For many LSAT students, the Logic Games section is the first obsession, and the Reading Comprehension section is the last. It makes sense—for Logic Games, there are many specific and tangible things for you to learn, and as you learn these things and as you develop your strategies, it’s relatively easy to start picking up some more points. For Reading Comprehension, the task is much more vague, and therefore the road to improvement is much less certain. How, exactly, do you get better at reading?
Hopefully this article can help you get on the path to Reading Comp success.
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Here are some basic and essential details to know about the Reading Comprehension section of the LSAT:
Now that we've laid out those basic details, now let's discuss some of the key characteristics that make LSAT Reading Comp passages and questions so challenging.
One: Passages can be dense and full of complex or subtle details.
Furthermore, the most difficult questions tend to be associated with those passages that have the most complex or nuanced content. Not only are these complex details necessary for answering certain questions, they impact our ability to read for reasoning structure. Most of us are not as good at using our reading ability when we are faced with unfamiliar subject matter.
Two: Central issues or passage structure can be complex or subtle.
When you think about a great piece of clothing, it can be great because of the materials (the substance of it) or the design (the use of that substance). Reading Comprehension passages can be difficult because of the content (the details involved) or because of the reasoning structure (the relationship between those details).
As you’ll see with more experience, most reading passages will present two opposing viewpoints on some sort of issue (one opinion versus another on how a certain law should be interpreted, or an old scientific theory versus the one that replaced it). However, the relationship between these two sides is not always clear cut—in fact, it can be extremely subtle. Furthermore, most passages will inform us of the author’s opinion of the content, but often this opinion will be given to us in vague ways, and the opinion itself can also be somewhat complex. Perhaps a passage will present two sides of an argument, and the author will hint that she somewhat agrees with one side, and feels uncertain about the other.
Three: Questions require us to see the forest and the trees.
That is, in order to answer questions successfully, we need to have a strong sense of the general structure of the passage, and, at the same time, we need to have a very clear sense of the details that are directly relevant to specific questions.
Many test takers end up trying to focus on both the big picture and the details as they read. In fact, most other preparation books, by giving you a laundry list of thirty specific and general things to notice as you read, indirectly point you toward just that tactic. But here’s the thing—we can’t do both well at the same time. Trying to see both the forest and the trees turns us into schizophrenic readers, and we end up reading poorly. I believe that a key to success is to focus on the big picture as you initially read the passage, and to utilize specific details during the problem-solving process.
This is a sample Reading Comprehension chapter from The LSAT Trainer study guide. Please click to open.
Now let's lay out some of the defining characteristics of those who tend to have a high-level of success with LSAT Reading Comp.
Of course, just as no two people walk in exactly the same way, no two test takers, even top scorers, read in exactly the same way. Still, there is great commonality among those who are able to complete Reading Comprehension sections with few or no misses. Here are some of the key ones:
...naturally and intuitively read for reasoning structure. It’s not just that they know it’s important—it’s what they think about as they read. That is, as they are reading that super-complicated sentence about a physics experiment, they are less concerned with understanding all of the intricacies of the experiment, and more concerned with figuring out why, exactly, the author has chosen to tell us this information.
...are able to recognize when to slow down to carefully absorb important details. As we discussed, trying to absorb every single detail in a passage is an exercise in futility. Effective reading is about prioritizing. Top scorers are able to focus in on details when it is important for them to do so. During the initial read, the details most important to absorb are those that tell us of the main point at issue, and those that hint at the author’s opinion. During the process of answering questions, other details will become important when they need to be used to confirm right answers and eliminate wrong ones.
...always know to look out for and are able to recognize subtle hints that point toward author bias or opinion. Most passages give us hints as to what the author feels about the issue at hand. Often these hints are subtle and seemingly secondary to the more important parts of a passage, but any hint of author bias is extremely important, for it gets to the heart of understanding reasoning structure—understanding why the author wrote a particular passage and structured it the way he did. Though generally very little text in a passage is dedicated to opinions, the opinions discussed in passages are generally central to the questions, and, in particular, you can expect at least a question or two that hinges on an understanding of the author’s opinion. A top scorer understands how important this opinion is and is always able to dig it out.
...have a clear understanding of what each question is asking. LSAT writers do not mince words. Many Reading Comprehension questions sound similar, but subtle differences in wording (such as “according to the passage” versus “the passage suggests”) can have a significant impact on what is required of the right answers and what defines wrong answers. We will spend several lessons discussing how to think about and solve specific types of questions. A top scorer, by the time she goes into the exam, will have an exact understanding of all the different types of Reading Comprehension questions that can be asked.
...are able to anticipate characteristics of the right answers for most questions. They are able to do so based on what they are given in the question stem. Now, there are some questions that, per their design, do not have answers that are predictable (such as “The passage mentions which of the following?”). However, most question stems give you a more specific sense of what to look for in a right answer, and top scorers are able to use this understanding to perform the next two steps well.
...are able to consistently and confidently eliminate incorrect answers. There are few characteristics that differentiate top scorers more than the ability to eliminate incorrect answers. If you understand the passage and your task well, the characteristics of incorrect answers become much clearer and more obvious. Furthermore, top scorers recognize that eliminating wrong choices first not only increases overall consistency and accuracy, it also helps make the search for the right answer easier.
Finally, top scorers know when they are certain that an answer is correct, and when they are not. Most top scorers will still have at least a couple of Reading Comprehension questions per section for which they cannot feel certain that they got the correct answer (it’s really helpful, in these instances, to have strong elimination skills). However, they will rarely, if ever, have a situation in which they feel certain they got a question right, only to find out they did not. Top scorers know the feeling of matching an answer exactly to the task presented in the question stem, and, more importantly, they have systems for confirming their work. You can feel certain of your answer if it matches what you anticipated, and if you are able to verify it based on the relevant text. Top scorers have these skills.
Now let's discuss some basic reading strategies and practice tips that can help ensure that you get the most from your own Reading Comp abilities:
(1) Use your practice to develop the correct LSAT reading habits.
We naturally and intuitively adapt how we read to different situations. For example, you won’t read a novel in the same way you read a recipe. Reading is something we do by instinct and habit, rather than some conscious decree—that is, we don’t typically tell ourselves how to read something. And, we can’t suddenly change how we read LSAT passages just by wanting to. In order to get better, we have to do it “the right way” enough times to develop the right reading habits and instincts.
Different prep companies endorse different types of reading strategies—per the methods discussed in The LSAT Trainer, I suggest you work on developing three key habits:
(A) You focus on reasoning structure. You can think of reasoning structure as the relationship between the various parts of a passage. You can also think of it in terms of “why” each part of the passage exists. Your ability to correctly recognize reasoning structure is the key skill rewarded by Reading Comprehension questions.
(B) You focus on the forest, rather than the trees. Questions will often require that you understand the passage in terms of the big picture, and also in terms of specific details mentioned. The trouble is, when we try to read for the forest and the trees, we tend to be terrible readers. Focus on the forest as you read—do your best to understand the passage as a whole, and the role parts play in relation to that whole. You can focus on the details if and when you need to later on in the questions.
(C) You focus on reading the passage as the author intended, rather than critiquing the passage. The author meant for certain parts to serve as main points, or support, or background, and so on. As I mentioned above, your main job is to recognize these roles correctly. During the read, your job is not to find fault with the reasoning or evaluate it in any other way (though there may be a couple of questions per section that will specifically ask that you use your judgment). The reason I mention this is because for half the test—the two Logical Reasoning sections—your job is to be critical—if you aren’t careful, your instincts and habits for one section will creep into the other.
(2) In answering questions, think of both text and task.
The right answer to a Reading Comprehension question will be consistent with the theme of the passage, and with the details mentioned in the passage—we can think of this as the text. Right answers will also match up with exactly what it is the question stem is asking us for—we can think of this as the task. The right answer is the only answer in the group that will match both text and task.
More importantly, wrong answers will give themselves away because they all have issues with text or task. They either misrepresent the passage as a whole, or the details of the passage, or they don’t match up with what is asked for in the question stem. If you are focused on text and task, these “markers” of incorrectness become far more obvious.
(3) Practice as if it’s test day.
The first time looking at a passage and solving questions, always try and do so just as you would on the real exam. Again, the point of your practice is to develop correct skills and habits. Practicing realistically will help you do that.
One more thing: as you practice passages and full sections, please get in the habit of circling the questions for which you don’t feel 100% certain that you got the right answer. I’ll explain why in just a bit.
Okay, with all that said, let’s discuss how to review the Reading Comprehension passages that you try in your practice.
The vast majority of people get far less out of their review than they should, and one of the main reasons why is because they simply set the bar too low. People think that they have reviewed a question when they understand why one of the five answers is correct (and maybe also why four answers are incorrect). And of course, it is certainly helpful to understand those things.
However, understanding why one answer to one question related to one passage is right has very little direct impact on whether you will get another completely different question related to another completely different passage correct.
The key is to focus on what you do: how you read, what you focus on as you read, how you choose to interpret question stems, the methods you use to eliminate answer choices, and so on. Use your review to think about your actions. If you do so, you’ll get a lot more out of that review, and your review will have a more significant impact on the problems that you try the next time around.
Here are some more specific tips on how you can review both your understanding and your actions:
For any passage that caused you a significant amount of trouble (I would say “significant” trouble equates to two or more questions on which you feel uncertain of your answer, or passages for which you felt lost as you were reading them), start by rereading the passage and solving the questions again a second time, before you look up the answers. This second time through, give yourself as much time as you need. Read the passage as carefully as you possibly can, and do your best to get each question correct with 100% confidence.
Now go ahead and look up the answers—think of all results as falling into one of four categories:
1) you thought you got the question right, and you got it right
2) you were uncertain of your answer, and got the question right
3) you were uncertain of your answer, and got the question wrong
4) you thought you got a question right, and missed it
The first category of questions is the one you need to be least concerned with (obviously) and your priorities escalate from there—the questions you thought you got right but missed are the ones that should cause you the most concern.
Now it’s time to review the questions. Again, keep in mind that the goal isn’t just to make sure you understand them. You want your review to directly impact your actions.
If a passage is relatively fresh in your mind, I suggest going back to the questions to review them without reading the passage another time, or with at most just a minimal re-scan of the passage.
It’s likely that your understanding of the passage will be somewhat imperfect, and it’s likely that your understanding will be incomplete. But, that’s also how you are going to feel about certain passages on the real exam, and you are going to have to still get questions right. Even with this imperfect and incomplete understanding, see if, knowing what the right answer is, you can figure out a way that you could have still gotten the question correct. More specifically, see if you can figure out how you could have still eliminated the four wrong choices, and how you could have still confirmed or vetted the right answer.
Again, you will need to be able to get most questions correct even when you don't understand a passage as well as you'd like, and the above work can help you get better at this.
Next, return to any passages that you felt you misread and review them carefully in terms of reasoning structure. Take plenty of time to think about every part of the passage in terms of the role it plays, and, if you’d like, mark up your passage with those roles (main point, support, background, etc.).
Return to each question that you’d like to evaluate again in-depth, and think about it in terms of text and task—make sure you understand exactly why the right answer matches up with the passage as a whole, and the details mentioned in the passage, and make sure you see how the right answer addresses the specific task mentioned in the question stem. More importantly, take the time to look for every reason wrong answers are wrong—if you do this correctly, you will often see many clear “tells” for the wrong choices to a question—things that misalign with the passage as whole, specific details mentioned, or what is asked of you in the question stem (the last characteristic is one that test takers consistently underestimate).
As you do your comprehensive evaluation, also think about the easiest tells—the quickest and most obvious ways in which you could have eliminated wrong choices and zeroed in on the right one. When you think about all the answers for all the questions for all the passages, the easiest and most consistent tell is reasoning structure—a great many wrong answers across a spectrum of various question types reveal themselves because they misrepresent the structure of a passage. Walk through efficient and effective ways that you could have solved the question—the easiest and surest methods you could have used for getting rid of wrong choices and confirming the right one.
Finally, for the passages that cause you the most trouble, try them again, fresh, ideally after a bit of a break (a week or two should suffice). The second time through, try to focus on your form—how you try to read the passage, and how you try to answer the questions. You should expect, because you have familiarity with the passage, that you will be able to go a bit faster than you would if it were your first time seeing the passage. If, this second time through, you can’t do this, or if the passage or questions still feel too difficult, review again and try again another time (you can use the notebook organizer sheets to keep track of the passages to try again).
Throughout the review process, remind yourself that the purpose of practice and review is to develop effective skills and habits. Reading Comprehension is all about what you do—what you focus on as you read, what you think about when you see a question stem, and so on, and not what you know.
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