Read the following passage and then we’ll talk:
Once American men returned from the WWII battlefields, they quickly displaced the women who had temporarily filled jobs otherwise reserved for men. With most women reverting to their domestic role, the dramatic increase in the number of infants born is perhaps not too surprising. Yet, such factors alone cannot explain the increase in the number of births from 1946-1951. Murray suggests that both women and men’s perspectives changed, mostly because of America’s success in the war. This optimism, in part, fueled the rapid growth in population. However, many argue that women, in returning to the home, were able to focus on raising a family, regardless of their levels of optimism.
Welcome back! Without looking at the passage above (you might want to put your hand over the passage, or scroll down a bit to hide it), tell me what you just read.
You’re likely to pause for a minute and try to grab onto one of the words or phrases floating around in your head (“women,” “jobs,” “number of infants”) and then formulate a statement like: “It was about women in American and how they had more kids.” Your attention likely waned after the first couple of sentences and might have even derailed by the time you got to the name “Murray” (you might not even remember reading that name).
Besides coming up with some vague generalities, you probably had difficulty formulating anything coherent and thorough. Much of the reason for this is your brain was in passive mode: it was stringing words together, and once word was piled upon word, it got lost in the woods, so to speak.
But don’t worry. You are not alone. 99% of the adult population will probably have a very similar response. You are also not alone if instead of stopping and thinking about what you read, you kept plowing forward in the mistaken notion that if you got to the end, the passage would suddenly all make sense.
The thing is the passages on the GRE are written in such a way that they are meant to be dull so that after the first couple of lines your attention is likely to wander. The good news is we can use the predictability of the GRE passages to our advantage. To do so, we need to understand how a paragraph is designed.
By simplifying all the major components in your head, the way that I’ve done above, you will easily be able to come up with what I call a “snapshot”, which is a simplification of the important parts of the paragraph. By paying attention to structure words, you won’t get lost in the sea of words but will be able to focus on what is important.
This discerning categorizing of the passage is the beating heart of the topic of this blog post: active reading. Below, I will focus on how to read actively so you are not desperately stringing words together hoping for a miracle at the end.
The three tenets of active reading
1. Notice connections between paragraphs
The reading passage above is but one possible way in which a paragraph can unfold. You’ll want to open up a GRE book (preferably the Official Guide) and see how the passages, especially the longer ones, are organized. You’ll notice that they actually don’t vary much from the passage above.
Often a field of study will be briefly mentioned. Then a theory, though not necessarily the authors, will be mentioned in relation to this topic. Evidence supporting this theory will typically follow. For longer passages, the author might offer up his or her critique of the theory, or the author might introduce another theory and contrast it with the earlier theory.
Once, you can anticipate and recognize these varying structures, it will be a lot easier for you to categorize the copious information the passage throws at you.
2. Pay attention to “structure words”
“Structure words” are the glue that holds the paragraph together. But they are more than that; they show us how the sentences are logically connected.
Here are five of the most important types of structure words. Out of these, the one you should pay most attention to is “contrast words”.
however, (al)though, still, nonetheless, at the same time, on the other hand, otherwise, but, yet, notwithstanding
indeed, moreover, in fact
for example, for one, to illustrate
because, since, for that reason
therefore, thus, hence, consequently, as a result
3. Make connections within paragraphs
It’s okay to slow down for a second and even look away from the screen. You’ll want to “digest” what’s being said. This is the golden pillar to active reading. Specifically, ask yourself, “what is the paragraph saying?” I call these paragraph snapshots. You force yourself to make important connections in the paragraph, while summarizing key points in your head.
You might balk, thinking, “Doesn’t that take a long time?” Well, when you get to the end of the passage, you’ll have a very good idea about what the passage is about. Consequently, you’ll be able to answer the questions much more easily, saving you time (instead of having you go back and forth between possible answer choices, which typically happens when you have an imperfect understanding of the passage).
Finally, you don’t need to understand every detail in the paragraph. Especially towards the end of the paragraph there will be a density of detail. It is best to come back to this only if this material is related to a question (which it typically is). Seeing this text for a second time, and within the context of the question, will often make it is easier to digest.
Applying what you’ve learned
It’s easy to understand how active reading works. It is much harder to apply. See, our basic instinct is to try to get through the passage as quickly as possible. Therefore, if you are currently timing yourself, thinking that the only way you’ll get better is to get faster, you might want to reevaluate how you approach the passage in the first place. Again, by more effectively “packaging” the information in the passage the first time around, you’ll be both more efficient and more accurate when you answer the questions.
Here are few tips to help you actively read.
1) Look away from the passage after each paragraph
This strategy is to get your brain used to taking snapshots of the paragraph. By not looking away from the screen, it is easy to become distracted by the words dancing in front of your face. Looking away, you can easily come up with a quick summary/snapshot: “It’s about two different theories on the population increase after WWII. One is that people were more optimistic about starting families; the other that women who were working were able to go back and start a family.”
Saying that in your head, and you can do so in an even more abbreviated fashion, takes a mere few seconds. Then, when the next paragraph deals with, say, an analysis of that theory, you’ll have a much easier time following along.
2) Take notes
Sometimes, it’s hard to organize the clutter of thoughts pin-balling through your head as you read a passage. Take short hand notes after each paragraph. The ultimate goal, though, is to wean yourself off of these summaries so that you’ll be able to take mental snapshots.
3) Look away after you’ve read the passage
The same as point #1. Except, now you’ll just want to answer the question: “What was the primary purpose of the passage?” Putting this in your own words is a good idea, since, especially on the long reading passage, there will likely be a question that asks you to do exactly this.
Active reading in action
Now, let’s actually take the paragraph from the beginning of the post and dissect it, much the way your mind would if actively reading the passage.
With most women reverting to their domestic role, the dramatic increase in the number of infants born is perhaps not too surprising. Yet, such factors alone cannot explain the increase in the number of births from 1946-1951. Murray suggests that both women and men’s perspectives changed, mostly because of America’s success in the war. This optimism, in part, fueled the rapid growth in population. However, many argue that women, in returning to the home, were able to focus on raising a family, regardless of their levels of optimism.
The most important structure words are contrast words, because they change the direction of the paragraph. In other words, a person—it could be the author or somebody the author talks about in the passage—disagrees with something or somebody else in the passage. It is understanding the twist and turns in the paragraph that result from “contrast words” that is the key to understanding the passage. Remember, the passage is not just about imparting information; it is about subtle distinctions that arise from a debate in which people take varying positions.
In the paragraph above, notice how the first sentence introduces the topic. After that, it is straight into a contrast word. Therefore, the second sentence does not agree with the first.
1st sentence: women returning to home cause of more babies
2nd sentence: other factors also account for more babies
Notice, that the 2nd sentence does not completely disagree with the 1st sentence. It just qualifies or limits what that sentence says.
The next sentence we get Murray’s view. Always notice when the author brings up another point of view.
Murray’s view: people became more optimistic; made more babies
Now, there is another “contrast word”: however. This signals that we are getting another point of view.
Other view: women were able to focus on raising a family
One final point
Once you’ve noticed the relationship between sentences in a paragraph and the meaning they convey, you will be able to deal with the questions pertaining to the passage far more confidently. Indeed, you’ll be able to formulate an answer in your head. And if you do have to consult the passage (as you should), you’ll know where to look.
All in all, becoming an adept active reader will help you home in on the correct answer, instead of having you fumble frantically through the morass of words that make up the answer choices.