By Blake Moore.
New LSAT students are often surprised at how difficult the LSAT reading comprehension section is. I know I was. When I originally heard that the LSAT had a reading comprehension section, I assumed that I would earn those points without a problem. After all, reading was something I had mastered back in elementary school; a reading comprehension test would be easy. Of course, I was completely wrong. I missed more questions in the reading comprehension section of my diagnostic exam then I did in any other section.
To make matters even worse, my reading comprehension score was the hardest to improve. For a long time, my reading comprehension skills simply would not get better. I was taking PrepTest after PrepTest, but my score refused to increase.
Reading is a difficult task on the LSAT. The exam is full of dense, complex sentences, and the writers of the test expect you to be familiar with some uncommon vocabulary words. To make matters worse, many questions require you to pick up on minor details, subtle shifts in language, and even unstated assumptions in written arguments.
Unfortunately, this high level of language used on the LSAT can be a problem for test-takers. Questions are often skipped because they look too complex. And even when “easy” questions are attempted, many students find during review that they lose multiple points simply because they misread what is written on the test. This was certainly a problem for me during my prep.
But eventually I did learn how to approach LSAT reading, and my scores finally started to improve in reading comprehension. The good reading habits helped me master the logical reasoning sections as well, and on test day I scored a 175.
The secret to better LSAT reading is to replace bad reading habits with good ones. If your brain is anything like mine, it probably prefers distractions over boring LSAT material. But you can force your brain to pay attention, and you can force yourself to read well. The keys to better LSAT reading are mental paraphrasing, adding commentary, and identifying reasoning structures.
When reading difficult passages or dense arguments, stop occasionally and think, “What did I just read?” Then mentally restate the previous few sentences in your own words. This is called “paraphrasing,” and it’s an incredibly useful tool.
When you paraphrase, you force your brain to remember the words you just read, attempt to understand the meaning behind those words, and translate that meaning into new words that are more familiar to you. That’s a lot of mental steps, which signals to your brain that maybe the paraphrased information is worth retaining for a little while. The mental steps also require a high level of reading comprehension; you can’t explain a sentence in your own words without first understanding that sentence.
It is not difficult to understand why LSAT students might want to 1) remember more of what they read and 2) comprehend more of what they read. Retaining information leads to answering questions quickly, and good reading comprehension leads to answering questions accurately. This is why good paraphrasing tends to lead my students to higher scores.
However, before you begin your journey into paraphrasing everything you read, you should understand that this is not an easy habit to get into. Paraphrasing is a cognitively difficult task; you will likely need to work your way up to paraphrasing an entire section of the test. Just like you should probably master running a mile before taking on a marathon, you should probably paraphrase single passages before moving on to entire sections. But with the right amount of practice, you’ll find that entire PrepTests can be paraphrased.
Making mental comments as you read a long passage can help with understanding and retaining the passage. These comments can include criticisms (“That reasoning seems a bit circular”), predictions (“I think the author will probably reject this proposal.”), or even jokes (“That’s what she said!”). As long as you are commenting on what the passage actually says, you can’t go wrong.
Commentary helps greatly with retaining the information in a passage. By making comments, you add mental markers to various portions of the passage that make those portions easier to recall. It’s hard to remember the details of a long, boring passage, but it’s easy to remember the line that led to a sex joke. So make the joke!
Commentary also breaks up the monotony of reading comprehension passages. Most LSAT students are aware of how disastrous boredom can be in reading comprehension sections; losing interest makes focusing on the passage almost impossible. Commentary can make reading less tedious, and that often results in a greater ability to focus on the relevant material.
Identifying Reasoning Structures
Good reading on the LSAT is not just about understanding the content of individual sentences; good reading on the LSAT requires you to understand how the sentences (and paragraphs) in a passage work together to form an argument. As you read, you need to pay attention not only to the author’s main point but also to how the author supports that main point.
One of the best techniques for identifying reasoning is to stop after every paragraph in a passage and consider what happened in that paragraph. What was the main point of that individual paragraph? And how does that paragraph build on what happened in the preceding paragraphs? Once you finish a passage, take a moment to look back over each paragraph and think about how the main point of the passage is supported by each paragraph.
It’s also important to make a mental note when the author of a passage references a point from earlier in the passage. If the author starts a paragraph by writing “This understanding of her work…,” then you should think “What understanding? What exactly is the author talking about here?” If the author writes about “the traditional theory,” then you should think “Which theory is that?” Don’t just read the words of a passage; actively seek to understand how those words form an argument.
Blake Moore is a tutor from Gainesville, Florida. Find out more about Blake on his Gainesville LSAT site.