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Reading comprehension - Points to Remember

  • Reading styles are subjective—there is no best method for approaching the passages. A reading technique that is natural for one person can be awkward and unnatural for another person. So stick to your style.
  • The subject matter of a passage can be almost anything, but the most common themes are politics, history, culture, and science.
  • Most people find the passages difficult because the subject matter is dry and unfamiliar. Obscure subject matter is chosen so that your reading comprehension will be tested, not your knowledge of a particular subject. Also the more esoteric the subject the more likely everyone taking the test will be on an even playing field. However, because the material must still be accessible to laymen, you won’t find any tracts on subtle issues of philosophy or abstract mathematics.
  • One technique that you may find helpful is to preview the passage by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. Generally, the topic of a paragraph is contained in the first sentence. Reading the first sentence of each paragraph will give an overview of the passage.
  • Some books recommend speed-reading the passages. This is a mistake. Speed reading is designed for ordinary, non-technical material. Because non-technical material is filled with “fluff,” you can skim over the nonessential parts and still get the gist—and often more—of the passage. As mentioned before, however, GRE/IELTS/TOEFL passages are dense. Most often, however, they are based on articles that have been condensed to about one-third their original length. During this process no essential information is lost, just the “fluff” is cut. This is why speed reading will not work here—the passages contain too much information. You should, however, read somewhat faster than you normally do, but not to the point that your comprehension suffers. You will have to experiment to find your optimum pace.
  • Note, the order in which the questions are asked roughly corresponds to the order in which the main issues are presented in the passage. Early questions should correspond to information given early in the passage, and so on.
  • Six types of common questions are:
    1. Main Idea Questions

      Some common main idea questions are,

      Which one of the following best expresses the main idea of the passage?
      The primary purpose of the passage is to . . .
      In the passage, the author’s primary concern is to discuss . . .

    2. Description Questions

      Again, these questions take various forms:

      According to the passage . . .
      In line 37, the author mentions . . . for the purpose of . . .
      The passage suggests that which one of the following would . . .

    3. Writing Technique Questions
      • A. Compare and contrast two positions.

        This technique has a number of variations, but the most common and direct is to develop two ideas or systems (comparing) and then point out why one is better than the other (contrasting).

      • B. Show cause and effect.

        In this technique, the author typically shows how a particular cause leads to a certain result or set of results. It is not uncommon for this method to introduce a sequence of causes and effects. A causes B, which causes C, which causes D, and so on. Hence B is both the effect of A and the cause of C.

      • C. State a position and then give supporting evidence.

        This technique is common with opinionated passages. Equally common is the reverse order. That is, the supporting evidence is presented and then the position or conclusion is stated. And sometimes the evidence will be structured to build up to a conclusion which is then left unstated.

    4. Extension Questions

      Extension questions are the most common. They require you to go beyond what is stated in the passage, asking you to draw an inference from the passage, to make a conclusion based on the passage, or to identify one of the author’s tacit assumptions.

      You may be asked to draw a conclusion based on the ideas or facts presented:
      It can be inferred from the passage that . . .
      The passage suggests that . . .

    5. Application Questions

      Application questions differ from extension questions only in degree. Extension questions ask you to apply what you have learned from the passage to derive new information about the same subject, whereas application questions go one step further, asking you to apply what you have learned from the passage to a different or hypothetical situation.

      The following are common application questions:
      Which one of the following is the most likely source of the passage?
      Which one of the following actions would be most likely to have the same effect as the author’s actions?

      You may be asked to complete a thought for the author:
      The author would most likely agree with which one of the following statements?
      Which one of the following sentences would the author be most likely to use to complete the last paragraph of the passage?

    6. Tone Questions

      Tone questions ask you to identify the writer’s attitude or perspective. Is the writer’s feeling toward the subject positive, negative, or neutral? Does the writer give his own opinion, or does he objectively present the opinions of others?

      Before you read the answer-choices, decide whether the writer’s tone is positive, negative, or neutral. It is best to do this without referring to the passage.

  • The main idea of a passage is usually stated in the last, sometimes the first, sentence of the first paragraph. If it’s not there, it will probably be the last sentence of the entire passage.
  • If after the first reading, you don’t have a feel for the main idea, review the first and last sentence of each paragraph.
  • The answer to a description question must refer directly to a statement in the passage, not to something implied by it. However, the correct answer will paraphrase a passage statement, not quote it exactly. In fact, exact quotes are used with these questions to bait wrong answers.
  • When answering a description question, you must find the point in the passage from which the question is drawn.
  • If a description question refers to line 20, the information needed to answer it can occur anywhere from line 15 to 25.
  • For extension questions, any answer-choice that refers explicitly to or repeats a statement in the passage will probably be wrong.
  • Application questions differ from extension questions only in degree. Extension questions ask you to apply what you have learned from the passage to derive new information about the same subject, whereas application questions go one step further, asking you to apply what you have learned from the passage to a different or hypothetical situation.
  • To answer an application question, take the perspective of the author. Ask yourself: what am I arguing for? what might make my argument stronger? what might make it weaker?
  • Because application questions go well beyond the passage, they tend to be the most difficult.
  • For tone questions, decide whether the writer’s tone is positive, negative, or neutral before you look at the answer-choices.
  • If you do not have a feel for the writer’s attitude after the first reading, check the adjectives that she chooses.
  • Beware of answer-choices that contain extreme emotions. If an author’s tone is negative, it may be disapproving—not snide. Or if her tone is positive, it may be approving—not ecstatic.
  • The answers must be indisputable. A correct answer will never be controversial or grammatically questionable.
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