Reading Comprehension: Theory and Practice

Reply

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

Reply

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.

 The Motive Behind the Locomotive

3

My son is six months old and most of the things that he does don’t make sense to me. Sure, I’ve come to understand that certain cries mean certain things- I’m hungry, I’m tired, my diaper is wet, etc.-but that’s only a small part of his communication. I’m not sure if there’s some kind of internal baby logic that my adult brain no longer remembers how to interpret or if his actions are just arbitrary. In any case, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to figure out what he’s thinking.

 

My task with my son is a lot more difficult than your task with reading comprehension, but the job is the same. When I look at my son and see him thrashing his arms with his eyes wide and a surprised expression on his face, what’s important to me as a parent isn’t what he looks like, but rather what he’s thinking and what’s causing him to feel that way. The same can be said for the reading comprehension passages that you’ll face on your test.

 

It really isn’t very important what an 1829 locomotive looked like, or how fast it could go, because if for some reason you are asked about those facts you can easily refer back to the passage and find the answer. What is important is why the author chose to include those details. If the author is discussing the 1829 locomotive in order to show what a breakthrough it was at the time, we can understand facts about appearance and speed as merely reinforcing this concept of a fantastic new invention. If, on the other hand, the author is discussing the 1829 locomotive in order to discuss its shortcomings, we can understand facts about appearance and speed as examples of how that locomotive fell short of what today we would consider a reasonable standard. The author’s intention is paramount. The exact same facts can have many very different meanings depending on the author’s goal.

 

So, practically what does this mean for you? First of all, it should change the way that you read a passage. Instead of reading to find out what the author said, you should instead be reading for why the author said what he said. Why questions test you at a deeper level, and thus are more helpful for the test maker in evaluating your skill level. That’s why they tend to be much more common.

 

So, maybe you are the type of person who would pick up a magazine article on the 1829 locomotive or maybe you’re not. Regardless, if you see that kind of an article on your test, remember that your goal is not to learn about the 1829 locomotive. Your goal is to figure out why the author is discussing this topic and how he’s going about doing that. If you make your first priority understanding the author’s point of view rather than simply what the author is saying, you’ll be well on your way to a higher score.

 

Good luck and keep practicing!

 Tips for Success on the Reading Section

All standardized tests have reading passages and questions. Often these passages do not look like the ones that students regularly read. They tend to be a bit dense, at a higher reading level, about esoteric topics, and sometimes, they are downright boring. But this has been done for a reason. For one, this is what you can expect from the next level of academia. Obfuscation tends to be the name of the game for university professors. Two, the test makers want to really test you and see what you can do under rigorous circumstances. They pull you out of your comfort zone and see if you can perform.

To avoid the pitfalls that they hope you fall into, follow the tips below and you will be on track for success.

 

Be active—not passive

Most of the reading you do now is passive. Don’t feel bad. I do it to. Passive reading is casual and relaxing—the type of reading you do Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in hand, perusing articles in the newspaper, reading the first couple paragraphs of an article, skipping over ones that don’t appeal to your interests, maybe remembering parts of the article, not too focused on getting information out of the text. Although pleasurable, this type of reading will be your doom on the SAT or GRE.

When reading on the test, you need to attack the passage. Actively engage with the words in front of you. Read with focus and purpose. All other recommendations flow from this one; every tip below is aimed at engaging your mind and making you an active reader. So no sitting around passively—you are an attack dog devouring information.

 

Don’t get bogged down in details

Students often think they need to understand everything in the passage to answer the questions. But this ignores the fact that writers value information differently. Some of the sentences they write are of primary importance and others are of secondary or tertiary importance.

So stay out of details. Make note of where certain details are in the passage, but don’t stop to understand them all. This will be a waste of your time. Only focus on details when a question directs you to one. Ultimately, you should be looking at the big picture, determining what the whole passage is about when you first start reading.

 

Take notes

The easiest way to become an active reader is to pick up a pencil and jot down notes. This gives your reading purpose. With pencil in hand, you have something to do besides read. You are trying to extract meaning, synthesize it in your mind, and then shorten and summarize it on paper. Nothing could be better for reading comprehension.

Do not get caught up in writing long notes, though. Note taking can easily hinder your ability to be efficient on test day. So practice writing short symbolic notes: up arrows, plus and equal signs, abbreviations and single letters to represent ideas in the passage, and bullet points and numbers for passage structure.

 

Identify the main idea and author’s purpose

Not only will there be questions about the main idea and the author’s purpose on the test, making these important to identify when you first read through a passage, but also these are two crucial aspects to understanding anything that you read. Without knowing the main idea, you will not understand the examples, the connection of ideas, or the point of the passage. Without knowing the author’s purpose, you won’t be able to judge the authenticity of the information in the passage, what to do with the information presented, or to know whether or not it is trustworthy.

Take notes on the main idea and author’s purpose. For the author’s purpose, try to determine if she is trying to persuade you of something or merely describing or informing you about something. This is usually all that you need for answering questions about the author’s purpose.

 

Understand the structure

The structure tells you about the connection of ideas. You will understand the flow of the passage, know when an example is presented to support a point or a counterpoint. You won’t know where the passage is going without paying attention to the structure. The structure holds the passage together and tells you how one paragraph relates to another paragraph. Crucially, knowing the structure of the passage will allow you to navigate the passage quickly when answering a question.

Determine the purpose of each paragraph. Pay attention to structure words. And the structure will reveal itself to you.