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Unit 1
Reading Comprehension Passages

Learning Outcomes

The practice exercises in Reading Comprehension Passages are aligned to the following learning outcomes:

  • understand the distinction between main ideas and supporting details in a text.
  • identify key ideas through skimming and scanning.
  • discover the meaning of new words and grammatical usages through context.
  • comprehend new ideas through reading.
  • analyse the reading text efficiently by improving the speed and efficien-cy of reading.


Reading is all about comprehension. It is important to understand and interpret what is being read. Good readers not only decode the meaning of the text but also read between the lines to understand the different layers of meaning. Practising Comprehension Exercises is important in making this process faster and also a natural outcome of reading.

Key words

Comprehension, Skimming, Scanning, Vocabulary

Passage 1

Read the following abstract from the “Forward” of The Story of my Experiments with Truth, the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi and try to answer the questions:

To Gandhiji, civilization, in the real sense of the term, consisted “not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary restriction of wants.” He always upheld the sublime aim of “simple living and high thinking”. While he strained every nerve to provide gainful employment to the hungry millions of India through various constructive activities, he underscored the imperative need for raising the ‘standard of life’ of the people, including the ethical and moral aspects. To him mere affluence and accumulation of material  wealth was ‘a primrose path’ leading to social, economic and cultural disintegration. “True economics,” affirmed Gandhiji, “never militates against the highest ethical standard.” “An economics that inculcates Mammon worship, and enables the strong to amass wealth at the expense of the weak, is a false and dismal science.” At a time when a number of developed countries are faced with this ‘tragedy of mere affluence,’ it would be worth our while recollecting Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence on higher values for the establishment of a new world order. As a recent editorial in the New Statesman captioned ‘Not By Bread Alone’ stated, “there is evidently a hunger in the world for governments which are activated by moral principles, which take decisions not because they are expedient, but because they are right.”

There is an erroneous notion that Gandhiji was against the use of modern science and technology and favoured out-dated technniques for some spiritual or sentimental reasons. “I would price every invention made for the benefit of all,” remarked Gandhiji. “Mechanisation is good when the hands are too few for the work intended to be accomplished. It is an evil when there are more hands than required for the work, as is the case in India.” Gandhiji was, thus, not against machinery as such, but objected to the ‘craze’ for machinery and its ‘indiscriminate multiplication’. In place of ‘mass production’ he advocated a system of ‘production by the masses’. He clearly envisaged that in a developing country like India, with scarce capital and abundant labour, the physical energies of the masses could be converted into a vast constructive force under a democratic frame-work, which Professor Mumford, in a somewhat different context, terms a ‘megamachine’.

  1. What is ‘civilization’ according to Gandhi?
  2. “An economics that inculcates Mammon worship, and enables the strong to amass wealth at the expense of the weak, is a false and dismal science.” The word ‘Mammon’ here could be associated with:
    i) Civilization, ii) Money, iii) Honour, iv) Religion
  3. What was Gandhi’s attitude towards the use of modern science and technology?
  4. What is meant by ‘tragedy of mere affluence’?
  5. Take decisions not because they are expedient, but because they are right.” What is the meaning of the word “expedient” here?

There are some essential reading skills that will be helpful in enhancing comprehension skills. These are skimming and scanning. Skimming is a type of reading in which the reader reads the text quickly to have an idea of the subject matter and main points. It can quickly give an idea about the main ideas in a text. Scanning is a technique in which the reader looks for a specific fact or piece of information during reading. A combination of skimming and scanning can make the process of reading effective.

Passage 2

The world is very full of people – appallingly full: it has never been so full before, and they are all tumbling over each other. Most of these people one doesn’t know and some of them one doesn’t like; doesn’t like the colour of their skins, say, or the shapes of their noses, or the way they blow them or don’t blow them, or the way they talk, or their smell, or their clothes, or their fondness for jazz or their dislike of jazz, and so on. Well, what is one to do? There are two solutions. One of them is the Nazi solution. If you don’t like people, kill them, banish them, segregate them, and then strut up and down proclaiming that you are the salt of the earth. The other way is much less thrilling, but it is on the whole the way of the democracies, and I prefer it. If you don’t like people, put up with them as well as you can. Don’t try to love them: you can’t, you’ll only strain yourself. But try to tolerate them. On the basis of that tolerance, a civilized future may be built. Certainly, I can see no other foundation for the post-war world.

For what it will most need is the negative virtues: not being huffy, touchy, irritable, revengeful. I have lost all faith in positive militant ideals; they can so seldom be carried out without thousands of human beings getting maimed or imprisoned. Phrases like “I will purge this nation.’’ “I will clean up this city” terrify and disgust me. They might not have mattered when the world was emptier: they are horrifying now, when one nation is mixed up with another, when one city cannot be organically separated from its neighbours. And, another point: reconstruction is unlikely to be rapid. I do not believe that we are psychologically fit for it, plan the architects never so wisely. In the long run, yes, perhaps: the history of our race justifies that hope. But civilization has its mysterious regressions, and it seems to me that we are fated now to be in one of them, and must recognize this and behave accordingly. Tolerance, I believe, will be imperative after the establishment of peace. It’s always useful to take a concrete instance: and I have been asking myself how I should behave if, after peace was signed, I met Germans who had been fighting against us. I shouldn’t try to love them: I shouldn’t feel inclined. They have broken a window in my little ugly flat for one thing. But I shall try to tolerate them, because it is common sense, because in the post-war world we shall have to live with Germans. We can’t exterminate them, any more than they have succeeded in exterminating the Jews. We shall have to put up with them, not for any lofty reason, but because it is the next thing that will have to be done.

Read the above extract from ‘‘Tolerance’’ by E.M. Forster and answer the following questions:

  1. There are two ways of dealing with people one does not like. Which are those ways?
  2. Why do lines like “I will purge this nation” terrify the author?
  3. From the context what does the word ‘appalingly’ mean?
  4. Why do you think the writer chose Germany to exemplify his views?
  5. What is the antonym of the word ‘lofty’?

Passage 3

Read this longer passage, a short story ‘‘Crossing the Road’’ by Ruskin Bond. Then attempt to answer the questions below:

Samuel was a snail of some individuality. Some considered him to be the bad snail in the family, but that was because he did not listen to his elders and liked to do things in his own way, trying out new plants or venturing into forbidden places. Birds and butterflies recognized no man-made borders, so why should snails? They’d been around longer than humans and were likely to be around even longer. Not that Samuel had any global ambitions. It was just that the cabbage patch in which he and his fellow snails had been living did not appeal to him any more. He was heartily sick of cabbage leaves. And just across a busy road—his international boundary—was a field full of delicious looking lettuce. And any snail would prefer lettuce to cabbage.

The trouble was, it was a very busy road, linking one city to another, and on it flowed a constant stream of cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, vans, even the occasional steamroller. Samuel did not like the idea of being crushed under a steamroller. There were better ways of exiting planet Earth—being swallowed by a large stork, for instance.

And then, of course, snails can’t run. With the help of a little of their own juices, they glide slowly and leisurely over grass and weed and pebbles, in search of a juicy leaf or the company of a fellow snail. They were not made to run. They are not predators like the larger carnivores. Nor do they prey on each other like humans. They are all for minding their own business. And now here was Samuel, making it his business to invade that lettuce patch on the other side of the road.

Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And ignoring the warnings of friends and familiars, Samuel set out to cross that life-threatening road. He could, of course, have waited until it was dark, but the road would have been no safer then. A constant stream of container trucks came thundering down the highway all through the night.

Tentacles waving, he began his stately crawl across the road.

Almost immediately he was nearly run over by a boy on a bicycle. Instinctively, Samuel withdrew into his little shell. Not that it would have made any difference. It might have protected him from a small bird, but not from a cycle tyre. Samuel looked up and down the road. It was a single width road, and vehicles could approach from either direction. It appeared to be clear at the moment.

Samuel advanced, covering a distance of some twelve inches in sixty seconds flat. Then—woosh—a car sped by, its tyres missing Samuel by inches. He was almost blown away by a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes. And then came another car. Samuel cringed. And survived. And wondered if he should turn around and go back the way he came. But snails aren’t great thinkers. The lettuce patch was all that mattered.
Samuel had advanced by two or three feet when there came a deep rumbling sound and he felt the ground quiver beneath him. A huge truck was bearing down on him! Sometimes it is an advantage to be small. Samuel was somewhere in the middle of the road, and nowhere near the wheels when the truck thundered over him. All the same he was dazed and shaken, unable to move any further. Soon another truck would be coming along. Or was it a tractor that was chugging along towards him?

Just then there was a squeal of brakes, a blare of horns, and a tremendous crash. The truck had hit an oncoming car and both had veered off the road and were lying in a ditch. For a time all traffic ceased. Samuel emitted a slimy jet and began to crawl again. Then there was a burst of activity. A motorcycle came tearing down the road, whizzing past a bewildered Samuel, and then stopping at the accident site. A policeman dismounted. In the distance a siren wailed. An ambulance was on its way.

And then it began to rain, a gentle patter on the tarmac. Refreshed, Samuel slid forward. The rain came down harder, and a fallen peepul leaf came sailing towards Samuel. It stopped beside him and Samuel crawled to the leaf. A spurt of rainwater picked up the leaf and sent it sailing across the remainder of the road and onto the grass verge.


Samuel was home if not dry. The lettuce field stretched before him. Motor horns and ambulance sirens melted into the distance. Humans could take care of themselves. So could snails! It would take him weeks to munch his way through a small corner of that lettuce patch, but he was going to try. To the winner the spoils!

The rain stopped and he began his feast.

The lettuce was all right, but it wasn’t much better than the cabbage field he had left a little over an hour ago. Had the journey been worthwhile? Could he cross that road again? The odds were against survival.

He’d just have to settle down in this new and unfamiliar world. The grass is always greener on the other side until you get there!

  1. Pick out any element of sarcasm in the passage.
  2. Samuel often makes references to humans. Pick out some instances.
  3. Onomatopoeia is the use of words whose sound suggests the sense. Pick out some onomatopoeic words from the passage.
  4. What is the moral of the story?
  5. Explain the snail’s difficulties in crossing the road.

Passage 4

Read the following passage from and answer the questions:

Working out who invented the car is a long and winding road, and pinpointing a single person responsible is not a simple matter. If you rewind the development of cars past GPS, past antilock brakes and automatic transmissions and even past the Model T, eventually you’ll get to the Benz Motor Car No. 1, the missing link between cars and horse-drawn buggies.

Karl Benz patented the three-wheeled Motor Car, known as the “Motorwagen,” in 1886. It was the first true, modern automobile, meaning Benz is most often identified as the man who invented the car. Benz also patented his own throttle system, spark plugs, gear shifters, a water radiator, a carburetor and other fundamentals to the automobile. Benz eventually built a car company that still exists today as the Daimler Group.

Benz patented the first gasoline-powered car, but he wasn’t the original visionary of self-propelled vehicles. Some highlights in the history of the car: Leonardo da Vinci had sketched a horseless, mechanized cart in the early 1500s. Like many of his designs, it wasn’t built in his lifetime. However, a replica is on display at the Chateau Clos Lucé (opens in new tab), Leonardo’s last home and now a museum. Sailing chariots, propelled by the wind were in use in China when the first Westerners visited, and in 1600, Simon Steven of Holland built one that carried 28 people and covered 39 miles (63 km) in two hours, according to General Motors. Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot, a Frenchman, built a self-propelled vehicle with a steam engine in 1769. The cart, designed to move artillery pieces, moved at a walking pace (2 mph or 3.2 km/h) and had to stop every 20 minutes to build a new head of steam.

“The word ‘car’ has meant different things at different times. At the end of the 19th Century, a car was a “streetcar” i.e. a tram. Streetcars before that were ‘horse cars’ which were omnibuses pulled by horses on rails. The word ‘car’ became available to what was previously called a ‘horseless carriage’ or possibly a motor car.

  1. Why is it difficult to trace who invented the car?
  2. What is the missing link between the cars and horse-drawn buggies?
  3. Explain the role of Karl Benz in the history of cars.
  4. Lists some highlights in the history of the car.
  5. The word car meant different things at different times. Analyse.

Passage 5

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a cheque.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men yes, Black men as well as white men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

(Extract from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech ‘‘I Have a Dream.’’)

Now, attempt the following questions:

  1. What came as a “joyous daybreak to end the long night” of the captivity of the African Americans?
  2. How does Martin Luther King explain that even after the mentioned 100 years, the African Americans are still not free?
  3. “America has defaulted on the promissory note.” Why?
  4. There is a monetary symbolism in the passage. Try to trace it.
  5. “We have come to this hallowed spot.” What do you think “hallowed” means?

Passage 6

Animal ethics may seem a relatively recent area of contention. However, the debate over the moral consideration of animals and how humans should treat them can be traced back to early antiquity. Hesiod’s poem is the earliest Greek attempt to differentiate humans from animals on philosophical grounds, arguing that humans received the divine gift of justice, a gift not possessed by any other living creatures. The third-century philosopher Porphyry also refers to the myth in his work, “On abstinence from animal food”, stating that together with the slaughter of animals, war and injustice were introduced to the world.

Porphyry was what we would call today an advocate for animal rights and vegetarianism on both spiritual and ethical grounds. The Neoplatonic philosopher believed that animals are conscious and capable of assessing situations, have memory, and can plan and communicate. He argued that killing an animal diverts from the much-needed spiritual progress that one should aspire to achieve. He further suggested that by consuming meat, the body becomes corrupt and unhealthy, and that it leads to obesity (it turns out that obesity was as much undesirable then as it is today).

But more importantly, Porphyry asserted that killing a harmless animal is no different from taking the life of a human being – and thus became one of the first to state, in writing at least, that the animal life is equal to that of a human.

This view is in tune with today’s philosophical debate about the value of animal life. “Even many champions of animal rights believe that human life is more valuable or important than animal life. While I myself do not think that human beings are more important or valuable than animals, I think it possible that our lives are more important to us than their lives are to them. That is one of two views, between which I am ambivalent,” explains Professor Christine Korsgaard from Harvard University, one of the most respected moral philosophers in human/animal relations. “The other view, opposed to that one, is that when you take life away from any creature, you basically take away everything that matters to that creature, and one creature’s ‘everything’ cannot be more than another creature’s ‘everything.’”

The first known advocate for animal rights and vegetarianism was the great Pythagoras who lived in the 6th century B.C.E., who was also the first man to call himself a philosopher, or “lover of wisdom”. Today children learn about his right-angle triangle theorem, but the mathematician was also the first to suggest that Earth is round and that the moon shines because its surface reflects light from the sun. He was held in such extraordinary esteem that some believed him to be the son of Apollo (because of his handsomeness) and the grandson of the mighty Zeus himself. Not only was Pythagoras famous for his theories, but also for his fashion choices, for he wore white robes with trousers, a truly extravagant choice for that time.

Until the word “vegetarian” became synonymous with going off meat, it was the phrase “Pythagorean diet” that was used to tell your friends you had gone vegetarian.

Yet for Pythagoras, going meat-free had little to do with animal wellbeing. His impetus was metempsychosis, the belief that at death, the soul transmigrates into another body. After such revelation, how could one expect to touch meat? Some, such as the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles went so far as to compare the act of eating flesh synonymous with the act of cannibalism.

(Extract from the article ‘‘The Surprising History of Vegetarianism’’ from www.haaretz. com)

Now, attempt the following questions:

  1. What are some of the earliest appeals for vegetarianism?
  2. Why can Porphyry be considered an advocate for animal rights?
  3. “This view is in tune with today’s philosophical debate about the value of animal life.” What constitutes “today’s philosophical debate”?
  4. What was the Pythagorean diet?
  5. Why did Pythagoras support a vegetarian diet?