The Most Important Moment in Reading Comprehension

This tip for improving your GMAT score was provided by David Newland at Veritas Prep.

A reading comprehension passage is not just one entity to be read at the same level of attention and focus throughout. A passage is quite varied, and an active reader will give different levels of focus to different parts of the passage.

For example, it is crucial that you begin reading a passage slowly. Understanding the first several sentences can be vital to your ability to connect with the reading as a whole. If you begin too quickly and force yourself to keep pushing on, you will likely become disconnected and feel you are not engaged by the passage.

On the other hand, if you begin more slowly and interact with the passage, you are likely to become much more engaged and have a far better understanding of the reading. After all, this is reading comprehension, with an emphasis on “comprehension.”

Try this technique as you begin a reading comprehension passage: First, read slower than you normally would. Make sure your attention is focused on the passage and stop after each sentence to integrate the information you have been given.

Next, try to anticipate where the passage is going. If the passage is describing a theory that “normally” applies, you might anticipate next reading an example of where the theory does not apply. It does not matter if your anticipation turns out to be correct; just by trying to see where the passage is headed, you are necessarily engaging with it.

Finally, stop after each paragraph and integrate it into the passage as a whole. Think of paragraphs on reading comprehension as sentences in critical reasoning. For a very long paragraph, you may want to stop halfway through, as if it were two paragraphs.

The Most Important Moment: At some point during your reading, you will probably arrive at “the most important moment” in the passage. This is the moment when the issue, theory, or problem is explained or resolved. The rest of the passage builds to and then flows from this particular portion.

Typically, a problem is set up in the first paragraph. Then details about the process or the theory are developed in response to the problem. Next comes the “aha” moment, when the passage uses the theory to address the problem or issue that was set up in the beginning. I call this the “aha” moment because everything in the passage should have been leading in that direction. Finally, the remainder of the passage explains the implications of what you have just learned.

For example, the passage on page 392 of the Official Guide for GMAT Review, 13th edition, begins with a discussion of how variations in the Earth’s orbit may be correlated to ice ages, but it states that this theory was considered untestable because it would require a way to determine levels of land ice in the distant past. A new theory seems to make this possible. The theory is based on the fact that two different oxygen isotopes are in the oceans: oxygen 16 and oxygen 18.

Now comes the “aha” moment: Oxygen 18 is heavier, so it does not evaporate as readily as Oxygen 16. Normally this does not matter because the evaporated water falls as rain or snow and flows back to the ocean. But during an ice age, more of the precipitation falls as snow, and it does not melt. So an ice age means more Oxygen 18 in the water. And since marine organisms with shells use water drawn from the ocean, an examination of ocean sediments provides a record of the ice ages.

Aha: That is the crucial moment. So much has built to this point and is finally resolved when the new technique is applied to the problem and you learn that the theory of the link between variations in the Earth’s orbit and ice ages can be tested. It is not enough simply to know that more oxygen 18 in sediments equals an ice age. You must understand why. That is the crucial moment in this passage, and it requires you to slow down and focus.

Facts are easy to look up: Names, dates, numbers, and lists all seem to jump off of the page when you are looking for them. But the theory is not easy to reconstruct. It is important that you understand the “why” of the passage. When the problem and the theory come together, that is the most important moment in reading comprehension.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? Try our own new, 100 percent computer-adaptive free GMAT practice test and see how you do.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.