Reading Comprehension: Focus on Structure or Content?

The Reading Comprehension section of the LSAT is all about…reading comprehension. With that tautology aside, many students find it difficult to strike the proper balance between reading for detail and reading for structure.  Striking this balance is essential for the kind of comprehension that the LSAT tests students on. This post is dedicated to helping you develop the skills to quickly gain both a macro and micro understanding of the stimulus, which will allow you to work through the questions effectively and efficiently.

1. Know What You’re Looking For
If you’re just starting out on the LSAT, this first tip is probably a little bit frustrating because it’s not immediately apparent. Oftentimes the actual informational content of an RC passage won’t matter much at all. The LSAT constantly tests you on the same types of structural and argumentative points—you will be expected to identify the main point of the passage, the types of evidence relied upon, etc. At first, these patterns won’t be clear and you’ll probably struggle to pick up on them.  As you go through more passages, though, you’ll be better able to separate the content of the passage from the structures beneath the surface, and you can be more attentive to the salient aspects.

2. Annotate
Passages on the LSAT are boring. There’s no way around it. It is difficult to passively read the passages without zoning out or losing interest.  The best way to stay engaged is to take notes and annotate the passages. In addition to keeping you focused, your annotations should track the major thematic and structural elements of the passage, while also noting any examples or uses of specific evidence.

3. Practice Your Methods
Once you develop a system of annotation, the key is to practice. You should be able to work through each paragraph systematically and quickly, taking note of the important general and particular aspects of the passage. As in all aspects of the LSAT, repetition will help you on test day. You should have mental muscle memory to help you overcome test day nerves and perform at your highest level.

Once you’ve developed these skills, you should have a better handle on how to read for both the specific points in the passage and the general, structural elements. Furthermore, knowing what to look for, annotating, and practicing will ensure that, even if you don’t grasp every single sentence in the stimulus (and let’s face it, who can grasp everything about Ronald Dworkin and Legal Positivism vs. Moralism?), you’ll know what to look for and where to look for it once you get to the questions.

That said, it is tempting for many students to just look at the broad strokes part of the passages without keeping track of any of the specific elements. I would not encourage this approach. It isn’t important to memorize the details, but it is important to know where they are and generally what they’re about. This will save you time and prevent you from having to reread entire paragraphs. If you just mark down that there are examples in paragraphs 1 and 3, then you won’t know where exactly to look if you’re asked for a particular point.

The key to every section of the LSAT is practicing. This is especially true for Reading Comprehension. The stimuli are longer than in Logic Games or Logical Reasoning, and you will be expected to answer more questions. As a result, you have to master your techniques in order to effectively grasp both the structure and the details.

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