Reading Comprehension: Theory and Practice

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In my latest post I suggested an approach to reading comprehension that asks you to simplify concepts to basic level so that you can catch the core of the arguments that are most essential for answering questions. That’s fine in theory, but theory and practice do not always equate so I wanted to take this opportunity to look at how that strategy might work in practice.

I have always suggested reading The Economist to my graduate-level students looking for material that mimics reading passages on the GRE or GMAT. High school students may find those articles a level above what’s likely to appear on the ACT or SAT, but there is still some value there. So, I went to the front-page of the magazine’s website looking for the article that would seem most intimidating to students who jumped into it without any introduction on a test. Here is the article that I found. Open it in another tab and read it and then come back.

Welcome back. Unless you’re a big beetle aficionado you probably weren’t familiar with the subject of that article. No worries. Let’s look at how we can break it down into easily digestible pieces that will get to the core of the passage.

Paragraph 1: A mystery is presented: why so many beetles?

Paragraph 2: Previous attempts to figure this out focused on new species. A new approach looks at whether beetle species are less likely to go extinct.

Paragraph 3: How they tested theory: fossils

Paragraph 4: More methods and conclusion: specific group seems hard to exterminate

Paragraph 5: Other beetles have died off but this specific group seems to survive

Paragraph 6: This isn’t a complete answer to the question, but it’s a start

The basics I’ve presented above distill the article into it’s essential structure and basic elements. My outline may not answer every question you’re asked, but it will answer many of them and it will point you toward the answer in most other cases. There are lots of places in this article to get tripped up. Did you know what “catholic tastes in food” were? I didn’t. I was able to figure it out from context, but unless it was asked about specifically, it’s certainly not something you should focus on. The same goes for the specific research methodology or the names or the particular scientists involved in the research. Rather than over-complicating passages, simplify them down like you would explain them to a 12-year old. By focusing on the core ideas, you’ll get to the heart of what you’re likely to be questioned on.

 Reading Comprehension for Too Smart People

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If you’ve been in a bookstore in the past twenty years, you’ve certainly seen the ubiquitous “For Dummies” series. You can learn about car repairs, tennis or the newest programming language as long as you’re willing to put up with a small insult to your intelligence. The brilliance of the brand has always been that the amount of knowledge you’re assumed to have coming in is very low, so if you’re new to the concept you can pick up the basics before moving onto progressively more difficult topics.

There is a beauty in hearing an elegantly simplified concept, and the skill of turning complex ideas into simple thoughts is in high demand. It’s in especially high demand on the reading comprehension section of your test. You’re presented with a passage that you probably couldn’t care less about, and asked to answer a series of questions about it. There’s probably a whole lot of background and underlying facts behind the passage you read, but you aren’t responsible for that information. You only need to know what’s on the page.

Unfortunately, our tendency when reading unfamiliar passages is to flaunt our depth and mastery of the material when speaking to others about it. No one wants to admit that he doesn’t understand much of the text he’s reading, so he makes assumptions to fill the gaps in his knowledge, or masks his explanations in the jargon he’s reading but doesn’t quite understand.

To succeed in reading comprehension you must resist those urges. Instead, you must seek to simplify. Maybe not a dummy, but imagine you’re explaining what you’re reading to someone who is 12 or 13 years old. They are not as wise or sophisticated as you are so you’ll have to break down concepts carefully. You’ll have to slowly walk through pieces generally rather than being over-specific. You’ll do your best to make complicated ideas less complicated. This process, rather than blunting your understanding of the text will actually help you focus much better on the core ideas of the passage which are crucial to reading comprehension success.

In reading comprehension, it’s always important not to be too smart for your own good.

 College Admissions Madness

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In this recent New York Times article Frank Bruni takes a look at the madness that is the college admissions process. He traces the unconventional routes to success of some students who missed out on their first choice colleges. He then goes on to show that those routes may not be quite as unconventional as they may seem.

Whether you’re sweating out admissions decisions this spring, or just starting to think about the college process, it’s well worth the read.

And remember, you are more than the sum of your test scores and the name of your alma mater.

 Where To Begin and How Much to Pay?.

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I met with a prospective tutoring client this past weekend, and any time I meet with a new student I’m intrigued by the questions that he or she asks. The questions that you ask tend to illuminate your priorities. There are good questions, better questions, and bad questions, but the one question that comes up most is cost. How much will it cost?

Now my particular experience may be skewed by the fact that I offer premium services that some people cannot afford. But, cost is most often viewed in two ways:

1. Can I afford this?

2. Do I want to pay this much for this?

The first concern is obviously valid, although I’ve found those that doggedly pursue what they want and are creative about finding solutions run into those obstacles less often than most. The second question is the one we really want to refine, because the chances are pretty good the amount you’re spending is not a good match for your needs.

The questions you should ask are as follows:

1. How do I learn best?

2. What study plan best matches my life?

Offerings in the test prep space are extremely varied, and almost everyone can find something that fits. But start with how you learn. Do you prefer to take information in passively? If you prefer to sit in the back of a lecture class or read a book about a subject, you might be a passive learner and a small group or 1-on-1 experience may do you more harm than good. If that’s the case, a Barron’s prep course that you can do at home or take with you on your phone might be a fantastic option.

On the other hand, you might learn best by having a conversation about topics and the ability to ask questions. If that’s the case a personal tutor might be the best route for you. A prep class would fall in the middle of these two learning styles.

If you’re looking at what matches your life, for some people showing up to a prep class a couple times a week might seem easy. Others need the freedom that videos on the phone might bring. A personal tutor who can work with your schedule falls somewhere in the middle.

All of these options are going to have different costs, but I think it’s essential to start by considering what method works best and then figuring out what fits best cost-wise rather than doing that calculation in reverse.