Struggling with Reading Comprehension? How reading a lot helps.

The following is a question that was posted to my profile on an online tutoring platform. I’ve had it asked to me in the past as well, so I figured I’d share my thoughts on it for everybody’s benefit.

Hey Renjith,

I struggle with reading comprehension. I don’t know if I lack focus or what? I have noticed I’m not grasping the concept, I will read the paragraph and somehow I can’t remember what I just read. That in turn, affects my comprehension speed.
I don’t care for the aptitude test i practice to improve my comprehension skills, as long as it is beyond High School.
I hope you can work with me. Thank you for your response and talk to you soon.

Neelima

 

Hey Neelima,

I’m going to have to disappoint you by saying the same thing that others probably have told you in response to your predicament: Read a lot. But I’ll try to give my take on why this helps.

Let’s start at the top: Labels.

Suppose we’re standing at a rally and we hear a politician say “You’re either with us or against us.” You might think to yourself, “Well, those aren’t the only two options – I could be neutral or even apathetic to the cause being discussed.” Meanwhile, I might be thinking, “Well, that’s a false dichotomy”, while the guy next to me may be thinking “That’s a logical fallacy called black-or-white.”

Let’s ignore for a minute the statistical oddity of three random individuals at a political rally in India being this rational. (The first word under the heading probably has something to do with it.) What I want to hit home is that we are all thinking the same thing. You just didn’t call it by a conventionally agreed upon label. Now, I’m a firm believer in the fact that it’s the idea that matters, not the label. There’s nothing profound about this. The Bard said as much four centuries ago when he said “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”

So labels don’t matter… Except when you want to communicate effectively. You could be stuck with a programming problem, and I could come to you and say, “Don’t worry about solving this efficiently. Just go through all possible combinations until you get to the solution.” Alternately, I could say, “Just brute-force it.” The latter is definitely more efficient, provided both parties are aware of what the label is referring to. This might seem a rather roundabout way of saying you can comprehend better if you improve your vocabulary by reading a lot, but it goes beyond that.

Understanding vs. Fluency

You’ve probably had a situation where you and a friend have both studied a chapter. Both of you understand the principles involved. But she solves a question in 1.5 minutes while you take 3 minutes. Why does this happen? The answer is fluency. Driving is an example I often use to illustrate this. When you started learning to drive, you had to concentrate completely on it. You were consciously thinking about what to do with the clutch, the gear, the brakes etc. and it was taking up most of your mental resources. You certainly wouldn’t have been able to keep a conversation going with a co passenger. This stage is referred to as deliberate practice. Slowly, you internalize the ideas involved and start doing them automatically. We often refer to this as muscle memory, but it’s just the brain automating the steps involved in a process known as chunking. So when you want to speed up, you ease up on the accelerator, press down on the clutch, shift gears, release the clutch, and press the accelerator – some half a dozen steps in a second all the while chatting with the person by your side or singing along to the radio. All through the power of chunking!

Gaining fluency and proficiency through practice isn’t just limited to mechanical tasks. This is very relevant to thoughts and ideas as well. You’ll exhibit higher levels of fluency if you are confronted with ideas that are similar to ideas that you have grappled with yourself, or at least been previously exposed to. (This can actually lead to bad decision-making sometimes.) So if you come across an RC passage about the sub-prime crisis, you’ll be able to comprehend it faster if you have some prior knowledge of the event, rather than simply trying to understand it from scratch based on the passage alone. We keep seeing philosophical passages in the mocks about Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre etc. Anyone who has some familiarity with their philosophical arguments would have an edge in comprehending the idea in the passage. It goes without saying there’s more to be gained by reading analytical and argumentative articles rather than pulp fiction. Editorials come to mind immediately. Personally, I’ve not been doing as much reading as listening to podcasts and debates (of the non-Goswami variety) of authors and other public figures, people with good critical thinking and communication skills, and getting exposed to ideas.

Just to clarify, I’m not saying you need prior knowledge to solve RC questions. That will ideally not happen in a passage. But if you want to comprehend faster and more accurately, the prior knowledge will help you grapple with the idea better.

Knowledge and memory

Since you mentioned problems with remembering what you read, I think it’s worthwhile to have some understanding of how knowledge works and how our memory works. Knowledge is mostly cumulative. We don’t walk around with a bunch of discrete, unconnected facts in our brains. Usually, we know a lot of related facts in some fields that we are interested in. It could be technology or Tolkien, commerce or counter-strike. That’s just how our memory works – we need those connections between facts, or to put information into its context, to be able to store it effectively. In a famous study on memory, chess grandmasters were able to memorize boards way faster than random people – provided the boards were from actual games in progress. When boards were made with pieces randomly placed in positions, their advantage over random people disappeared almost completely. Without the underlying chess logic that linked the positions of the pieces, the grandmasters were basically trying to memorize the equivalent of a random string of data. And the human brain is not good at memorizing random data.

So when we read something, if we can link it to what we already know about how the world works, we have a better chance of retaining that information. The more you read, the more you will retain from each article you read, because you’re making more and better connections between the pieces of information in your memory.

 

So keep these factors in mind and read a lot. Actively engage with the content. Ask questions. Apply the Feynman technique to see how well you retain the information. Understand how arguments are constructed. Studying and practising some GMAT material on Critical Reasoning should help. Most importantly, don’t expect overnight miracles, but things should start looking up in a couple of months. 🙂

 

Have a question about learning or preparation strategies? Feel free to drop a comment!

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