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Getting Started: Early Issues with Reading Comp

During the last few lessons I’ve spent with my current class (whom I love unconditionally), a few issues have arisen as we worked through Reading Comprehension passages. The culmination was the moment when I was asked the following question:

“If I don’t understand the words, what should I do?”

You might assume that there is no answer to such a question, but you would be wrong. Over the years of teaching the LSAT, I have found that there is an answer to every question, a solution to every problem that students confront.

So here are a few tips that deserve repeating.

1. Treat the author like he/she is God/Allah/Buddah/Star Princess (depending on your system of beliefs).

It is totally imperative that you have a strong grasp of the author’s attitude before approaching the questions on a passage. There are going to be direct questions about the author’s stance, and it will pervade many other types of questions (main point, primary purpose, etc.).

Students commonly think that an author will simply display an attitude that is positive, negative, or neutral. On recent tests, however, the author’s attitude has commonly been more nuanced than that. To track the author, watch for small phrases that indicate his or her opinion. Here are a few tough examples:

A. “…necessarily general regulations…lead to difficulties…”

This gem occurred in a passage related to native folks and their attempts at establishing their rights to land (you can probably guess the outcome.) Many students would take this claim to imply that the author has a negative view towards these regulations. Not so fast. Consider this analogy.

“In Taryn’s dormitory, the necessarily strict curfew has led to difficulties for certain intoxicated individuals stumbling home late from parties.”

Does this mean the author thinks the curfew is a bad thing? Or that the students got screwed? Nope. Rather, this is an indication that the circumstances required a strict curfew, and it simply describes some of the consequences that have resulted. The same thing can be said for the stance of the author in the passage.

B. “…scholars claim it has numerous advantages…and there is some validity to these claims…”

In this passage, the author was arguing against legal scholars who supported court adjudication for solving family disputes (you know, nothing better than throwing little Sally on the stand to testify about her parents). The author eventually concluded that mediation was a much better option, but noting that there was a concession (“there is some validity”) earlier in the passage was vital to success on the questions.

Picking up on all aspects of the author’s attitude is crucial, so make sure to note any of these phrases when you catch them in a passage.

2. Look stuff up

When I translate answer choices for students into more common parlance, they inevitably find it easier to locate the damn answer. Unfortunately, the LSAT does not offer a translator during the exam. (It would be pretty funny if they did. Some guy explaining that “making an illicit attack on an opponent’s character” really means that someone is “talking sh*t to a hater.”)

Believe it or not, there are resources out there that can help you in these situations. When you come across a word or phrase that is abstruse (that means hard to understand), look it up. The LSAT recycles everything, from subjects to question types to verbiage. If it screwed you once, there is a good chance that it will come back to screw you again. Since we are in the age of technology, you don’t even have to lug around a volume of dictionaries. In between levels of Angry Birds, just run a quick Google search.

My class got stuck the other night on the meaning of “qualifying” an earlier claim. In such a context, this means to modify, limit, or restrict. For example, a person might claim that dogs make for the best pets. If she later added that she is not considering exotic animals, such as chinchillas or ferrets, she would be qualifying the original claim.

So what are the takeaways? Look up words you don’t understand and be sure to track the author’s attitude. There’s more to do to master reading comprehension, of course, but it’s early. Let’s keep it simple.