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Conquering Hard Passages

Answers and Explanations: Paragraphs

1. Despite rampant gender bias in the burgeoning field of aviation early in the twentieth century, some women found ways to compete and even to triumph. Ruth Law, for example, set a new nonstop distance record in 1916 by flying 590 miles from Chicago to Hornell, New York. She was so successful that in 1917 she was earning as much as $9,000 per week for exhibition and stunt flights. Her success exemplified the resourcefulness and fortitude demanded of a woman who wanted to enter a male-dominated discipline.

What does the topic sentence say? Some women found ways to compete.

To get at the general meaning of the first sentence, we can ignore the whole first phrase starting with despite; we will add the details back in later.

What are the transition words in the paragraph? Despite, for example

Despite tells us that the first part of the topic sentence is different from the second part. Cut out some extra adjectives, and the sentence tells us there was gender bias in aviation.

For example lets us know that we are going to read about a situation that illustrates the idea we just read about. Without even reading past this transition, we know that Ruth Law was a successful pilot. Sure enough, the next few sentences go on to tell us about her success.

Final summary: Despite gender bias in aviation, some women, including Ruth law, were successful pilots.

2. According to traditional beliefs of the Hopi and Pueblo tribes, kachina, the spirits of dead ancestors, visit their villages on the winter solstice. Each kachina is said to possess both a specific personality and a lesson to impart to the members of the village. Many of the kachina play traditional roles, teaching by example. For instance, a chief brings lessons of wisdom, a mother brings lessons of love and patience, or an ogre teaches about discipline and behavior. However, there are also clown-like characters that act in outrageous ways during otherwise solemn ceremonies to bring comic relief. But this is not their only function; by breaking various taboos and transgressing boundaries set up by society, these clown characters provide examples to the younger members of the tribe of unacceptable conduct.

What does the topic sentence say? The spirits of dead ancestors visit villages.

The beginning phrase of the first sentence can be cut. If you don’t know what a kachina is, no problem—the sentence explains it for you.

What are the transition words in the paragraph? For instance, however, but,;

The first transition, for instance, shows up several sentences after the first sentence of the paragraph. For instance indicates an example is coming, and the sentences before that give us some more information about what the example is about: The spirits have personalities and teach lessons, many of which are traditional. Nothing too tough here. The examples that come after for instance give us some specific examples.

The next transition, however, tells us that the ideas are about to change. What have we just been reading about? Traditional lessons taught by spirits. What do we expect to read about next? Non-traditional lessons. The next example given is the clown spirits that provide comic relief. This certainly seems different from the examples that came before the however.

But the paragraph is not over yet—our next transition is but, indicating another shift in ideas, and immediately after that, we see that comic relief is not the only thing these clown spirits do.

The final transition is a semicolon, which indicates that the second part of this sentence agrees with the first part. Good thing we know that much, because the rest of this sentence has some harder vocabulary. This is a great example of the details being harder to understand than the main idea. As always, though, we can focus on what we do know and understand. If we do some simplifying and cutting, the basic idea here is that by doing something the clowns provide examples of unacceptable conduct. This makes perfect sense in relation to the rest of the paragraph—remember the original however, which made us think we were going to read about non-traditional lessons? Here is the example of that. Even if you don’t understand exactly what the something the clowns do is, you know why they do it.

Final summary: The spirits of dead ancestors visit villages to teach lessons. Most of them teach by example, but some teach by showing what not to do.

3. The remarkable variety of geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park is the result of an ancient volcanic eruption, which created one of the largest calderas known. Although there is no longer an active volcano in Yellowstone, a shallow body of magma is responsible for the impressive geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles. As cold water percolates through the permeable ground rock, it comes into contact with magma-heated brine, and is itself heated to well above the boiling point. Pressure, however, keeps this super-heated water from turning into steam. Because the resulting difference in density between the super-heated water and the cold water around it creates convection currents, the hot water is sent up to the surface through cracks in the rhyolitic lava flows, creating the iconic features of the park.

What does the topic sentence say? The features in Yellowstone are the result of a volcanic eruption.

There are several extra adjectives as well as a which phrase at the end of the sentence that we can cut. Some of these words are harder vocabulary, and cutting them makes the sentence easier to understand.

What are the transition words in the paragraph? Although, however, because

Following the first transition word, although, we find out that there is not an active volcano in Yellowstone. We also know from the although that the second part of the sentence will tell us something different. There are a bunch of words in the second part of this paragraph that might be unfamiliar, but we can simplify them: Something is responsible for something else. The beginning told us that volcanoes are no longer active, and because we know the second part is different, the first something is probably related to volcanoes. As for the second something, lists are usually related items, so pick out one that you understand: Something volcanic causes hot springs. See how this is more or less a restating of the first sentence?

The next sentence begins a description of how this process happens. Again, there are some vocabulary words that may be unfamiliar, but focus on what you do know and simplify when necessary: As cold water goes through the ground, it touches something hot and is heated.

Then comes our next transition, however, which introduces a sentence that explains why the water does not turn into steam, as we would expect it to, when it gets heated.

The final transition, because, lets us know that the ideas in the last two sentences are connected and that one causes the other. Again, simplify the harder jargon: The difference in pressure creates currents that send the hot water to the surface.

Final summary: Although there is no longer an active volcano in Yellowstone, something volcanic causes the hot springs. Cold water goes through the ground, is heated, and a difference in pressure sends the hot water back to the surface.

The second sentence of this paragraph says almost the same thing as the first, the topic sentence. There’s no need to include the same idea twice in a summary, so just start with the second sentence.

4. By the early years of the nineteenth century, American landscape art was closely associated with the system of republican ideals of the new nation. It had become a potent force in the popular imagination because landscape painters used images to suggest limitless possibilities, which resonated with the view of American as occupying a unique role in world history. In other words, images of the American landscape became symbols of national pride.

What does the topic sentence say? American landscape art was closely associated with the ideals of the new nation.

Cut the description at the beginning and some extra descriptive words to get the main idea.

What are the transition words in the paragraph? In other words

Because there is no transition between the first and second sentences of the paragraph, we know that the second sentence gives more detail or explanation about the first one. Good thing we know that much, because the second sentence is pretty hard to follow.

There is no need to simplify the second sentence, however, because the third sentence starts with the phrase in other words, which tells you that the author is about to say the same idea in different words. Luckily, this sentence is much easier to understand.

Final summary: American landscape art was closely associated with the ideals of the new nation. Images of the landscape became symbols of national pride.

5. Before the invention of the piano, the expressive possibilities available to composers were limited by the harpsichord’s lack of dynamic range. In the early eighteenth century, Bartolomeo Cristofori successfully built an instrument that was loud enough for large public performances and also allowed for expressive control of volume and sustained notes. Consequently, a new era in composition was ushered in with the greatly expanded expressive possibilities of Cristofori’s design.

What does the topic sentence say? Before the invention of the piano, expression was limited.

Most of the extra information here is prepositional phrases. Get rid of them to arrive at the general idea of the sentence.

What are the transition words in the paragraph? Before, consequently

The word before right at the beginning of the sentence is a time indicator, which tells us that something changed. The topic sentence lets us know that the old way was limited expression. So we expect the next part to tell us about a change that came with the invention of the piano, and that’s exactly what the second sentence does. If we simplify the second sentence, it tells us that a guy built an instrument that was loud and allowed for expressive control. What was the instrument? The topic sentence tells us it was the piano. Who is Bartolomeo Cristofori? The guy who invented the piano.

The next transition word, consequently, tells us the result of this new invention: a new era in composition.

Final summary: Before the invention of the piano, expression was limited. The piano was loud and allowed for expressive control, and as a result a new era in composition began.


The big idea here is the same as in the last section: When dealing with difficult paragraphs, focus on what you do know rather that what you don’t know.

• Simplify the topic sentence of a paragraph first, to get the main idea.

• Focus on transition words to help you figure out the relationships between ideas in the paragraph.

• Fill in details as necessary to understand the specifics of the paragraph.