4 Rules to improve reading skills for Reading Comprehension Questions in CAT

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

Reading Skills for Reading Comprehension

Every time I think about how to prepare for RC, I am struck by how similar the process of reading is to the technique of driving. If your driving technique is sound, you can drive any car properly. On the other hand, if the technique is poor, you end up wrecking every car you drive.

Reading fiction is somewhat like driving a train.

Who among us hasn’t ever fantasised about having the best seat on the train? I could give an arm and a leg to be in the driver’s cabin of a German ICE train, or the Swiss Lyria, or the Austrian Railjet, or the Italian Frecciarossa, or the Shanghai Maglev.

As a train driver, you don’t really have to do much in the way of ‘driving’. The train does it for you. You start off on your trip, set a nice pace for yourself, have a cup of coffee with you, and for the better part of your time, you cruise on autopilot, taking in the beautiful universe that you glide through. There is usually nothing to impede your way.

When I am reading a divine work of fiction (“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde, or “Flashman’s Lady” by George MacDonald Frasier), the feeling is exactly the same. I am in the driving seat (Read: my couch). I set a nice pace for myself, and within seconds I am on autopilot, taking in the beautiful universes woven by these geniuses. Nothing impedes my way. The only difference is that I am not on the job, so I don’t have to stick to coffee. I go for a vintage Puligny Montrachet, or a first-growth Bordeaux, or Laphroaig Quarter Cask, or Kina Lillet, or the good old Pimms No. 1 on ice!

Yes, yes. I am a snob. When it comes to the experience of reading, it matters to me what I have in either of my hands!

Reading fiction is, truly, all play and no work, and it never makes Jack a dull boy!

On the other hand, reading non-fiction is like driving to office during the rush hour.

Particularly through the Haji Ali-Marine Drive stretch of Mumbai, or the Burrabazaar-Strand Road section of Kolkata, or the Delhi-NCR route, or pretty much any road journey in Bangalore.

These are the drives you DO NOT look forward to. They are full of impediments of various kinds – both living and non-living. They require a considerable physical and mental effort, and an impossible combination of the yogic temperament of Jason Bourne and the otherworldly driving skill of Frank Martin the Transporter.

These roads are the ultimate test. If you can drive properly here, you can drive properly anywhere.

As the RC passages are mostly non-fiction, the rules of rush-hour driving come into effect while we navigate through them.

Rule 1: You must give yourself enough time.

For most CAT takers, it is near impossible to properly read a difficult CAT RC passage in under 3 minutes. Instead of prescribing an ideal speed, which cannot be the same for everyone in every case, I recommend that you calculate your average reading speed, which is reflective of not just words-per-minute, but also comprehension. There is an easy way to do this:

Step 1 – Take 4 CAT-level passages on different topics, but of similar length (The average for the CAT is 850 words)

Step 2 – Time yourself, and read the first passage at your comfort speed. While reading, keep in mind that you need to answer the following questions after JUST ONE READING:

  1. What is the topic of the passage? (Articulate your answer in 4 or 5 words)
  2. Why has the writer written this passage? (The main objective of the writer – use a ‘to be’ format to answer this question e.g. ‘to analyse’, ‘to explain’, ‘to argue’, ‘to narrate’ etc.)
  3. How does the writer achieve the main objective? (The supporting information offered by the writer)

You must be able to answer these in one reading, no matter how long the first reading takes. It must be so because many RC questions do not really allow us to go back to a particular part of the passage in order to find the answers. Think of the ‘title’ question. If we cannot answer the question after the first reading, we need to read the ENTIRE passage once more. We do not have the time to do that.

You should not count the time taken to answer these 3 questions. Just count the time taken to read the passage slowly enough so that you could answer these questions. Then, the time taken to read the passage becomes a more accurate reflection of your ‘effective reading speed’.

Step 3 – Repeat the process for the remaining 3 passages, and calculate the average time. When you have found the average, aim for a 10-second drop. For example, if the average is 5 minutes, aim for 4.50 when you read further passages. It will put you under just enough pressure to focus yourself better. Persist with it for a few weeks, and when you get ‘comfortable’ with 4.50, drop it further to, say, 4.40. You keep dropping it till you cannot anymore. This way you will have primarily improved focus, and secondarily, speed. Speed and comprehension are usually inversely proportional to each other, but an improvement in the latter always brings an improvement in the former.

From now on, no matter what you read, you must read it with the aim of answering these 3 questions. We can no longer afford to be aimless readers. We must get used to preparing the ‘gist’ of the passage in our heads, so that we have a clear, consistent central idea on which we can base our answers.

Rule 2: When you are in hurry, swerve wherever needed.

Most RC passages usually contain some difficult words and expressions. Most of us tend to get stuck on these impediments, and lose the sight of the larger goal (the central idea). Individual words and expressions do not really significantly contribute to the central idea. The best we can do in this case is mark the word, and move on with the passage, for we must maintain fluency in reading in order to answer the WHAT, the WHY, and the HOW.

If these difficult words feature somewhere in the questions, then we can always go back to them later, but we cannot let them interrupt our first reading of the passage.

Rule 3: Anticipate what may lie ahead, and improvise accordingly.

The CAT RC passages are a little like most Bollywood movies, the first 10 minutes of which give enough clues about what will happen in the last 10!

The non-fiction (and therefore structured) nature of the CAT RC passages makes it possible for us to ‘foresee’ what is coming. The first line of the passage offers clues about what the first paragraph may contain. By the time you have read the first paragraph, you begin to have a good idea of what the first half may contain. When you are half way through the passage, you can anticipate the conclusion.

Being able to do this requires a great deal of practice. But if you are able to do it, it not only allows you to read the passage faster – because you have foreseen what is coming – but also remember it better. Once you start reading the passage with the aim of answering the WWH, the process of anticipation will have already begun.

Rule No 4: Most important. Enjoy your drive.

Look around. Observe and learn. I have read countless RC passages in my time, but I never came across one that did not teach me something new.

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4 Rules to improve reading skills for Reading Comprehension Questions in CAT
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