Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension: 1

Reading comprehension: Myths vs. Reality

Reading comprehension is, perhaps, the biggest bugaboo that any test taker of competitive examinations must confront. Granted, that for those unused to the intricacies of large chunks of written text (and that would be most people because the cultivation of reading habit has dwindled considerably over the past few generations) Reading Comprehension passages may SEEM intimidating, but adding fuel to that fear is the claim of many “teachers “that one must understand a passage to solve the questions that follow. This is both incorrect and illogical.

I have extensively taught Reading comprehension techniques for the GRE, CAT, SAT and GMAT over the past nine years and believe me such platitudes as “understand the passage”, “employ speed reading” and “develop an expansive reading habit” are just that, mere platitudes. I’m sure many of you would disagree and that is your prerogative. But read on a little further and see for yourselves if what I say makes sense.

Let me start by debunking the last “theory” first. Knowledge, certainly, is a valuable tool and the acquisition of knowledge is indeed the loftiest of goals but does that mean the one should go ahead and read as much as one can about history, political ideologies, business practices, social issues, biomechanics, physics, nanomaterial, mythology, theology……..I mean, the list is practically endless. Therefore:

A. It’s practically impossible to master everything

B. Even the topics that you do master don’t really help you solve Reading comprehension passage.

Here’s why; you see, when we confront a reading comprehension passage, it’s the author’s point of view that matters and not what we know about the subject matter involved. Let me elaborate, we will work with the assumption that we have received a passage on the ethical aspects of. Now, our knowledge on topic may have given us aperspective which may be either pro or anti human cloning. So,subsequently, when we get a question which asks us to identify the main idea of the passage does our stance on the topic matter? The resounding, clear and logical answer is “NO!” We must identify the author’s intentions and respond accordingly.

How about “employ speed reading”? Surely that must work! The sooner we finish reading a passage the sooner we may answer questions, right? That depends, do we want to only answer the questions or do we seek to answer them correctly? Further, do we even know how long it takes for a person to develop real speed reading skills? Here’s a fine article on Speed Reading that appeared on the Huffington Post, I recommend strongly that you read it ( I wish to draw particular attention to the following lines from the post though,

A.  Technique (one minute):

B. Use the pen to track and pace at a consistent speed of one line per second. Begin one word in from the first word of each line, and end one word in from the last word.

C. DO NOT CONCERN YOURSELF WITH COMPREHENSION. Keep each line to a maximum of one second, and increase the speed with each subsequent page. Read, but under no circumstances should you take longer than one second per line.

So, wait….solve Reading Comprehension questions without comprehending the passage? Well, Yes and NO! See, instead of the standard multiple dynamics of Speed Reading such as, Perceptual Expansion and Tracking and Pacing, you need a different strategy which actually aids your comprehension. But more on that later. For now let’s move on to the first paradigm.

How does a student of Economics understand a passage on “Biomechanics on Molecular Level ”? Or a science student understand a dissection of the contrasting elements of “The Wuthering Heights”?

The truth is they are unlikely to. But does that mean that they shouldn’t attempt to answer question based on such passages? Of course NOT! See , understand two things very clearly –

A. Reading Comprehension is the only question type that can be attempted with 100% accuracy.


B. The answers to each question that follows every passage is present within the passage and nowhere else.

That that we know what doesn’t work, let’s discuss what does work-


B)Understand each question type and respond accordingly.

Deconstruction: Let’s begin by understanding that there are, primarily, three types of passages. I choose to term them 1) Opinion Based 2) Information based and 3) Melded (Information +opinion/Opinion substantiated by Information).

An Opinion based passage is one where, to put it bluntly, the writer has an agenda. The writer seeks to express his/her opinion on the topic presented. Such passages, typically have more examples (and relatively less data) that seek to establish the authors’ points of view. They may also incorporate an example or two which express opinions contrary to the authors’ points of view .But that’s just setting the stage for the author to brandish his knowledge and smack that counterpoint/counterpoints into oblivion.

Example: Initially the Vinaver theory that Malory‘s eight
romances, once thought to be fundamentally unified.
were in fact eight independent works produced both a
Line sense of relief and an unpleasant shock. Vinaver‘s
5 theory comfortably explained away the apparent
contradictions of chronology and made each romance
independently satisfying. It was, however, disagreeable
to find that what had been thought of as one book was
now eight books. Part of this response was the natural
10 reaction to the disturbance of set ideas. Nevertheless,
even now, after lengthy consideration of the theory‘s
refined but legitimate observations, one cannot avoid
the conclusion that the eight romances are only one
work. It is not quite a matter of disagreeing with the
15 theory of independence, but of rejecting its implications:
that the romances may be taken in any or no particular
order, that they have no cumulative effect, and that they
are as separate as the works of a modern novelist.

Information based passages, on the other hand, are fact rich, content driven observations whose authors may arrive at a conclusion based on the facts presented earlier in the passage but they will seldom venture opinions/judgments. They are content to merely observe and report.

Example: Flatfish, such as the flounder, are among the few vertebrates that lack approximate bilateral symmetry (symmetry in which structures to the left and right of the body‘s midline are mirror images). Most striking among the many asymmetries evident in an adult flatfish is eye placement: before maturity one eye migrates, so that in an adult flatfish both eyes are on the same side of the head. While in most species with asymmetries virtually all adults share the same asymmetry, members of the starry flounder species can be either left-eyed (both eyes on the left side of head) or right-eyed. In the waters between the United States and Japan, the starry flounder populations vary from about 50 percent left-eyed off the United States West Coast, through about 70 percent left-eyed halfway between the United States and Japan, to nearly 100 percent left-eyed off the Japanese coast.

Biologists call this kind of gradual variation over a certain geographic rang a “cline” and interpret clines as strong indications that the variation is adaptive, a response to environmental differences. For the starry flounder this interpretation implies that a geometric difference (between fish that are mirror images of one another) is adaptive, that left-eyedness in the Japanese starry flounder has been selected for, which provokes a perplexing questions: what is the selective advantage in having both eyes on one side rather than on the other?

The ease with which a fish can reverse the effect of the sidedness of its eye asymmetry simply by turning around has caused biologists to study internal anatomy, especially the optic nerves, for the answer. In all flatfish the optic nerves cross, so that the right optic nerve is joined to the brain‘s left side and vice versa. This crossing introduces an asymmetry, as one optic nerve must cross above or below the other. G. H. Parker reasoned that if, for example, a flatfish‘s left eye migrated when the right optic nerve was on top, there would be a twisting of nerves, which might be mechanically disadvantageous. For starry flounders, then, the left-eyed variety would be selected against, since in a starry flounder the left optic nerve is uppermost

The problem with the above explanation is that the Japanese starry flounder population is almost exclusively left-eyed, and natural selection never promotes a purely less advantageous variation. As other explanations proved equally untenable, biologists concluded that there is no important adaptive difference between left- eyedness and right-eyedness, and that the two characteristics are genetically associated with some other adaptively significant characteristic. This situation is one commonly encountered by evolutionary biologists, who must often decide whether a characteristic is adaptive or selectively neutral. As for the left-eyed and right-eyed flatfish, their difference, however striking, appears to be an evolutionary red herring.


Melded passages are passages that are rich in facts and suppositions but also incorporate the authors’ points of view on the topic. The narrative is more “information based” than “example based”. Time references, dates and chronological references abound, with the authors’ conclusions making up the final part such passages.

Kazuko Nakane’s history of the early Japanese immigrants to central California’s Pajaro Valley focuses on the development of farming communities there from 1890 to 1940. The Issei (first-generation immigrants) were brought into the Pajaro Valley to raise sugar beets. Like Issei laborers in American cities, Japanese men in rural areas sought employment via the “boss” system. The system comprised three elements: immigrant wage laborers; Issei boardinghouses where laborers stayed; and labor contractors, who gathered workers for a particular job and then negotiated a contract between workers and employer. This same system was originally utilized by the Chinese laborers who had preceded the Japanese. A related institution was the “labor club,” which provided job information and negotiated employment contracts and other legal matters, such as the rental of land, for Issei who chose to belong and paid an annual fee to the cooperative for membership.

When the local sugar beet industry collapsed in 1902, the Issei began to lease land from the valley’s strawberry farmers. The Japanese provided the labor and the crop was divided between laborers and landowners. The Issei thus moved quickly from wage-labor employment to sharecropping agreements. A limited amount of economic progress was made as some Issei were able to rent or buy farmland directly, while others joined together to form farming corporations. As the Issei began to operate farms, they began to marry and start families, forming an established Japanese American community. Unfortunately, the Issei’s efforts to attain agricultural independence were hampered by government restrictions, such as the Alien Land Law of 1913. But immigrants could circumvent such exclusionary laws by leasing or purchasing land in their American-born children’s names.

Nakane’s case study of one rural Japanese American community provides valuable information about the lives and experiences of the Issei. It is, however, too particularistic. This limitation derives from Nakane’s methodology—that of oral history—which cannot substitute for a broader theoretical or comparative perspective. Future research might well consider two issues raised by her study: were the Issei of the Pajaro Valley similar to or different from Issei in urban settings, and what variations existed between rural Japanese American communities?

Now that we understand that every passage begins with an introduction to one of the several things such as a person/phenomenon/event/idea/theory etc. The subsequent paragraphs may do one of the two things; support what has been said before or contradict what has been said before. And that is where the real deconstruction begins. There are various keywords that help one etch out the transitions existent in a passage and their positioning play a vital role in baring the schematics of any passage. Once the mechanics of a passage becomes clearer its structure is laid bare. Then all one has to do is based on one’s knowledge of question types go to the point of reference mentioned in the question and read it once more and then look at the options given. Believe me, nothing could be easier. The answer will jump at you and smack you in the face!!! In my next post, I’ll further explain this concept in detail.

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