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.

 The Motive Behind the Locomotive

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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!

 Wet Toilet Paper

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I watched a ridiculous commercial today. In it, customers sat in a salon and got their hair shampooed, but the stylists didn’t use any water. The result was a bunch of soapy messy customers. That was followed by this really ridiculous conclusion: You wouldn’t shampoo your hair without water, so why would you use toilet paper that didn’t have water in it.

 

I looked at my wife incredulously when I saw the ad because I couldn’t believe that the advertisers thought people would be stupid enough to look at that and nod along:

“Sure, water with shampoo makes sense, so why not water with toilet paper?”

 

However, the fact that this ad made it through several stages of review and made it to the air suggests to me that the advertisers do think that the public will go along with this. In order to make sure you’re not swept along, let’s take a look at the assumption present in this argument.

 

An argument’s general form is that there are premises—or pieces of evidence—that form the support for the final piece of an argument, the conclusion. Let’s take a look at this commercial in that form.

 

Shampooing with water is good + Shampooing without water is bad à Toilet paper with water is good

 

Now, I mentioned the two most important parts of the argument (conclusion and premises) but there is another piece that may be present. When the premises on their own do not conclusively establish the conclusion, the assumptions are the unstated pieces of evidence needed to get to the conclusion.

 

Some assumptions are probably safe. For instance, if I said I needed to deposit checks so I was going to the bank, it’s a good bet that I’m going to a financial institution rather than a food bank or a phone bank. However, the gap between the premises and the evidence leaves some room for doubt, and so that is an assumption we’re making. Identifying assumptions is a key skill on the GMAT, because you won’t be asked to judge how valid an assumption is, merely whether or not it is present.

 

In this case, the commercial makes a common form of assumption called argumentation by analogy. In order to go along with the argument presented in the commercial, we have to believe that the subject of the evidence and the subject of the conclusion are similar enough that what’s true of one will also be true of the other. Let’s take another look at the argument with that assumption added in:

 

Shampooing with water is good + Shampooing without water is bad + (What’s good for shampooing is also good for toilet paper) à Toilet paper with water is good

 

With that link added, this argument is now logically sound. However, if you don’t believe this assumption you probably won’t be convinced that buying this brand of toilet paper is the best.

 

Keep the idea of assumptions in mind and look out for argumentation by analogy both on the test and on TV. If you can spot those assumptions well you’ll pick up some points and avoid the tricks of advertisers.