Term: Topic

The topic of a passage is like the topic of a conversation. It is the person, place, object, or idea under discussion. It is the subject that the author has chosen to discuss, describe, or explain. Discovering the topic is the first step in reading for meaning. Once you have found the topic, you can answer the question: What is the reading about?

Reading Tips:

1. Where topics are concerned, repetition is the key. The topic of a passage or reading does not just pop up once or twice and then disappear. Writers refer to their topics over and over. Thus, you need to be on the lookout for repeated references to the same subject.

2. Although a single word can certainly function as the topic of a paragraph or reading, don't expect that to be the norm. Most of the time, you will need three or four words to sum up the topic precisely. Why is being precise important? The more precisely you define the topic the more quickly you will get to the author's point or message.

3. A precise topic is general enough to sum up most of what's discussed in the passage but narrow enough to exclude what is not discussed.

4. In general, references to the topic tend to increase as the passage or reading unfolds.

Exercise 1

Directions: Select the appropriate topic for each paragraph.

Reading 1. Thomas Edison is rightly famous for his genius as an inventor. Among other things, Edison helped bring us electricity, phonographs, and motion pictures. What he is less known for is his role in inventing the electric chair. In 1887, the New York State legislature was busily searching for a method of execution other than hanging. Having heard stories of people who were accidentally electrocuted and died, a member of the legislature wrote to Edison asking for help in the search for a supposedly more humane method of execution. Edison wrote back that he thought 1000 volts of electricity would be relatively quick and painless. He then participated in a series of experiments designed to prove his point. In the course of those experiments, he put to death numerous dogs, cats, some cattle, and at least one horse. Edison's intention, however, was not to take credit for inventing the electric chair. On the contrary, he wanted the state of New York to use an alternating current generator made by his competitor Westinghouse. Edison hoped the general public would be fearful of Westinghouse products once they knew that, in Edison's words, prisoners were being "Westinghoused" to death.


a. Edison and the electric chair
b. Edison's rivalry with Westinghouse
c. The genius of Thomas Alva Edison

Reading 2. The twelfth century couple Heloise and Abelard is often cited when romantic love is the subject of scholarly discussion. However, in truth, there wasn't much romance in either their courtship or marriage. When they met, Heloise was the niece of a wealthy scholar. Abelard was the most famous teacher in France. Older and vastly more educated, Abelard became the girl's tutor. The two fell in love. When Heloise bore a son, they married in secret so that Abelard's career would not be hurt by the scandal. When Eloise's uncle found out what had happened between them, he forced his niece to become a nun and had Abelard castrated. Separated for the rest of their lives, Heloise and Abelard wrote love letters that were eventually published. It is those letters that assured their place in the history of romantic love.


a. The subject of love
b. The story of Heloise and Abelard
c. The love letters of Heloise and Abelard

Exercise 2

Directions: In this exercise, you need to decide why one topic would be a good choice whereas the other would not.

Reading 1. Up until 1915, the movies were little more than cheap amusements. Technically crude, poorly made and pretty plotless, they were certainly not considered art. Then along came D.W. Griffith's racist masterpiece Birth of a Nation. Practically over night, moving pictures became respectable.Griffith had introduced technical novelties like the close up and the cross cut. His film actually told a story, and it showcased actors and actresses who conveyed genuine emotion. In other words, they could act. A runaway hit almost immediately, Birth of a Nation was nevertheless far from a complete triumph. Racist to the core, the movie revelled in crude and cruel stereotypes of African-Americans. It actually presented members of the KuKlux clan as the movie's heroes. Outraged, the newly formed NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), picketed movie theaters where Birth of a Nation was showing. Some concerned citizens, like social worker Jane Addams, wrote letters of protest, but to no avail. The protests only stimulated interest in the film. Moviegoers bought tickets in droves, in part to see what all the fuss was about.

A good choice for the topic of this passage is "Birth of a Nation." Why wouldn't "D.W.Griffith" be a good choice?


Reading 2. It's sad but true that D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation helped revive what had been a dying Ku Klux Klan. Still Griffith's film alone was not what brought the Klan back to life. The KKK, like other more respectable organizations of the time, had figured out that public relations techniques could work wonders. In 1920, the Klan signed a contract with Southern Publicity Association. The contract guaranteed Southern Publicity a healthy percentage of all new membership fees. Inspired by the lure of fat commissions, Southern Publicity's sales force fanned out across the country promoting Klan membership. Within a year, membership had practically doubled. But it wasn't just the commission-hungry sales force that did the trick. In an effort to give its image a positive spin, the Klan distributed newsletters, staged pageants and sold custom made sheets. It wasn't until 1944 when the government sued the Klan for back taxes that the organization was forced to go underground and give up on polishing its public image. From that point on, publicity was the last thing the Klan wanted.

A good choice for the topic of this paragraph would be "The Klan's use of public relations." Why wouldn't "Southern Publicity Association" be a good choice?


Exercise 3

Directions: Complete the topic by filling in the blank.

Reading 1. Is there a cause and effect relationship between violence on television and the problem of violence among today's young people. No says the entertainment industry, yes says almost all of the research. The American Medical Association, The American Psychological Association, The American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Institute of Mental Health have all funded studies that linked violence on the screen with violence in real life. According to researcher L.Rowell Huesmann from the University of Michigan, letting children watch lots of television is like smoking. Both increase the potential for disaster. As Huesmann puts it, "Just as every cigarette increases the chance that some day you will get lung cancer, every exposure to violence increases the chances that some day a child will behave more violently than he or she otherwise would." According to Dale Kunkel, a professor of communications at the University of California, more than 1000 studies have been done on the effect of media violence and all of them concluded that "television violence contributes to real-world violence."(Quotations are drawn from Laurie Mifflin, "Many Researchers Say Link is Already Clear," New York Times, May 9,1999, p.23)

The topic of this paragraph is
"The effect of televised violence _________________________________________".

Reading 2. Medical reformer Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) was one of the first to argue that the mentally ill not be beaten for the crime of being sick. He also insisted that doctors needed to listen more to their patients and take notes on their complaints. Without question, Dr. Rush was often a force for good. That does not mean, however, that he did not do a great deal of harm in his day. In fact, even some of Dr. Rush's colleagues considered his prescriptions for health to be rather dangerous. In an era that believed bloodletting was good therapy, Dr. Rush was overly enthusiastic. He often drew large amounts of blood from patients already weakened by disease. In fact, it was suspected that some of his patients died more from his treatment than their illness. Dr., Rush also came up with the idea of the "Tranquilizer Chair" into which patients could be strapped with their head packed in a box. Unable to move or speak, they had no choice but to calm down. Dr. Rush also argued that patients suffering from mental disturbances should spend more time swinging in the air.On his recommendation, they would be strapped into chairs. Then attendants would suspend the chairs from the ceiling and keep them swinging or spinning until the patients showed signs of improvement. Fortunately for the patients, vomiting was considered an improvement. Thus, once they got sick enough, they could come down from the ceiling.

The topic of this paragraph is
"Dr. Benjamin Rush's dangerous _________________________________________".

Exercise 4

Directions: Now it's your turn to find a topic that fits each passage.

Reading 1. Americans use the word "love" as a catchall term that covers very different emotions. We love the music of Aretha Franklin. We love jelly doughnuts and cheese puffs. We love our parents, spouses and pets. The ancient Greeks, in contrast, were a good deal more precise when discussing the subject of love. They used different words to name different kinds of love. When they talked about romance or sexual passion, the Greeks used the word "eros." But if the conversation turned to love between friends, they used the word "phila."To talk about the love of God, the Greeks employed the word "agape," which emphasized the need to love without expecting anything in return.


Reading 2. Every year troops of researchers journey to the world's rain forests. Although they spend some of their time on the forest floor, they spend more of it rummaging through the canopy, or the tops of rain forest trees. For it is the forest's canopy that contains its greatest riches.This is where researchers can find the berries, fruits, flowers, and seeds that they have come to discover. Some of the rain forest researchers are funded by perfume companies. They come in pursuit of flowers with scents that might become the basis for a new perfume. Others have been flown to the rain forest by food companies desperate for a new taste sensation that will help them corner the world's markets. Medical researchers come to hunt for plants that might help cure diseases. As Kelsey Downum, a biologist at Florida International University, says about the rain forest: " About 60 percent of all our medicines originally come from plants; there is much more to be found." Aware of the riches that can be found in the rain forest's canopy, the researchers know something else as well. The forest is disappearing as the trees are cut down for wood and the jungle cleared for farming.(Quotation from Marlise Simons, "Eau de Rain Forest," The New York Times Magazine, May 2, 1999, p.61)


Answer key

Last update of this page: Feb. 27, 2014