What does it mean to be a strong reader?
The Reading Comprehension section can be especially intimidating, given that we must read, analyze, and interact with four long passages. Like the other sections on the LSAT, this one requires that we process information quickly and efficiently.
Highly proficient readers are able to discern a wealth of information from the text as they read it. This doesn’t mean that they’re able to recall exactly what was said in detail, but instead it means that they can distinguish the significant details from the minor ones and they can synthesize conclusions and predictions from the text.
When they approach the questions and answer choices, they’re drawing connections, expanding on the concepts provided, and interacting with the author of the passage. For a proficient reader, the passage does not so much present an opportunity to learn about a new topic, as much as provide an opportunity to critique a hypothesis, perspective, institution, etc.
This means that a strong reader is a critical reader.
How can I improve my performance?
Success in the Reading Comprehension section requires a set of skills that we use every time we read something, although we might not use all of the skills simultaneously. The need to utilize the entire set of skills with razor-focus is what makes the Reading Comprehension section difficult and draining. But, with practice we can train ourselves to apply these skills at an almost second-nature basis.
Here are five comprehension skills that will help us improve our performance. These strategies make processing the information in the passage a more active task. By reading the passage with a more active, critical eye, we are expending energy on the passage, but saving time and energy later when approaching the questions and answer choices.
Engage more with the text by applying these 5 skills aka the D.I.V.A.S.
1. Draw Connections
We can think of this skill as asking two different “how” questions. One “how” question is, how does this information relate to what I already know, what I’ve experienced, what I believe? This personal connection to the text helps integrate what is written. Further, these questions help us intuit the strength of the argument given, the tone of the author, and the purpose of the passage.
Another “how” question compels us to think beyond the text and wonder about structure, such as, how does this sentence connect to the main point of the paragraph and the passage, how does this counterargument help elucidate the author’s belief? We can then answer questions that ask us to weaken or strengthen a perspective, identify the meaning of a term, and find the role of a sentence or paragraph.
For this skill, we can try to fill in this blank: “Consequently, __________.” Remember, one factor that makes the Reading Comprehension section difficult is that the author introduces a host of facts, ideas, opinions, and terms - and they might not fit together so seamlessly! As critical readers, it is our responsibility to determine not only how all the pieces of information fit together into a whole, but also to process the consequences, the implications.
When making inferences as we read, it’s okay if our inferences seem like assumptions; essentially, what we are trying to do is to see the bigger picture of what is given to us. If we take some of the author’s statements to be causes, then we infer our own conclusions by reflecting on the effects of those statements. And so, we can answer questions that ask what the passage is suggesting, what the author might think of an analogous situation, and the intention of mentioning something.
This skill engages us with the text through an imaginate process that can include: the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, gustatory, spatial, conceptual, and emotional. It is probably most useful when summarizing the text to ourselves, and especially when making sense of abstract concepts or topics unfamiliar to us. Visualizing aids us in discerning the important details and messages within the text and fitting them into a concise narrative as we read. The benefits of improving this skill are that by creating imaginative associations with the material we increase our focus, improve our memory, and interrelate different ideas more easily.
Asking questions is part of interacting critically with the author and the material they provide. When a fact is given to us, for example, we may ask, how did they find this fact? Are they sure this supports their argument? How relevant is this fact? When we are given a set of conclusions, we may ask, Do these conclusions make sense based on what I just read? What do these conclusions tell me about the motivations or opinions of the author? What would this theory look like in practice?
The key takeaway about this skill of asking penetrative questions is that it drives us to be in a constant mode of critique (active) rather than acceptance (passive) of the text. By strengthening this skill, we can easier answer questions having to do with the role of a phrase or description, which statement the passage supports, what the author would dis/agree about, and what must be true.
As opposed to inferences, which is a skill that uses connections to arrive at speculation and implication, synthesis also involves connections, but the goal is to arrive at a big picture understanding. Synthesis might seem to mean ‘putting the passage into your own words,’ but really synthesis goes beyond the text and more into the realm of concepts.
Reading Comprehension passages are often full of details - both relevant and irrelevant - and the bigger picture role and meaning of these details is sometimes not explained. This is one factor that makes this section of the LSAT difficult - that is, we are given a lot of information and asked to find the coherent thread in it. Synthesizing a big picture understanding of the concepts in the passage (or of the passage itself) is helpful when figuring out the main point of the passage, the tone, or why the author chose to write the paragraphs in a certain order, or to bridge ideas that seem unrelated.
Which skill should I work on first?
The skill that should be worked on first largely depends on skill level, amount of study time, and personal learning style.
For a recommendation, however, it might be effective to start with Synthesis. This is because Synthesis allows you to identify the bigger picture concepts and, at base, comprehension requires that we understand big picture ideas like: the main point and purpose of certain terms, sentences, paragraphs, and the passage as a whole.
We can think of Synthesizing as summarizing the main point. The benefit to practicing summarizing is that, when done correctly, we are showing that we can distinguish the important details from the trivial ones, we draw connections, and we identify the structure of the passage.
Try this to help practice the skill of Synthesis:
Take a passage from any preptest. Try to identify the main point of each paragraph in the passage in 1 sentence (per paragraph). During the actual test, the ability to keep these main point sentences in mind will be one of our best tools when tackling the questions. By identifying the main point, we eliminate the need to memorize what was said in the passage and instead focus on analyzing and critiquing the passage, by utilizing the other four skills (drawing connections, inferring, visualizing, and asking questions).