Reading Comprehension passages, like the rest of the LSAT, are prone to repeating certain structures over and over. After all, there are only so many ways to set up or argue about a short passage. In fact, noticing certain often-used passage structures (which Blueprint LSAT students may recognize as what we call the “secondary structures” of a passage) can vastly improve your overall understanding of a passage. But if you’re fortunate enough to notice a secondary structure, how does that knowledge actually help you?
In a moment you’ll be saying “I see what you did there,” because today we’ll be discussing the “Question and Answer” secondary structure. The format is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: The author poses a question, either explicitly (“How are secondary structures helpful?”) or implicitly (“Many puzzled LSAT students have wondered how to put their knowledge of secondary structures to use.”). For the rest of the passage, the author will attempt to answer that question. Perhaps she will discuss several potential answers before landing on one, or perhaps she’ll get right down to brass tacks.
It’s worth noting that this is an extremely common type of secondary structure — so common, in fact, that three out of the four passages on the December 2017 LSAT used the question-and-answer structure. Noticing this secondary structure is extremely helpful in understanding the big-picture structure of the passage. Here’s how:
Points of view: It’s important to identify how many viewpoints are expressed in a passage — some passages just talk about one point of view, while other passages contain multiple distinct thoughts. In a Q&A passage, each (potential) answer is a distinct viewpoint.
Main point: You should always take a moment to identify a passage’s main point, which is basically a one-sentence summary of the passage; the main point encapsulates any and all viewpoints included in the passage, and if the author was leaning toward a certain viewpoint, that will be expressed in the main point too. In a question-and-answer passage, the main point is a combination of the question and the answer(s) to it that were discussed, including the answer the author identifies as correct. For instance, the main point of this post would be something along the lines of “Identifying the question and answer secondary structure is useful because it allows you to easily identify big-picture issues like the viewpoints and main point.”
Primary purpose: The LSAT frequently asks about the primary purpose of a passage, meaning what the passage is trying to achieve — the purpose might be to correct a common misconception, explain a phenomenon, propose a solution, and so on. The purpose of a question-and-answer passage is extremely simple — it’s to answer the question. So, again using this post as an example, the primary purpose would be to identify ways in which noticing a certain secondary structure is helpful.
The bottom line: Noticing secondary structures is helpful in improving your perception of the passage structure and how it works, and the question-and-answer structure is well worth learning since — as the most recent test administration shows — it’s a common one. Whenever a passage starts by posing a question, take note of any answers to that question that are discussed, including whether the author seems to prefer one answer over the other. Just keeping track of those few things will give you a huge leg up in your overall understanding of the passage.