Patterns & Questions to Understand Ideas


Identifying patterns in the way an author offers information can help you predict and retain information.  As stated in a Science News article, “This is your brain detecting patterns,”

Humans try to detect patterns in their environment all the time, Konovalov said, because it makes learning easier.  For example, if you are given driving directions in an unfamiliar city, you can try to memorize each turn. But if you see a pattern — for example, turn left, then right, then left, then right — it will be easier to remember. [1]

Identifying patterns in the way an author offers information also helps you find main ideas and deepen your understanding of those ideas. For example, if you detect an author discussing different effects of daily exercise, that pattern helps you understand a main idea that there are many possible and varied effects that can result from daily exercise.  Or if you detect an author comparing individual exercise regimes with gym exercise regimes, that pattern helps you understand that there may be benefits and detriments to each. Becoming conscious of patterns, even at a basic level such as in these examples, can help you identify ideas and idea relationships.  And the interaction and relationship among ideas comprise the main idea.

The two videos below offer good explanations of how becoming conscious of patterns can help you more fully understand the ideas in the text.  The author talks about patterns in paragraphs; know that the same insights about patterns in paragraphs apply to longer pieces of writing as well.


In addition to the questions you ask and answer when establishing background knowledge, asking and answering specific questions about the text itself, during and after reading, can help you both identify that text’s main idea and develop your own ideas about the topic.

Some questions promote fuller understanding of the author’s ideas, for example:

  • What’s the author’s aim or purpose?
  • What concepts or questions do I need to read more fully, or research in order to understand?
  • What do specific words or sentences mean?

Some questions promote deeper understanding of the author’s ideas, for example:

  • Why is the author taking this stance?
  • Are there other perspectives the author has not included?
  • How has the author presented the stance, e.g. do certain words or phrases stand out as slanted, biased, or overly emotional? What is the author’s attitude toward the topic?
  • How does this text relate to others I’ve read about the same topic?

Some questions go beyond the author’s ideas, for example:

  • How does this text relate to something in my own experience?
  • What was my immediate reaction to the text?
  • After reading and considering the text, what do I personally think about the concepts being presented?  Was my thinking or my immediate reaction changed in any way after reading the text?  If so, what aspects of the text helped bring about that change?
  • What constitutes [ethical behavior]? ( or any abstract concept that the text brings to mind)

All types of questions promote fuller understanding of the ideas in a text, as the act of questioning means that you’re thinking about the text enough in order to react to and converse with it.

The following video, although produced for a high school audience, contains very clear descriptions and examples of these three types of questions:  1) direct/literal questions based on information in the text, 2) questions that analyze and interpret the text, and 3) questions that move into abstract concepts and issues.

The video, as with many discussions of how to question a text, is based on concepts offered by Arthur Costa, an educator and researcher. To learn more about Costa’s levels of questions and to see key words that promote questioning at different levels, read a brief handout on Costa’s Levels of Thinking.

Another very helpful discussion of using questions is to help understand a text is located on York University’s Reading Skills for University page. If you read the sections toward the end of the page, from Thinking as Asking up to Summary, you’ll read about four categories of questions—fundamental, part-whole connection, hypothesis, and critical questions—and see them applied to a sample reading selection.

try it

Read the article “Everyday Life As a Text: Soft Control, Television, and Twitter.” As you read, identify patterns that can help you understand the author’s main idea.  Also ask a combination of direct, analytical, and abstract questions – whatever occurs to you as and after you read.  Then look at one reader’s thoughts to get a sense of how a reader might apply the concepts of patterns and questions while reading a text.


[1] “This is your brain detecting patterns.” Science Daily. May 31, 2018.