Reading Keys - Online Practice
Identifying the Main Idea

Copyright 2006 © Laraine Flemming.
The right to copy this material is granted exclusively to instructors and students using textbooks written by Laraine Flemming. General distribution and redistribution are strictly prohibited.

Directions: Click the appropriate button to identify the sentence that best sums up the main idea of the paragraph. Hit the Submit button when you are done. You will receive a score and find explanations in boxes to the right of the choices.

1. Financial genius James "Big Jim" Fisk (1834-1872) died of gunshot wound when he was only thirty-seven years old. During his brief lifetime, Fisk earned and lost huge sums of money, much of it through bribery and theft. During the Civil War, he smuggled cotton from the South to the North. He also printed and sold phony bonds to gain control of the wildly profitable Erie Railroad. Then he bankrupted the railroad while gaining a personal fortune for himself. In 1869, Fisk’s attempts to take over the gold market led to financial panic and the collapse of the stock market. Oddly enough, Fisk seemed rather proud of his wicked ways, saying "Some people are born to be good; other people to be bad. I was born to be bad." A lover of the ladies, Fisk was killed in a fight with a rival over the affections of actress Josie Mansfield. (Source of information: Armento et al., A More Perfect Union, p.472)
Main Idea:
a. Big Jim Fisk liked pretty women a little too much for his own good.

b. In his pursuit of wealth, James Fisk never let law or morality stand in his way.
c. James Fisk did not have a long life, but that did not stop him from making a great deal of money.

2. For the ancient Romans, taking a bath was a very special occasion. Because they considered bathing a social opportunity, they constructed huge public baths that put our modern-day indoor pools and spas to shame. Not only were the baths themselves lavishly decorated, they were also surrounded by shops, libraries, and lounges so that a person could shop, read or chat after bathing. The famed Baths of Caracalla, for example, offered Roman citizens massages and saunas in addition to a gymnasium and gardens for after-bath walks in lovely surroundings. Art lovers that they were, the Romans also frequently built art galleries into their bathing facilities. There were also kitchens, where food was prepared to serve hungry bathers. Although initially men and women bathed separately, mixed baths became the fashion until 500 A.D., when the coming of Christianity brought the public baths to an end. (Source of information: Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, p. 200)
Main Idea:
a. The ancient Romans were the first to lead a life of pure luxury.

b. If the Romans had spent more time governing and less time bathing, the Roman Empire would still exist today.
c. The ancient Romans made luxury and socializing a part of bathing.

3. Birds have long played a central role in superstitions. However, the role birds have played varies greatly. While crows were thought to be in league with the devil, blue birds were usually considered signs of good fortune. Blue jays, in contrast, were seldom assigned a positive role in superstition and legend. Most of the time, they were considered companions to the devil. According to one ancient superstition, blue jays were never seen on Fridays. Friday was their day to meet with the devil and pass on any useful gossip about souls who might be ready to go astray. Owls, in contrast, have played a number of different roles, some good, some bad. In several superstitions they are portrayed as wise counselors; in others they are a sign that death is near.
Main Idea:
a. Despite having the same color, blue jays and blue birds have played very different roles in superstitions.

b. Birds turn up frequently in superstitions as signs of both good and evil.
c. Hardly a superstition exists that doesn’t have a bird in it.

4. French and American cookbooks obviously share the same subject: They both deal with the preparation of food. But that’s where the similarity ends. American recipes are very exact, while French recipes are open to personal variation. In American cookbooks, the teaspoon of sugar, for instance, is described as rounded or flat. French cookbooks are inclined to be less precise. The French cookbook writer thinks nothing of listing a "sprinkling of pepper" or a "pinch of salt." French cookbooks are also likely to tell the reader to "season according to taste." American cookbooks, in contrast, don’t seem to have as much faith in their readers’ ability to get the recipe right from taste. They tell readers exactly how much seasoning to use.
Main Idea:
a. Despite a common topic, French and American cookbooks differ in the way they give directions.

b. Because they are better cooks, the French write cookbooks that trust their readers’ judgment.
c. American cookbooks don’t have much faith in the cook’s ability to determine the right taste.

5. Not surprisingly, the crime victims are often called upon to identify the person who robbed or attacked them. For a jury, the victim’s testimony is often proof positive that the accused is guilty. After all, who can better identify the wrongdoer than the person harmed. This is just common sense. Yet as is so often the case, common sense can be misleading. As it turns out, crime victims don’t necessarily make reliable witnesses. Overcome with fear, they often close their eyes or focus fixedly on the weapon being used to threaten them. As a result, they don’t get a good look at the thief or attacker. While it’s not true that crime victim testimony is always inaccurate, it’s also true that one can’t assume a victim’s identification is automatic proof of guilt.
Main Idea:
a. Crime victims do not always correctly identify those who have harmed them.

b. Crime victim testimony is almost always inaccurate because during the crime, the victim was overcome with terror.
c. The testimony of crime victims has put far too many people in jail.

Last change made to this page: 06/06/06

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