How to approach Reading Comprehension


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    Reading comprehension is often considered as an “Open book” test. Where we have the complete data in front of us and we just need to refer and answer. This is not exactly what a passage question does. Let’s take a real life scenario. Your Boss asks you to represent your department in an organizational level summit. You are given a report which is agreed upon by the department and this should be your reference while taking any decision in the meeting.

    Now, what will be your strategy? Will you take a print and start turning pages throughout the meeting…? Doesn’t sound promising right… Of course we will carry a printout but that will be for a ‘Just in case’ scenario. We will do our homework and ensure that we understand the intent of the report along with the content and whatever decision we take will be based on that. Better our homework is, better our participation will be. For reading comprehension, context is not much different than this meeting room. We are given the ‘report’ in the form of a passage, and we need to solve the questions based on our understanding of the passage.

    We know that majority of aptitude questions checks the quality of our approach than our knowledge. While checking the approach, question maker wants to see our ability to decide on which question to choose and which question to leave, which method to employ and which method to avoid and so on. In this list one very important aspect is our ability to identify useful information from a chunk of data. This is a key aspect that is tested in passage questions.

    Any meaningful language construct can be divided into two main parts, Intent and Content. Intent deals with what is that to be conveyed and content deals with how the intent is conveyed.

    Consider a paragraph from a CAT 2008 passage,

    “Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works. Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. For these reasons some cognitive scientists have described language as a psychological faculty, a mental organ, a neural system, and a computational module. But I prefer the admittedly quaint term “instinct.” It conveys the idea that people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs. Web-spinning was not invented by some unsung spider genius and does not depend on having had the right education or on having an aptitude for architecture or the construction trades. Rather, spiders spin spider webs because they have spider brains, which give them the urge to spin and the competence to succeed. Although there are differences between webs and words, I will encourage you to see language in this way, for it helps to make sense of the phenomena we will explore.”

    While trying to comprehend a passage we usually get caught in content and start spending unnecessary attention to details. Like in the above passage, intent of the author is to establish that language is a biological instinct rather than learned skill. Even if we don’t know who qualifies as a cognitive scientist or the meaning of ‘quaint’, we will be still able to comprehend the intent. Also we don’t need to spend any time on the working of federal government or the process of web spinning… they are all illustrations and details which support the core idea, intent. Until there is a question which specifically focus on content (which are not that common), we can win a passage by comprehending the intent.

    There are umpteen methodologies to tackle a passage. Best method is the one that suits YOU the best. In this article I will share my favourite RC strategy, Prick & Pick. Like our famous potato chips pack, which look promising at the beginning, passages looks bulky. But if we prick, then the chips pack becomes disappointingly empty and our passage becomes relaxingly simple :)

    Process is simple,

    PRICK: We need a needle to prick the passage. Prepare the needle by understanding what is needed from the passage. What we NEED is our ‘NEED’le. Glance through questions and understand the keywords that appear in them. These keywords shall give us our needle. While doing so, don’t read the options as it fails the purpose of having keywords. Reading options will create unnecessary confusions and diversions even before we start reading the passage.

    PICK: We will read the passage and focus only on data which are related to what we need. PICK the intent of the passage and if you come across the keywords from the NEEDle, pay extra heed even if it is a content based portion.

    Here one important aspect is that we are NOT trying to ‘locate’ the keywords in the passage. Sometimes test takers will read the questions and start fanatically searching the keywords in the passage. There is no guarantee that those keywords will appear in the passage. Even if they appear it is not necessary that the question can be answered just by reading that particular portion alone. Always remember, Reading comprehension is not an open book test. (Well… people who have experienced open book tests will disagree with me stating them as simple. We know what the exam is going to be like when professor says bring any reference you need, it is an open book test! ;) )

    While reading for the first time (Picking) we stay within the framework we formed from our required information (while Pricking). As we read, ensure that we mark the important statements.  In a paper based test, use your pen and in case of online test, use text highlighter. Also don’t try to mug up the passage. Even though sounds silly, many of us read and re read the passage to an extent that we know them by heart once we comeback from exam hall :)

    Enough theory… lets Prick & Pick…! Below passage is from CAT 2007

    The difficulties historians face in establishing cause-and-effect relations in the history of human societies are broadly similar to the difficulties facing astronomers, climatologists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, geologists, and palaeontologists. To varying degrees each of these fields is plagued by the impossibility of performing replicated, controlled experimental interventions, the complexity arising from enormous numbers of variables, the resulting uniqueness of each system, the consequent impossibility of formulating universal laws, and the difficulties of predicting emergent properties and future behaviour. Prediction in history, as in other historical sciences, is most feasible on large spatial scales and over long times, when the unique features of millions of small-scale brief events become averaged out. Just as I could predict the sex ratio of the next 1,000 new born but not the sexes of my own two children, the historian can recognize factors that made inevitable the broad outcome of the collision between American and Eurasian societies after 13,000 years of separate developments, but not the outcome of the 1960 U.S. presidential election. The details of which candidate said what during a single televised debate in October 1960 could have given the electoral victory to Nixon instead of to Kennedy, but no details of who said what could have blocked the European conquest of Native Americans.

    How can students of human history profit from the experience of scientists in other historical sciences? A methodology that has proved useful involves the comparative method and so-called natural experiments. While neither astronomers studying galaxy formation nor human historians can manipulate their systems in controlled laboratory experiments, they both can take advantage of natural experiments, by comparing systems differing in the presence or absence (or in the strong or weak effect) of some putative causative factor. For example, epidemiologists, forbidden to feed large amounts of salt to people experimentally, have still been able to identify effects of high salt intake by comparing groups of humans who already differ greatly in their salt intake; and cultural anthropologists, unable to provide human groups experimentally with varying resource abundances for many centuries, still study long-term effects of resource abundance on human societies by comparing recent Polynesian populations living on islands differing naturally in resource abundance. The student of human history can draw on many more natural experiments than just comparisons among the five inhabited continents. Comparisons can also utilize large islands that have developed complex societies in a considerable degree of isolation (such as Japan, Madagascar, Native American Hispaniola, New Guinea, Hawaii, and many others), as well as societies on hundreds of smaller islands and regional societies within each of the continents. Natural experiments in any field, whether in ecology or human history, are inherently open to potential methodological criticisms. Those include confounding effects of natural variation in additional variables besides the one of interest, as well as problems in inferring chains of causation from observed correlations between variables. Such methodological problems have been discussed in great detail for some of the historical sciences. In particular, epidemiology, the science of drawing inferences about human diseases by comparing groups of people (often by retrospective historical studies), has for a long time successfully employed formalized procedures for dealing with problems similar to those facing historians of human societies. In short, I acknowledge that it is much more difficult to understand human history than to understand problems in fields of science where history is unimportant and where fewer individual variables operate. Nevertheless, successful methodologies for analysing historical problems have been worked out in several fields. As a result, the histories of dinosaurs, nebulae, and glaciers are generally acknowledged to belong to fields of science rather than to the humanities.

    1. Why do islands with considerable degree of isolation provide valuable insights into human history?

    (1) Isolated islands may evolve differently and this difference is of interest to us.
    (2) Isolated islands increase the number of observations available to historians.

    (3) Isolated islands, differing in their endowments and size may evolve differently and this difference can be attributed to their endowments and size.
    (4) Isolated islands, differing in their endowments and size, provide a good comparison to large islands such as Eurasia, Africa, Americas and Australia.
    (5) Isolated islands, in so far as they are inhabited, arouse curiosity about how human beings evolved there.

    2. According to the author, why is prediction difficult in history?

    (1) Historical explanations are usually broad so that no prediction is possible.
    (2) Historical out comes depend upon a large number of factors and hence prediction is difficult for each case.

    (3) Historical sciences, by their very nature, are not interested in a multitude of minor factors, which might be important in a specific historical outcome.
    (4) Historians are interested in evolution of human history and hence are only interested in long term predictions.
    (5) Historical sciences suffer from the inability to conduct controlled experiments and therefore have explanations based on a few long-term factors.

    3. According to the author, which of the following statements would be true?

    (1) Students of history are missing significant opportunities by not conducting any natural experiments.
    (2) Complex societies inhabiting large islands provide great opportunities for natural experiments.

    (3) Students of history are missing significant opportunities by not studying an adequate variety of natural experiments.
    (4) A unique problem faced by historians is their inability to establish cause and effect relationships.
    (5) Cultural anthropologists have overcome the problem of confounding variables through natural experiments.

    We need our NEEDle... Just glance through the questions (remember, just questions, not options). Keywords we got from questions are ‘Isolated islands’ and ‘Difficulty in prediction’.

    How easily and quickly we spot and comprehend relevant portions depends on our comfort level with lengthy passages. Build the habit of reading two editorials daily. While doing so pick from different genres, like pick one from general news and another from business. This will not only help in improving reading speed and comprehension skills but also will be of great support during GD and interview preparations.

    Let’s PICK now… This is our first read and the most important part. We will try to comprehend the intent and also will pay extra heed if we come across any keywords. I am highlighting portions which I felt relevant with GREEN (intent) & GREY (NEEDle). Other portions (illustrations and fillers) are not highlighted. It should be possible to answer most of the questions if we are able to get a good understanding of GREEN and GREY portions.

    The difficulties historians face in establishing cause-and-effect relations in the history of human societies are broadly similar to the difficulties facing astronomers, climatologists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, geologists, and palaeontologists. To varying degrees each of these fields is plagued by the impossibility of performing replicated, controlled experimental interventions, the complexity arising from enormous numbers of variables, the resulting uniqueness of each system, the consequent impossibility of formulating universal laws, and the difficulties of predicting emergent properties and future behaviour.[Explains the difficulty]. Prediction in history, as in other historical sciences, is most feasible on large spatial scales and over long times, when the unique features of millions of small-scale brief events become averaged out [Due to the keyword Difficulty in prediction]. Just as I could predict the sex ratio of the next 1,000 new born but not the sexes of my own two children, the historian can recognize factors that made inevitable the broad outcome of the collision between American and Eurasian societies after 13,000 years of separate developments, but not the outcome of the 1960 U.S. presidential election. The details of which candidate said what during a single televised debate in October 1960 could have given the electoral victory to Nixon instead of to Kennedy, but no details of who said what could have blocked the European conquest of Native Americans.

    How can students of human history profit from the experience of scientists in other historical sciences? A methodology that has proved useful involves the comparative method and so-called natural experiments. While neither astronomers studying galaxy formation nor human historians can manipulate their systems in controlled laboratory experiments, they both can take advantage of natural experiments, by comparing systems differing in the presence or absence (or in the strong or weak effect) of some putative causative factor [Suggests the solution to the difficulty mentioned in first paragraph]. For example, epidemiologists, forbidden to feed large amounts of salt to people experimentally, have still been able to identify effects of high salt intake by comparing groups of humans who already differ greatly in their salt intake; and cultural anthropologists, unable to provide human groups experimentally with varying resource abundances for many centuries, still study long-term effects of resource abundance on human societies by comparing recent Polynesian populations living on islands differing naturally in resource abundance. The student of human history can draw on many more natural experiments than just comparisons among the five inhabited continents. Comparisons can also utilize large islands that have developed complex societies in a considerable degree of isolation [Due to the keyword Isolated islands] (such as Japan, Madagascar, Native American Hispaniola, New Guinea, Hawaii, and many others), as well as societies on hundreds of smaller islands and regional societies within each of the continents. Natural experiments in any field, whether in ecology or human history, are inherently open to potential methodological criticisms. Those include confounding effects of natural variation in additional variables besides the one of interest, as well as problems in inferring chains of causation from observed correlations between variables [Explains the challenges in natural experiments]. Such methodological problems have been discussed in great detail for some of the historical sciences. In particular, epidemiology, the science of drawing inferences about human diseases by comparing groups of people (often by retrospective historical studies), has for a long time successfully employed formalized procedures for dealing with problems similar to those facing historians of human societies. In short, I acknowledge that it is much more difficult to understand human history than to understand problems in fields of science where history is unimportant and where fewer individual variables operate. Nevertheless, successful methodologies for analysing historical problems have been worked out in several fields. As a result, the histories of dinosaurs, nebulae, and glaciers are generally acknowledged to belong to fields of science rather than to the humanities.

    Before solving the questions I will share the intent which I got from the passage. This is just my understanding which may be incomplete or can be wrong… there are verbal experts in our gang and I am sure they will help us in improving our RC skills… :)

    While analysing and formulating a pattern in historical sciences, the sample data is spread across a large span of time period and multitude of occurrences. It is not easy to reproduce them under controlled conditions as the outcome is dependent on lot of factors. Historical science enthusiasts observe the cause/effects absence/presence of various natural/social attributes for a long period of time and then predict what can be the trend for another long period of time. While doing so they get a high level picture which may not consider all the factors that can alter the outcome. Even though learning from nature has challenges associated with them, we are able to deal with them to a certain extent.

    With this understanding let’s try to solve the questions…

    1. Why do islands with considerable degree of isolation provide valuable insights into human history?

    (1) Isolated islands may evolve differently and this difference is of interest to us.
    (2) Isolated islands increase the number of observations available to historians.
    (3) Isolated islands, differing in their endowments and size may evolve differently and this difference can be attributed to their endowments and size.
    (4) Isolated islands, differing in their endowments and size, provide a good comparison to large islands such as Eurasia, Africa, Americas and Australia.
    (5) Isolated islands, in so far as they are inhabited, arouse curiosity about how human beings evolved there.

    Option1: True
    Option2: True
    Option3: Not only True, but also explains why Option 1 & 2 are True
    Option4: True. But More than just comparing two different systems a historian will be more interested in knowing HOW the differences got shaped by the absence/presence of various attributes in each systems (endowments and size). This is explained neatly in option 3.
    Option 5: ‘Arising curiosity’ is not a valid reason from our passage.

    It is safe to go with Option 3. What say?

    2. According to the author, why is prediction difficult in history?

    (1) Historical explanations are usually broad so that no prediction is possible.
    (2) Historical out comes depend upon a large number of factors and hence prediction is difficult for each case.
    (3) Historical sciences, by their very nature, are not interested in a multitude of minor factors, which might be important in a specific historical outcome.
    (4) Historians are interested in evolution of human history and hence are only interested in long term predictions.
    (5) Historical sciences suffer from the inability to conduct controlled experiments and therefore have explanations based on a few long-term factors.

    Option 1: ‘No prediction is possible’ cannot be concluded from the passage. It says prediction is difficult and is more feasible in longer time periods…
    Option 2: True
    Option 3: ‘not interested in a multitude of minor factors’ is not the intent of the passage. Historians are interested but it is difficult to replicate those factors in a controlled environment.
    Option 4: ‘only interested in long term predictions’ is not the intent of the passage. Short term predictions will be dependent on lot of factors hence is difficult. Predictions are more feasible over a period of time where the outcomes can be correlated with fewer attributes.
    Option 5: True

    Between Option 2 and Option 5, Option 2 also explains why Option 5 is true. Historical sciences suffer from the inability to conduct controlled experiments (because Historical out comes depend upon a large number of factors) and have explanations based on a few long-term factors (because prediction is difficult for each case).

    3. According to the author, which of the following statements would be true?

    (1) Students of history are missing significant opportunities by not conducting any natural experiments.
    (2) Complex societies inhabiting large islands provide great opportunities for natural experiments.
    (3) Students of history are missing significant opportunities by not studying an adequate variety of natural experiments.
    (4) A unique problem faced by historians is their inability to establish cause and effect relationships.
    (5) Cultural anthropologists have overcome the problem of confounding variables through natural experiments.

    Option 1: Not true, they are conducting natural experiments.
    Option 2: True
    Option 3: True
    Option 4: Not true, it is not unique just to historians. Passage talks about historical sciences in general.
    Option 5: Not true, they have not overcome the problem.

    Between Option 2 and Option 3, Option 3 explains why Option 2 is True.  As there are not many options to conduct constructive natural experiments, each possibility is an opportunity.

    Our approaches in verbal are evolved over a period of time. Here we will deal with situations like Option A is ‘more correct’ than Option B. Someone’s “Obviously Correct” can be a “Definitely Wrong” for someone else. Every option, correct or incorrect, is a learning opportunity in verbal section. Along with understanding why a particular option is correct it is important that we have clarity on why other options are incorrect. We need to harness the maximum potential of collective wisdom.

    Happy Learning :)

     


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