Seems like everyone wants more help on LSAT Reading Comprehension these days, so here are some loosely-related thoughts on how to approach Reading Comp.
What to focus on
I like to think of Reading Comprehension passages as big “point at issue” questions like the ones you find in Logical Reasoning.
Comparative reading passages are the most explicit examples of this. You want to be aware of the opinions each passage expresses. Most importantly, look for areas where there’s overlap between the two.
In the non-comparative (regular) reading comp passages, look carefully for any opinions expressed by individuals. If you see an opinion without an “advocate,” it’s the passage author’s opinion.
Again, focus on the viewpoints and speakers, not the details (evidence). The LSAT isn’t expecting you to remember everything, and it certainly isn’t expecting you to memorize what a Koch curve is or how it’s created (June 09 LSAT – PrepTest 57, RC Passage #4). It’s simply expecting you to remember where in the passage you can find that info if you need to return to it.
In law school, you’ll have to get through hundreds of pages a week on boring topics. This is why LSAT passages tend to be on obscure and mostly-uninteresting topics. Your job is to convince yourself that it’s interesting and that you care about whatever point at issue or difference of opinion is expressed in the passage.
Although reading comprehension’s grown more unpredictable on recent exams, there are some common RC structures you might see. This is especially true for natural science and social science passages.
Here’s one common RC structure (although there are many others):
“In the past, a discussion has generally been limited to one thing, but new research, evidence, or studies have sparked new debate over the issue of X.”
Alternatively, the same structure might look like this:
“People used to think things were one way, but new evidence suggests things are actually another way.”
The old way of discussing, viewing, or theorizing about something is viewpoint 1.
The new way of thinking about this issue is viewpoint 2.
PrepTest 29, Section 2, Questions 16-21 (page 28 in The Next 10 Actual, Official LSAT PrepTests)
Natural Sciences Example
Old way: Bohringer’s finding (Lines 18-20) – Viewpoint 1
New way: Scheich’s studies (Lines 4-8, 29-41 and 54-56) – Viewpoint 2
PrepTest 29, Section 2, Questions 22-27 (p30 in Next 10) –
Social Sciences Example
Old way: Most scholars’ lack of interest in how medieval law actually affected women (Lines 11-14) – Viewpoint 1
New way: Interest in how the law actually affected women, and what’s necessary to study that (Lines 16-28, but especially 25-28) – Viewpoint 2
One way I stay engaged and keep track of viewpoints is to reduce them to a core word or phrase. Why?
Because sometimes they’ll say, “Some scholars believe X, while other scholars believe Y.”
I’d call them the X-ists and the Y-ists.
Example: PrepTest 22, Section 1, Passage 4, Questions 22-26 (p124 in 10 More Actual, Official LSAT PrepTests)
Lines 18-24 of this passage give us the core of the argument:
The debate centers around whether language corresponds in some essential way to objects and behaviors…or…whether the relationship between language and things is purely a matter of agreed-upon conventions, making knowledge tenuous, relative, and inexact.
I’d mark “V1” and “V2” in the margin (to the left) of the words “essential” and “convention,” respectively.
One group believes language has an essential meaning, and the other group believes its meaning is conventional/relative.
Throughout the passage, I’d mentally call the viewpoints “essentialist” and “conventionalist,” and I’d mentally call the groups in the debate the “essentialists” and the “conventionalists.”
This concise summary of the viewpoints allows us to place just about every piece of information in this passage into one of these two groups.
PrepTest 31, Section 4, Passage 4, Questions 21-28 (p102 in Next 10)
In this one, the passage even gives us names for the groups in lines 37-38 – “subjectivists and objectivists.” Use these names to make the reading easier for you. You’ll now be able to go back and note in the margins where evidence for each viewpoint appears.
Most passages start by jumping into the main topic they’re actually about. However, a few begin with a topic that is unrelated to the topic that the passage is actually about. I suspect LSAC does this with the goal of tricking those who want to save their least-favorite topic or type (natural science, social science, law, and humanities) for last. Don’t be fooled!
The essentialist/conventionalist passage in PrepTest 22 starts with a paragraph about math.
PrepTest 35, Section 2, Passage 3, Questions 15-20 (p332 in Next 10) starts with a paragraph about “philosophers of science” while the passage itself is more concerned with biologists.
Photo by prawnwarp / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
(FYI, that photo depicts our friend de Saussure.)