Recently, I was asked to write an article on the reading part of reading comprehension – specifically, what are we supposed to do and look for during the initial few minutes before we start to answer the first question? I thought it was a great idea; a lot of people struggle with this.
Note: this article doesn’t address how to answer reading comprehension questions; it focuses on the initial read-through and note-taking. If you do that well, though, then that should help you answer any kind of question.
Whenever we start a specific type of problem, we should have certain goals in mind (depending, of course, on what that problem type is). Reading Comprehension (RC) is no exception.
First, we have some timing goals. I aim to complete an initial read-through of an RC passage in 2 (shorter) to 3 (longer) minutes. I try to answer “general” questions (e.g., main idea) in about 1 minute and “specific” questions in about 1.5 to 2 minutes.
I also take some short notes while I read through the passage; these notes will be based upon the goals discussed in the next several paragraphs. My notes will be heavily abbreviated; see the “Taking Notes” section below for more on this topic.
Next, we have some goals for the initial read-through of the passage. Every passage has a topic and what I call The Point. The topic is what you would probably expect: the basic topic under discussion in the passage. The Point is the main reason the author is writing this specific passage (you can also think of The Point as the thesis statement). For instance, a passage topic might be the curious decline of bees in recent years (entire hives have been dying, losing the ability to find their way back to the hive, and so on). The Point might be that, out of three possible causes (all mentioned in the passage), a certain pesticide is the most likely cause (according to the author). Back to our Goal: when I read the passage, I need to make sure I understand The Point, not just the topic.
Further, I also need to make sure I understand the purpose of each paragraph. These passages follow the same rules we’re supposed to use when we write an essay: each paragraph should have one distinct purpose or message (and, often, that message is delivered via a topic sentence, usually the first or second sentence of the paragraph).
Finally, I also need to make sure that I do NOT fully understand or remember all of the detail in each paragraph. That “NOT” was not a typo. I’m trying to read this passage in 2 to 3 minutes maximum; I don’t have time to try to fully understand, let alone remember, all of the detail. My goal is to know in which paragraph the different kinds of detail reside – that’s all.
Wait – How Can I Get Away With NOT Understanding the Detail?
This is where we can take advantage of the fact that the GMAT is a standardized test. An individual test-taker is given only about half of the questions that were written for that passage. That little piece of knowledge has major implications for how we conduct the initial read-through.
I know that I’m going to have to understand The Point, because that permeates the entire passage and even, to some extent, every question that I answer. I also know that I will not get asked about every detail on the screen, because I’m never going to see half of the questions. So why learn all of that annoying detail unless I know that I’m going to get a question about it? (And I won’t know that until the question pops up on the screen.)
Instead, as we discussed above, my goal for the detail is to know in which paragraph it resides. That way, if I do get a question about the chemical mechanism by which the pesticide affects a bee’s nervous system, I’ll immediately know that I can find that detail in paragraph 2. I won’t have any idea how to answer the question yet; I’ll have to read that detail now to see whether I can figure it out.
Note: did you hit a word you don’t know? Skip it. Is some sentence really convoluted? If it’s the first sentence of a paragraph, use your SC knowledge to find the subject and verb, just to get a basic understanding of what it says. If it’s a “detail” sentence, skip it.
The Initial Read-through
Most of the time, The Point can be found in one discrete sentence somewhere in the passage (though sometimes we have to combine two sentences to get the full Point). Most often, The Point can be found in the first few or last few sentences of the entire passage, but it is possible for The Point to show up anywhere.
So, a new passage pops up on the screen and we, naturally, start reading. Read the first sentence, then stop. Rephrase it in your mind (put it into words that you can understand very easily), and jot down a note or two. Then do the same with the second sentence. Once you think you understand the purpose of that one paragraph, you can start skimming the rest of the paragraph. While you skim, you’re trying to make this distinction: is this information just detail that goes along with whatever I decided was the purpose of this paragraph? Or is this information something new: does it represent a new idea or a change of direction? If it’s just detail, jot down the basic kind of detail it is (“bees dying”) and move on. If it represents a new idea or change of direction, then pay a little more attention and take some short notes.
Do the same with the other paragraphs, though you can be a bit more aggressive about skimming. If, for example, you think you understand the purpose of the second paragraph after reading only the first sentence, that’s fine. Start skimming (but take note of anything that represents a new direction).
When you’re done, take a moment to articulate The Point to yourself. Is that already in your notes? Put a star next to it. If it isn’t in your notes, jot it down.
Your notes should be heavily abbreviated – much more aggressively abbreviated than notes you would typically take at work or school. In fact, if I look at my notes for a passage a few days later, I should have a lot of trouble figuring out what they say (without using the passage as a reference).
How can we get away with abbreviating this heavily? Again, we’re taking advantage of the nature of this test. You’re going to spend perhaps 6 to 8 minutes with this passage and then you can forget about it forever. You don’t need to commit anything to long-term memory, nor do you need to take notes from which you can study in a week. (Of course, if you’re just practicing, you are going to review your work later, but you should still practice as though it’s the real thing.)
Analyzing Your Work
Everyone already knows that it’s important to review your work on the problems you do, but did you know that it’s also important to review how you read and take your notes? When you’re done with a passage and the associated questions, start your review with the passage itself. When you were done reading (but before you answered questions), what did you think The Point was? What did you think the purpose of each paragraph was? Did that knowledge or understanding change as you worked your way through the questions? If you misunderstood something after the first read-through, why do you think you misunderstood it? Did you read too quickly and overlook something? Did you not take the time to rephrase what you read? How could you do this better next time?
Next, match your initial notes to your current knowledge of what information is contained in the passage. Were you able to find the right paragraph easily when answering a specific question? If not, why not? What should you have jotted down on the initial read-through to make that easier? Conversely, did you have too much information jotted down? Maybe you were able to answer a specific question just from your notes, or maybe you had a lot of detail written down that you never had to use. If so, you wrote down too much information and you spent too much time on the initial read-through.
Could you have abbreviated even more? Write down what that might have looked like, from the beginning. (In general, if you feel your notes were fairly far from your “ideal” for any reason, then re-write the notes the way you should have written them the first time.)
(1) You do NOT want to learn or comprehend every single thing that the passage says
(2) Know your goals:
(a) Find The Point
(b) Find the purpose of each paragraph
(c) Know where (in which paragraph) to find different kinds of detail
(3) Practice sticking to your timing and practice abbreviating heavily
(4) When you review your work, also review how you read and took notes on the passage