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 America 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).
You probably had difficulty formulating a coherent and thorough summary of the text. This is in large part because your brain was in passive mode: it was simply stringing words together, and, once word was piled upon word, it got lost in the woods, so to speak.
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.
Here’s the thing: GRE passages are meant to be so dull that, after the first couple of lines, your attention is likely to wander. The good news is that 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” — a simplification of the important parts of the paragraph. By paying attention to structure words, you won’t get lost in the sea of information.
Categorizing the passage in this way is what I call active reading, the topic of this post. Below, I discuss how to read actively.
The three tenets of active reading
1. Notice connections between paragraphs
The paragraph at the beginning of this post represents one possible paragraph structure. You’ll want to open up a GRE book (preferably the Official Guide) to see how the passages, especially the longer ones, are organized. They actually don’t vary much from the passage above.
Early in the text, a field of study will often be mentioned. Then a theory from this field will be mentioned. Evidence supporting this theory will typically follow. In longer passages, the author might critique the theory or contrast it with some other theory.
Once you can recognize and anticipate these structures, it will be easier for you to categorize the information in the passage.
2. Pay attention to “structure words”
“Structure words” make up 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. The one you should pay the most attention to is “contrast words.”
however, though, although, 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 of 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 be 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 of what the passage is about. Consequently, you’ll be able to answer the questions more easily than if you had to hesitate among possible answer choices (which typically happens when you have an imperfect understanding of the passage). In the end, reading actively saves you time.
Finally, you don’t need to understand every detail in the paragraph. The end of paragraphs tend to be especially dense with details. It’s best to come back to this only if a detail is related to a question. Seeing the text a second time and within the context of a 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. Our basic instinct is to try to get through the passage as quickly as possible. If your RC practice is currently focused on improving your reading speed, you might want to reevaluate how you approach the passage. Again, by more effectively “packaging” textual information 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 read actively.
1) Look away from the passage after each paragraph
This is a strategy to get your brain used to taking snapshots of the paragraph. If you’re focused on the screen, it’s easy to become distracted by the words dancing in front of your face. By looking away, you can more easily come up with a quick summary, or 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 takes a mere few seconds — and you can work on making your snapshots even more condensed. 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 shorthand notes after each paragraph. The ultimate goal, though, is to wean yourself off written summaries so that you’ll only need to take mental snapshots.
3) Look away after you’ve read the passage
The same as point #1, except now you’ll 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 so.
Active reading in action
Let’s take the paragraph from the beginning of the post and dissect it the way you should if you’re 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, someone—it could be the author or somebody the author talks about in the passage—disagrees with something or somebody else in the passage. Understanding the twists and turns in the paragraph that result from “contrast words” is 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 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 completely 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 second sentence does not completely disagree with the first sentence. It just qualifies, or limits, the first sentence.
In 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’s 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 relationships between sentences in a paragraph and the meanings they convey, you will be able to deal with the questions 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 to fumble frantically through the morass of words that make up the answer choices.
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