designed for harbors.

They lived in a very small, coastal country.

All of these answers are reasons why the Phoenicians became "preeminent sailors."

They had access to excellent Lebanese cedar for shipbuilding.

Correct answer:

All of these answers are reasons why the Phoenicians became "preeminent sailors."

Explanation:

The author talks about how the Phoenicians lived in a small, coastal country, so when their population grew too large, they took to the sea. The author also mentions the availability of Lebanese wood to help build ships and the perfect design of the coastline for constructing natural harbors. All of the answer choices played a part in making the Phoenicians "preeminent sailors."

Example Question #20 : Nonfiction Passages

Adapted from A Catechism of Familiar Things: Their History and the Events Which Led to Their Discovery by the Benziger Brothers (1881)

The olive tree was a great favorite with the ancient Greeks, and scarcely an ancient custom existed with which the olive was not in some way associated: at their marriages and festivals, all parts of their dwellings, especially the doors, were ornamented with them, and the same custom prevails at the present day, both in public and private rejoicings. It was also scarcely less a favorite with the Romans, although it was not held in the same sacred light as amongst the Greeks. The olive-branch has likewise been universally considered the emblem of plenty, and as such, is found on the coins of those countries of which it is not a native.

This passage is primarily about __________.

Possible Answers:

The use of olives in ancient Rome.

The universal popularity of the olive tree.

The ancient Greek love of olive trees.

The distaste for olives felt by ancient Romans.

The use of olives in religious ceremonies.

Correct answer:

The universal popularity of the olive tree.

Explanation:

The majority of this passage talks about the love of the olive tree among the ancient Greeks. However, the passage is also about the popularity of the olive tree in ancient Rome and in countries in which the olive is not native. The overarching theme is that the olive tree is “universally popular.”

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