Reading Comprehension Introduction
Compared with the other parts of the GRE, Reading Comprehension seems to be the most difficult for many test-takers. As we’ll discover there are key insights and useful strategies, but no shortcuts.
Some test-takers believe that because they can read a newspaper, the Reading Comprehension passages and questions will be easy for them. But casual reading is not critical reading.
GRE students often react negatively to the unfamiliarity of the Reading Comprehension content, the sometimes-confusing nature of the questions, and the pacing requirements of this section.
For these reasons, Reading Comprehension is likely to be the most time challenging of the GRE verbal question types. Efficiency is critical to performing well on this section.
Efficiency = Speed + Accuracy
Reading Comprehension Strategies
There’s no point in being fast if you’re not getting the questions right. And nailing the first few Reading Comp questions but then running out of time for the rest of the section won’t do much for your overall score.
So you need a strategy that lets you work quickly and accurately. And we have developed such a strategy for you.
Because the passages constructed by ETS (GRE test maker) are fairly consistent and the questions that follow are somewhat predictable we can employ a strategy or methodology suited to meet these expectations.
Four methods of reading and information processing include skimming, scanning, speed-reading, and critical reading.
Method 1: Skimming
Skimming is a reading technique used here to quickly identify the main ideas and thoughts of a passage while under time constraints, especially if it’s subject matter with which you are unfamiliar.
Our “skimming” is a pretty straightforward technique, and different than other kinds of skimming done for other, less-focused purposes.
Skimming is a form of speed-reading that involves scanning (looking quickly but not thoroughly) sentences and paragraphs for clues to understanding, mainly used to get an overall feel for the context.
In skimming you should:
- The meaning or purpose of the passage
- The information provided in the passage
- The central theme(s)
- The main idea(s)
- The main ideas from supporting ideas
- The relevance and strength of the supporting ideas
When skimming, you should ask yourself:
- What’s an appropriate title for this passage?
- How can I summarize this excerpt?
- Where might this passage have appeared — a newspaper, scientific journal?
- For what reason was this piece written?
Method 2: Read the Passage
As you read, make some notes (using scratch paper or other material provided by your friendly test proctor) on:
- main ideas (used in answering main idea questions)
- key points and information (used in answering hunt and peck and inference questions)
- transitions (used in answering inference and style/tone/organization questions)
Method 3: Sum up the Piece and Pinpoint Information
Try to summarize the passage and track the details as you move through the material. These techniques works especially well if you tend to lose concentration as you read.
Remember, this part of the GRE is basically an open-book test, so you don’t need to write down or remember every detail and key point. You just need to know where to find them.
Some passages may have line numbers for references. Some passages may not. In those that don’t, the question stems may reference information in the passage by paragraph number so be conscious of the paragraph breaks as you read.
Method 4: Critical Reading
To be a critical reader you must think critically. A GRE critical reader:
- reads with a purpose – and the purpose is to answer the questions correctly
- recognizes each paragraph as an integrated whole
- understands how each paragraph fits into the overall passage
- evaluates arguments and supporting evidence
Approaching the Questions
1) Read the question stem (the part before the answer choices). By identifying the question-type, you’ll know better how to approach the answer choices. Here, the stem reflects the nature of the question leading you to the first paragraph and providing information to answer the: where, when, who, and what questions. Don’t time yourself on the Koko and Chocolate passages. Focus on finding the correct answers. You can work on timing later, with the practice sets.
2) Review each answer option critically to eliminate those not supported by the passage. Focus on important words and try to articulate reasons to discard each choice. (Note that answer choices that “contradict” the passage or choices that are “not mentioned” or “not supported” in the passage are favorite GRE distractors.)
3) Make sure your choice responds to the question stem. Refer to your notes and don’t pick an answer until you’ve found the evidence to support it (or lack of evidence to discard it).
Once you’ve eliminated as many answers as you can (ideally, four), pick the best remaining choice and move on.
The Four Reading Comprehension Question Types
Four question-types have appeared on recent GREs:
- main idea
- hunt and peck
- style/tone/organization (occasionally)
But there are so many variations on these themes that we’ll relax any rigid definitions.
The suggested pacing for the Reading Comprehension questions (including reading the passage and note taking) is 1.5 minutes per question on average.
Two passages (one short, one longer) with a total of (roughly) 11 questions appear on each of the two GRE verbal sections.
The GRE test-makers break down the questions into basic categories, which we’ve identified as four general question-types.
You need to be able to identify the question-type because each one requires a different approach.
You can’t pick the right answer unless you understand the question!
Main Idea Question-Type
The passages on the GRE tend to develop one main idea or central point. Sometimes this idea is stated directly in the passage, often in the first or final paragraph.
When it is, be sure to identify it when you’re making notes. If the main idea isn’t explicitly stated, write a one-sentence summary of the main idea as soon as you’ve finished reading the passage. Skimming the passage will often help you distill the main idea.
Try to separate the main idea from the supporting evidence. Your overall sense of the passage can be your best guide here. Unlike some kinds of standardized-test questions that we never encounter in real life, this question-type is pretty common in the real world.
Anytime a friend asks you “So what was that article about?” you’re getting a main idea question.
How to Identify a Main Idea Question-Type
The Main Idea question-type will include a word or phrase letting you know you’re being asked about the main point of the passage as a whole:
“The author’s primary purpose in this passage is . . .”
“The passage is mainly concerned with . . .”
“The best title for this passage would be . . .”
“The author’s discussion of vacuums, transistors, and silicon chips is primarily intended to explain . . .”
“Which of the following most completely and accurately describes the passage . . .”
Hunt and Peck Question-Type
The test-makers don’t call them hunt and peck (they call them questions about “ideas or information stated explicitly in the passage”—much less snappy), but hunt and peck describes the strategy you need to follow.
The answer to a hunt and peck question-type is always stated directly in the passage. This means you should go back to the passage and find the answer. The more reliable your notes, the easier this will be.
Unlike main idea question-types, which ask you about the passage as a whole, hunt and peck question-types ask you to locate a specific supporting idea or piece of information.
The hunt and peck question-type is the most common overall, and the more factual and less argumentative the passage, the more there will probably be.
Note that the credited response to a hunt and peck question-type will match an idea in the passage, if not the exact wording.
How to Identify a Hunt and Peck Question-Type
A Hunt and Peck question will be worded in a way that lets you know you’re being asked to focus on a specific element of the passage:
- “According to the passage, the concept of plate tectonics explains which of the following?”
- “What evidence does the author cite to support the contention that import quotas should be tightened?”
- “This passage provides information that would answer which of the following questions?”
- “Which of the following is not a factor the author cites as a key to success in negotiations?”
In real life, an inference often involves a highly creative, insightful synthesis of ideas and observations. The less obvious—and even more debatable—a real-life inference, the better.
The exact opposite is true on the GRE: the more literal and obvious, the more text based and less synthetic, the less debatable, the better.
An inference question-type tests your ability to understand and identify what the passage implies rather than what it states.
But all Reading Comprehension answers must have a textual basis. In other words, the rationale for the answer can’t be in your head, because different folks have different experiences and insights and intuition.
The rationale—the evidence—has to be on the page. This question type requires you to take what’s on the page and extend or apply it, with the fewest possible additional assumptions.
How to Identify an Inference Question-Type
Depending on what the inference question-type is asking for you can expect question stems like these:
- “This passage most likely appeared as part of . . .”
- “The author would probably agree (or disagree) with which of the following statements?”
- “This article most likely appeared in . . .”
- “The author implies that the best control for unlicensed handguns would be . . .”
- “Which of the following might the author cite as an example of free trade as it is described in the passage?”
- “Given the author’s position on the fluoridation of the public water supply what stand would the author probably take on the issue of mandatory immunizations?”
Style is how something is said, done, expressed, or performed.
Format (design, structure) is the arrangement of the parts or elements of something complex. In a Reading Comprehension passage, format refers to the organization of the information and ideas presented.