Dial the Right Area Code for Reading Comprehension

by on August 7th, 2012

Today’s article comes courtesy of Veritas Prep GMAT instructor and BTG expert, David Newland.

With the ease of looking up numbers on Google you may have forgotten what a phone book is…

A phone book is a thick book made out of paper and it lists all the phone numbers for a particular area, for example, the City of Boston or the entire state of Wyoming…If you know what city, town, or suburb the business or individual that you are looking for is in you can choose the right phone book and simply look the number up. These days it is easy to forget that you need to know which actual paper phone book to look in…since your computer is the only phone book you currently need. For example, if the business is in Paris you would not want to look for the phone number in a London phone directory.

Once you have identified the correct directory, looking for a number in the phone book is much easier than trying to memorize all the numbers that you might possibly need to know or making lists of the numbers on your own sheets of paper. If you do try to memorize the numbers you might forget them and if you do write down lots of numbers you might write some down wrong – and in either case it is simply impossible to anticipate every phone number that you will eventually need. In other words, don’t try to memorize or write down the numbers just get the right area code and rely on the phone book.

Specific detail questions on Reading Comprehension work the same way. If you can get the right area code (in this case that means the correct paragraph) then you can go back to the passage and find the information that you need.  

The same procedures that are extremely inefficient when looking for a phone number also make for poor approaches to reading comprehension.

  • Trying to memorize each and every detail in a reading comprehension passage may not be as fool-hardy as trying to memorize the phone book, but it is still a bad idea for everyone except those with photographic memories. Students are so used to “closed book tests” throughout high school and college that they fail to take advantage of the fact that the reading comprehension passage is always there – available for you to look back at in order to answer any detail questions that come up. Why memorize when you can simply return to the passage and find the detail that you need? When a student’s primary strategy for answering detail questions is based on process of elimination using only his or her memory I know that we have a problem.
  • Rewriting each of the details from the passage onto your scratch paper is also a futile endeavor. It would take way too long to note down each and every detail, and more importantly, unless you literally copy down the exact article onto your scratch paper (and why would you?) you will necessarily be altering the text: paraphrasing and abbreviating. Since the correct answer to the detail question is often itself a paraphrase of the text you could very easily find that your paraphrase does not match that of the correct answer and the result of all of your hard work in note taking will be lots of incorrect answers.  For this reason, when one of my students starts writing notes as they are reading the paragraph I know that we have a problem.

Approaching Passages

So how should a test taker approach a reading comprehension passage in order to best handle the detail questions that will inevitably come up?

1. Stop. Stop is a word that we use a lot at Veritas Prep when talking about Reading Comprehension. It is an acronym that helps students to organize their thoughts about a passage. But today I am using the word in a literal sense. Stop at the end of each paragraph and determine the main idea of that paragraph.

2. Create an area code. Write down the main idea of each paragraph (I would say no more than 6 to 12 words). This is your area code. If the paragraph is really long (and the GMAT has been offering some monster paragraphs lately) then you will need to break it into two area codes. It is much more helpful to know that the information you need is within a 15-line portion of the text rather than a giant 30-line paragraph.

  • Do not take notes as you are reading. Write nothing until you have read the entire paragraph and then only write the main idea of the paragraph. Your goal is only to identify the main idea of the paragraph; among other things this will really help you to answer detail questions.
  • Fly at the right altitude. Coming up with the main idea in an effective and efficient way is a skill that requires practice. You are trying to distill an entire paragraph into a few words. When you are reading you want to be “at the right altitude” – meaning not so close to the passage that you get lost in details and not so far away that your idea of a main idea of a paragraph is “astronomy.”  Check the comments at the end of the article for links to passages where you can practice this technique.  

3. Dial the area code. If the test then asks you a detail question you will know which paragraph to return to. It is not very efficient to scan the entire passage looking for a particular detail, but if you can narrow your search to a single paragraph you can work accurately and efficiently.

4. Look up the number. Once you have the right phone book – or on the GMAT the right paragraph – it is time to look up the number (or detail) that you need. First, think about looking up an actual phone number. The number is actually the output. We say that we are “looking up a number” when in fact, we are “looking up a name” (the input) and then the phone book supplies us with the number (the output).

On the GMAT it would be inaccurate to say that you are “looking up the correct answer to a detail question.” In fact, what you are doing is using the question stem (the input) to guide you to the proper portion of the text so that you can re-read that portion. Obviously the correct answer will not repeat the question stem! Instead the adjacent portion of the text will provide the information in the correct answer (the output).

I call this the “Two Way Paraphrase Technique.” The first paraphrase is the question stem, which paraphrases a portion of the text. This is how you find the portion to re-read. You look in the correct paragraph for key words, phrases, and concepts from the question stem. When you find the correct portion of the text you should re-read before and after that portion in order to make sure that you have the full information that answers the question. Once you have re-read the full thought then you are ready to answer the question.

5. Find the paraphrase in the answer choices. The second paraphrase in the “Two Way Paraphrase Technique” is the correct answer choice, which will very likely be a paraphrase of the text that you just read. Again, look for key words, phrases, and concepts. You should be able to very quickly identify the correct answer. This is not really a process of elimination at this point since you actually know what the answer is from the text of the passage.

Passages for you to try

I have selected some passages for you to try this technique on… in the comments section at the end of this article I will post the links to the Reading Comprehension passages. As soon as this article is published I will post the passages in the Reading Comprehension forum and will put the links to those passages in the comments below.

For each passage, your task is to Read the passage, Stop and the end of each paragraph, and Write the main idea for that paragraph (this is how you create your area code). So in short –Read, Stop, and Write. If you are not sure of the main idea of any of the paragraphs go ahead and re-read that paragraph. The worst thing you can do is to push through a passage that you do not understand. Better to spend a few extra seconds reading again. Good luck on the passages!

Remember, if you want to connect with a great score on Reading Comprehension…You have to Dial the Right Area Code!


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