Getting Started with Reading Comprehension

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Some students like to ignore the Reading Comprehension section of the LSAT. Maybe they find the passages boring. I have no idea why.

But I think that many students don’t give Reading Comp its due because it seems familiar and that familiarity breeds complacency. You know how to read, after all — that you’ve made it this far into this blog post is ample evidence.

Furthermore, if you’ve ever taken pretty much any other standardized test, you’ve done some kind of Reading Comp. The SAT, the ACT, the GRE, the GMAT, even the MCAT all have Reading Comp sections. So LSAT Reading Comp probably doesn’t seem all that weird compared to the rest of the LSAT.

But go back and check your most recent LSAT practice exam. Did you nail the Reading Comp section? If not, you have some work to do. LSAT Reading Comp may seem deceptively familiar, but it’s different. You can improve your score, but it takes the right approach.

Yes, LSAT Reading Comp involves reading just like all the other reading you do. But it’s a different kind of reading. If you’re reading for school, you might be responsible for discussing the ideas in the book in class the next day. You might need to remember the content for a test in the future. You might need to write a paper about it. I doubt you rarely ever have to read a short passage and then answer questions about it right away.

Even compared to Reading Comp on other standardized tests, LSAT Reading Comp is a bit different. Most other standardized tests focus mainly on the content of the passage. LSAT Reading Comp has some questions about the content but also asks many questions about the structure of the passage and the arguments and viewpoints within the passage.

So, since LSAT Reading Comp is different and deserves your attention, how should you begin to study? The important thing is to develop good habits from the beginning. Take your instructor’s advice. Here are some things to focus on.

Focus on structure and don’t get lost in the details

As you read, focus on argument structure. It almost doesn’t matter what the passage is about. Your main focus should be on finding the viewpoints in the passage. How are they supported? Does the author endorse one of the viewpoints or stay neutral?

In that spirit, when you get to the potentially boring details, don’t get lost in them. If the questions ask about those details, you can always go back and find them. What’s most important is how those details relate to the passage as a whole. It isn’t terribly important to remember that the platypus carries a nerve impulse from the mechanoreceptors in its bill via the fifth cranial nerve to the neocortex and from there to the motor cortex. What’s actually important is assessing, in context, what all those details are there to support and how that relates to the ideas in the passage as a whole.

Make structure-based tags

This also relates to how you tag, or mark up, a passage. The goal should be to see the structure at a glance. It’s not helpful to underline what you “think will be important.” Reserve underlining for conclusions and author’s attitude. Those are the things that are really important.

Likewise, your marginal notes should reflect viewpoint and structure more than they reflect subject matter. Notes that summarize the content of the passage may be useful when you’re trying to remember what you read as you study for the final a month later. But that’s not what you’re doing on the LSAT.

Try to tag based on structure. Don’t describe the scientific details. Mark them for why they’re there — for example, if it’s an experiment, what hypothesis does it test? What conclusion does it support? If there’s an example, say, about the English appropriating Indian culture to create the perception of legitimacy for their colonial authority, don’t summarize the details of all that. What is it an example of? What larger point is the author martialing it to support? A good tag would be something like “Ex. of present concerns shaping perception of past.”

Start slow and build good habits

Above all, take it slow at first. You’ll feel time pressure on the LSAT. But it’s much easier to get faster in the end if you’re really comfortable with the logic and approach at first. So read carefully. Answer questions methodically. Review what you’ve done, and keep in mind that the LSAT is written so that answers aren’t merely superior or inferior but right or wrong. In time, you’ll be a Reading Comp expert.

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