If you’re like most of the students who come to me for LSAT tutoring, you don’t enjoy the Reading Comprehension section of the test. In fact, you might dread it. As a result, you avoid it as much as possible during your prep. Or maybe you think, “I’ve always been pretty good at reading comprehension,” so you spend more time prepping for the other sections.
Once you find yourself in this situation, it is easy to stay in it, because the short, one-question-per-passage questions of the Logical Reasoning section (a.k.a. “Arguments”) are much more user-friendly, and the Analytical Reasoning section (a.k.a. “Games”) is much more fun, at least relatively speaking.
For these and other reasons, some students don’t devote the time it takes to perform at a high level on the Reading Comprehension section. This is to their detriment, for several reasons. For one, each question matters, for each is an opportunity to increase your raw score.
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Secondly, of the four scored sections, Reading Comprehension has the most questions (typically 27, so just over a quarter of all questions). Finally, improving reading comprehension as a general skill will help ward off mistakes not just in the Reading Comprehension section but in all sections.
My point: Reading comprehension is really important, so it deserves your attention.
So, I’ll talk a bit about how to improve reading comprehension on the LSAT.
Disclaimer: There’s no perfect way to tackle the Reading Comprehension, or any, section of the LSAT. What works well for one person might not work well for you and vice versa. So, what one tutor or test-prep book tells you might not be all you need and might not be what a different tutor or book tells you.
Prepping for the LSAT is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and neither is teaching it. That said, below are strategies and tactics that work for me and that have worked well for my clients.
Before diving into the Reading Comprehension section, a few thoughts about reading comprehension as a general skill.
“Reading comprehension” simply means reading something and understanding what you just read. It doesn’t require recalling every word of what you read. We are not talking about a skill called “reading memorization”. Just comprehension. Understanding what you read.
So, how can we better understand what we read? A few quick tips:
First, remember what I just said. If you keep in mind that your goal is to comprehend (at a general level) what you read, you will be less likely to let difficult, specific parts of the reading suck you in and divert you from your mission.
Second, actively highlight and annotate. Stretch that writing hand.
Finally, recognize what a given sentence is doing. Is it asking a question? Is it making a claim? It is giving evidence for a claim? Is it giving examples or listing things? Understand what each part of the text is doing at a fundamental level. More on all of this below.
I often tell my clients to find ways to make the section (passages and questions) much simpler. If you do the things below, I think you greatly increase your ability to improve on the Reading Comprehension section of the LSAT.
I work with my LSAT clients on two strategies for the Reading Comprehension section: macro and micro. The main goal of the macro strategy is to see the big picture; the main goal of the micro strategy is to highlight the most important content.
Each is discussed below, and you should employ these strategies simultaneously. In other words, don’t read the passages twice, doing macro work one time and micro work the other. Such would be a really inefficient use of your limited time.
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And speaking of efficiency, if you are not a good skimmer, practice it. There’s simply not enough time to pore over every single word. Learn to skim. (Skim tip: Instead of reading lists and examples during your initial read, simply highlight them. As long as you know what they are referring to, you can go back and read them later, if you get a question about them.)
At the very least, detect and understand what the big picture is. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. It’s a cliche but apropos idiom. Many students get so caught up in the details of the passage that they miss what the passage is trying to accomplish, leading to their spending inordinate amounts of time reading and trying to understand specific content (often when the subject matter is technical or unfamiliar). This is a recipe for disaster on the Reading Comprehension section.
Do not get sucked in by the details. Instead, know where the details are. The micro strategy deals with this.
Back to macro. Don’t over-complicate things. The goal is to know what is happening, on a large scale. What is the main point? What is the 30,000-feet view? What does the forest look like?
A really simple way not to get this wrong is to digest the passage one paragraph at a time. If your current strategy is to read the passage from start to finish and then ask yourself, “What is this all about?”, my advice is to scrap that strategy for good.
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Instead, read and process one paragraph at a time. At the end of each paragraph, write in the left margin a short (as few words as possible) summary of what that paragraph is about. For example, if the passage has four paragraphs, your four respective summaries might read, “Strategy introduced (first paragraph), “pros of strategy” (second), “cons of strategy” (third), “author’s recommendation (use or don’t use the strategy)” (fourth).
Such paragraph summaries accomplish two really important things: they show you what each paragraph is about and show you how the paragraphs relate to one another (i.e. the structure of the passage). This is what this part of the forest looks like, that is what that part of the forest looks like, and you see what they look like together. This is a very simple way to improve reading comprehension on the LSAT.
Within each paragraph, you should highlight, in some manner, words worth highlighting. Underline, circle, bracket, use abbreviations and symbols, etc. In short, be an active reader.
The goal is to make certain words conspicuous, so you easily see where important content is located. Don’t try to master detailed content. Instead, make sure you know where certain details are, so you can return to them quickly, should you get a question dealing with them. In essence, you’re drawing yourself a map. You’re leaving bread crumbs, to find your way later.
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So, what’s worth highlighting? What are the details that can help you improve reading comprehension on the LSAT? Different teachers will have different answers to this, but here’s what I think is worth going to the paper with your pencil/highlighter, in no particular order:
Before moving on, I should note that the more you practice the micro strategy, the more you can (hopefully) free yourself from it. In other words, I think marking all of the above items is very beneficial early in your prep, while you get the hang of what matters and what doesn’t, but as you improve, you might be able to spend less time marking.
As is true for each section of this article, I could devote an entire article to the specific question types. For now, I will note that most questions fall into one of three categories (again, my system of categorization, not necessarily how another would categorize):
1) Structural (e.g. main point, organization of the passage, function of a specific paragraph)
Effective use of my macro strategy is the key to answering these questions correctly. Short paragraph summaries in the left margin help you realize what is happening in each paragraph and how the paragraphs relate to one another.
Regarding main-point questions: The main point is the big “what”. What does the author want you to know? What is the big idea? Be careful not to choose an answer that is overly specific or detailed. Details that support the big idea are likely evidence. Important but not the most important thing.
Tip: Though the main point can be found anywhere, the most common place you’ll find it is near the end of the first paragraph and/or near the beginning of the second.
2) Identification (e.g. passage indicates, passage mentions, according to the passage)
These questions ask you to find something the passage actually states. Black print on white paper. It’s basically a word search. If you do a good job on the macro and micro strategies, you’re in a better position to know where to look for the words in each answer choice. Then, it’s just a matter of finding them or not finding them.
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3) Inference (author most likely to believe, passage implies, author’s attitude/tone, author’s purpose)
This isn’t a word search. You’re not looking for something that is explicitly stated. Rather, you use what is explicitly stated to infer what is not. If you have a handle on what the passage says, what the author is trying to accomplish, the author’s perspective, you are much more likely to pick an answer choice that jives with those things.
General tip: All things equal, answer choices with weaker/general language are usually better than ones with stronger/specific language, because the latter ones are more likely to go beyond what can be backed up in the passage. To be clear, the correct answer can absolutely be one with very strong/specific language, so long as equally strong/specific language in the passage backs it up.
Obviously, much more can be said about all of this, but I think this is a great starting point for how to improve reading comprehension on the LSAT. Most importantly, like the rest of the LSAT, the Reading Comprehension section requires practice and patience. Don’t neglect it, simply because it seems harder or more boring. You absolutely can improve your reading comprehension on the LSAT, so don’t miss the opportunity to do so!