Lesson - Developing Critical Reading Skills

Developing Critical Reading Skills

Comprehending what you read is a skill that can be learned.  By focusing on specific target points, you can improve your understanding and evaluation of a text.  

Some of the skills tested in the GRE Reading Comprehension section include:

  • identifying main idea
  • pointing out specific details
  • making inferences
  • drawing conclusions
  • identifying author's tone
  • identifying author's purpose
  • evaluating structural features of the text
  • evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of an argument or position


A brief description of these reading skills and tips for addressing these question types follow below.

Main Idea
Even when the question does not specifically ask about the main idea, it is essential to keep the main idea in mind.  All the questions should be considered in light of the overall purpose and meaning of the passage.  In many passages the main idea is located in the topic sentence.  In short, one paragraph passages however, there may be a sentence or two prior to the main idea which provide introductory or background information.

Identifying Specific Details
When questions ask for information that is explicitly stated in the text, it is vital to assess the details at face value.  Do not add to the textual information with your own outside knowledge.  Also, be careful to evaluate exactly what is stated.  For example, if country A has a higher percentage of an ethnic group than does country B, it does not mean that there are more individuals of that ethnic group in country A as compared to country B.

Making Inferences
These questions are often easy to identify as they ask you specifically to "make inferences," to "infer" information, or identify what the author "implies."  Although you are "reading between the lines" of the text, be careful not to stray very far from what is actually written.  Inference questions are often ways to put the meaning of the passage in slightly different words, and are very subtle connections of ideas -- not great jumps in meaning.

Drawing Conclusions
These questions may ask you take the information you have just learned from reading the passage and apply it to an example.  Be careful to read the question carefully; it will likely limit the application of the conclusion.  Then be sure the conclusion you draw is not over-broad but is based specifically on evidence in the text.

Identifying Author's Tone
These questions may use the phrase "based on the author's word choice..." and then ask you to identify the author's position or point of view.  The answer choices will usually be adjectives that describe the author's tone or feeling toward the subject.  To answer this question, try to find the reason why you select the word you do.  Point to something specific in the passage that you could use as support for your position.

Identifying Author's Purpose
Related to tone, these questions may ask you why an author chooses certain words, phrases or pieces of evidence.  Consider the main idea of the passage and relate the specific question to the whole.

Evaluating Structural Features of the Text
When the passage is a single paragraph, you may be asked to identify the function of an opening or concluding sentence.  Do not assume that the first sentence is the topic sentence or that the last sentence summarizes ideas.  Instead, read the sentence in question and evaluate how it functions in relation to the whole passage.

Evaluating an Argument
These question types are often asked of science or social science passages.  The key to answering these questions is a careful reading of the details and logical progression of the passage.  Be careful to maintain objectivity and stick carefully to the text provided.



When you read a Reading Comprehension question, you will want to mentally categorize the question by the skill it assesses.  Understanding the key concepts related to each of these skills will help you address each question more accurately and lead you to selecting the correct answers.