Reading Comp IRL


We often recommend that students who want to get an advance start on their LSAT classes read dense publications such as The Economist as a way of preparing for the Reading Comprehension section. Today, we’re putting our money where our proverbial mouth is, and taking it one step further: We’re guiding you through an Economist article as though it were a Reading Comprehension passage.

When selecting an article, I decided to find an article in the “Science and Technology” category, since I know science-related passages can be scary for students. The lucky winner? “Strange Signals from the Sky May Be Signs of Aliens.” (I’m torn between feeling that LSAC would never choose a topic as interesting as aliens for a Reading Comprehension passage, and feeling like the topic is juuuust weird enough that it might pass muster.) I recommend that students approach Reading Comprehension passages on the LSAT paragraph by paragraph, pausing after each to consider the role (or function) of the paragraph, so that’s the approach we’ll take here as well.

Paragraph I: You may be tempted to try to retain all the details in this paragraph. Avoid that temptation – the LSAT is unlikely to ask you, for instance, exactly how many milliseconds this burst lasted – and even if they do ask, you should know exactly where in the passage you can quickly retrieve that information. Instead, focus on what the paragraph is doing: Providing background information about a phenomenon. At this point, as an active reader (meaning one who is thinking critically about the passage), you should be expecting a discussion of the significance of this phenomenon.

Paragraph II: First, we get a name for this phenomenon – “fast radio bursts.” That’s a good detail to annotate, as it’s conceivable that LSAC will ask you questions about FRBs. This is immediately followed by a couple hypotheses, which you should also be annotating – per Blueprint’s patented method for crushing Reading Comprehension passages, you should always note hypotheses when you see ’em. And it seems pretty apparent from the set-up that the rest of the “passage” will be about this alien spaceship hypothesis, which is a theory that I, personally, can absolutely get behind.

Paragraph III: A description of the mechanics behind this hypothesis: radio transmitters. Aight.

Paragraph IV: At long last, here we get some author attitude. Recognizing the author’s attitude toward the subject matter is extremely important for understanding Reading Comprehension passages – you need to know whether the author is neutrally presenting facts or arguing for something in particular. In this case, the author appears to at least be considering the hypothesis – saying an idea is “not completely mad” is relatively faint praise, but she goes on to explain one point in favor of the hypothesis.

Paragraph V: Further explanation of how the logistics behind the hypothesis might work. Make sure to a put a big ol’ box around Yuri Milner’s name – that’s how we keep track of peoples’ names in passages.

Paragraph VI: Finally, we’re back to talking specifically about our hypothesis. Again, for our purposes, don’t get bogged down in the details – LSAC won’t ask you to become an astrophysicist and perform calculations about how much energy a certain amount of sunlight would yield. All you really need to note from this paragraph is that at least one part of our explanation is theoretically possible.

Paragraph VII: Another point in favor of the hypothesis – it’s possible to keep these transmitters cool. Here we’re relying on expert opinions to support the thesis.

Paragraph VIII: In classic LSAT fashion, this passage ends by hedging its bets – this is what’s often referred to on the test as “qualified approval,” meaning approval with some reservations. In this case, they use a counterexample – another time we thought aliens might be the explanation for a phenomenon, but later found out there was a more innocuous explanation. Even in that case, though, the author expresses some enthusiasm – although not nearly as cool as aliens, the explanation ended up being interesting and useful to astronomers.

You’re *almost* ready for the questions, but there are a few more steps. First, you want to consider how many viewpoints are present in the passage. You can make an argument for the existence of multiple viewpoints, since the passage mentions alternate hypotheses – but since they’re really only discussed in passing, I’d argue that there’s one main viewpoint.

Secondly, you need to consider the primary purpose of the passage – this should be a very brief explanation of the passage’s function. This particular passage exists to explain the support for a given hypothesis explaining a phenomenon.

Next, think about the author’s attitude toward the viewpoints. In this case, the author seems cautiously optimistic, or at least interested – she’s not rejecting the hypothesis out of hand, but she certainly hasn’t gotten out her tinfoil hat and gotten all Area 51 on us. And she seems to feel that even if aliens end up not being behind the bursts, the explanation could still be exciting.

Lastly, you want to summarize what you see as the main point of the passage. This is an important exercise because the first question for a passage usually asks about the main point; in addition to giving you a chance to gather your thoughts, anticipating the main point puts you ahead of the game. So seriously, take a second right now and articulate the main point to yourself. There’s not an exact right answer, so go for it.

Back with me? Great. Now let’s compare notes.

I’d summarize the main point like so: “An observed phenomenon, radio bursts, could be explained by activity from alien spaceships.” Your answer might be somewhat different, but it should offer a brief explanation of the viewpoint(s) present in the passage, and it should encapsulate the author’s attitude or lack thereof.

Lastly, think about any features of the passage that seem particularly likely to relate to a question. Examples are always a prime suspect; in this case, I’d keep my eye on that counterexample about pulsars in the last paragraph.

So that’s it! At this point, you’re officially ready to move to the questions. You haven’t memorized all the details, but based on your annotations, you should have a good idea of where to find these details in the passage if a question happens to ask. You’ve survived a Reading Comprehension “passage,” and it wasn’t even too scary (unless aliens are inherently scary to you, in which case I apologize).

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