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.

 Change in Christian’s Pocket

Reply

Christian has 13 coins in his pocket. The total value of the change is $1.37. The change may be composed of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. How many dimes could be in Christian’s pocket?

A) 0

B) 3

C) 5

D) 7

E) 9

There are several ways to approach this problem. Many of them are wrong. That’s because the core problem (13 coins, $1.37) can be solves several different ways. If you approached this and just decided to solve it you might find two or three solutions before you found one that was in the answer choices. That’s the first important step. When you’re given a problem without a clear, obvious and quick solution look to the answer choices.

Once, we’ve decided that we’re going to work through the answer choices, there is still some uncertainty. Look at answer choice B for instance. Even if we know that we have 3 dimes, that still doesn’t sort out how many pennies, nickels and quarters we have. That brings us to tip number two: when you’re given complex information, look for opportunities to simplify. The best example of that in this case is the pennies. Because our total needs to end in a 7, and all the other coins can only get us multiples of 5, we know that we must have either 2 or 7 pennies in order to make this work. That makes quick work of checking the possibilities for answer choice B. If we have 3 dimes and 2 pennies, can we make $1.05 out of 8 coins? Well, quarters can only get us to multiples of 25, so we must have at least one nickel so we can simplify again. Can we make $1.00 composed of quarters and nickels? Nope. Doesn’t work. Test 3 dimes and 7 pennies and you’ll very quickly see that you can’t make $1.00 out of 3 of the coins we’re given.

The final tip is that challenging problems don’t need to be tough. If you went into this and said I’m not sure how to solve this, but I can work from the answer choices and I can simplify problems, you might have started by testing answer A.

If I don’t have any dimes, I might have exactly 2 pennies. If that’s the case I have 11 coins to make $1.35. I need at least 2 nickels, so now I have 9 coins to make $1.25. 4 quarters and 5 nickels would work. Done. Answer choice A is correct. (You can also make this work with 0 dimes and 7 pennies).

When you don’t know where to start, look at the answer choices and look to simplify.

7 pennies, 1 nickel, 0 dimes, 5 quarters