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Strategies and Techniques for Comprehension and Precis
The skill of reading swiftly, the power of grasping the essentials, and the ability to express what has been understood, concisely and in your own words—these are qualities required for tackling reading comprehension tests as well as precis-writing. If in a comprehension test you need to read and ‘comprehend’ or understand what is written well enough to answer the questions correctly, the same understanding is required before you can summarise a passage (write a precis) effectively. Swiftness at reading is a skill worth developing : in an examination where the time at your disposal is limited, it is obviously of use; it will also be of use outside an examination in day-to-day life or in a job when instructions, reports or letters have to be perused.
Quick reading by itself has no worth if you do not comprehend, as fast, what you read. If you train your mind to concentrate on what you read and are able to grasp the ideas expressed, you gain both in the short-term, for example in the examination scenario, and in the long-term, say at a job in which you are called upon to follow instructions or make quick decisions based on some information provided.
The ability to express yourself concisely and precisely in your own words requires you to have a keen mind and a good vocabulary. This quality, again, is not limited to success in an examination, but will help you in the long run. In this age of information, the power of communication has acquired an importance it has not enjoyed for a long time, and it is valued in practically every field of work.
Reading at the rate of about 175 words per minute is good enough for high school students. At college level, that rate should have gone up to 225–250 words per minute, at least, for most readers. It is possible and worthwhile to develop a faster rate of reading for demanding tests like those for entering business schools. It goes without saying, of course, that the increase in speed of reading should not be accompanied by a decrease in your level of concentration on and comprehension of the meaning of the words.
Reading comprehension tests comprise passages followed by questions. You are expected to read and understand the passage and answer the questions based on the passage. Easy? Of course, it could be very easy if you had all the time in the world. But you need to be both fast and correct in the time limit set for a test. There are some techniques of approaching this test for better results.
The Three-Stage Approach
A time-tested approach to mastering comprehension passages is the three-stage method: (i) preview, (ii) read, and (iii) review. This is a good strategy, specially for longer passages (in the range of 400 to 800 words).
Previewing There are two ways to do this. One way is to glance through the passage, allowing your eyes to move down the page, skimming the contents and gathering whatever information you are able to. The other is to actually read some of the sentences from the passage; the first few sentences of the passage; the first and last sentences of each paragraph; the last few sentences of the passage. Glance through the questions as well. You may choose whichever method suits you.
Previewing gives you an idea about the contents and the organisation of the passage, and this helps you to understand the passage better when you read it. But do not spend too much time on this stage; half a minute for a passage of 250-300 words should be ample. Previewing will not usually enable you to answer the questions; its purpose is to pick up as much as you can about the general nature of the passage.
Reading The next stage is to read the passage carefully, more or less in the conventional way. This is the most important stage to which you may devote two minutes for a passage of 250 words. As you read, however, try to distinguish between the main ideas and supporting details. Keep a pencil ready. You may mark or underline words and phrases that you recall having struck you at the preview stage itself.
How to locate the main idea? Try to identify the subject—who or what the writer is writing about—in each paragraph. Identify the topic of the paragraph, i.e., the aspect of the subject being discussed. Try to express in a concise sentence what the writer is attempting to say on the topic. That would be the main idea of the paragraph. In many cases, the author may have written a main idea sentence clearly: you merely need to spot it.
Main ideas are usually of a broad and general nature, while the supporting details tend to be specific and more limited. The main idea often (though not always) occurs at the very beginning or at the end of a paragraph. When looking for the main ideas, do not spend time trying to ‘study’ the supporting details. Just read through, keeping a note of what kinds of details appear in various parts of the passage.
A passage will usually be structurally organised. The main ideas of the paragraphs must in some way be related to the main idea—or theme—of the passage as a whole. So, if you understand the main ideas of the paragraphs and the connections between them, you will be able to comprehend the passage as a whole. You will understand the purpose of the supporting details. Recognising the structure of the passage helps you to easily locate any detail asked for in a question.
Some common structures of passages are:
(i) cause-and-effect development showing how an event led to another;It is possible that a single passage may fit into more than one structure; a cause-and-effect sequence may also be a comparison-contrast structure. It is not recognition of the pattern, as such, that matters. You may choose any of the patterns (if more than one are validly applicable) as the pattern is only a vehicle for following the writer’s thought.
(ii) comparison or contrast between two things;
(iii) argumentative discussion of an issue, giving opposing viewpoints;
(iv) description of a single topic seen from the angle of different theories;
(v) an idea illustrated with many examples;
(vi) an idea or theory supported by many arguments;
(vii) a sequence of events in chronological order;
(viii) definition and explantation of a special term
cause-effect: because, led to, consequently, therefore, since
comparison: similarly, like, more, less
contrasting information to come: however, but, although, nevertheless, yet, conversely
definition: is called, is defined, is known as, is, is referred to as
attention please: main, central, major, important, primary
sequence indicators: first, second, after, now, later, next
clarification: for instance, for example, such as
not quite sure: may be, apparently, perhaps, alleged, was reported, seems
As you read, watch out for the author’s style. A technical piece of writing would generally not carry words of an emotional overtone, for instance. But in other kinds of writing the author’s intention or view point comes out clearly through the choice of words, especially the verbs. There is clearly a difference between ‘sneaking’ into a room and ‘sauntering’ into a room; the former conveys an idea of slyness or deception, while the latter conveys a sense of casual, lazy, purposeless walk. A careful study of the words and word pattern would tell you if the writer’s tone is angry, sarcastic, humorous or just straight-forward and factual. Questions are, at times, directed at the ‘tone’ of the passage.
Reviewing After reading the passage carefully, give a quick scan once again, especially if it is a long passage. This helps you to refresh your memory regarding the main ideas, important details and the structure of the passage. Often enough, it is at this stage that the earlier parts of a long passage become much clearer to you than before, especially if the later paragraphs explain points put forward in the initial paragraphs. Reviewing also helps you to refresh your memory on the location of topics. When you need a specific detail to answer a question, you will be able to put your finger directly on the relevant paragraph without scanning the entire passage again.
This stage, like the first one, should not take more than half a minute for a passage of 250-300 words.
Getting Your Answers Correct
Now, the test of comprehension may be of the multiple-choice or the descriptive variety. In the former, a passage is followed by questions and answer choices to each question. You are required to choose the correct answer choice and either tick it off or mark it as instructed on an answer sheet. You do not have to write anything.
In the descriptive (or subjective, as it is often called) variety, you are required to write the answers. In this case, your answers should be brief, to the point, and, as far as possible, formed in your own words. Do not copy sentences from the passage as part of your answer. And do write complete sentences.
There are strategies common to both types. You might find it helpful to look up the questions even as you are previewing the passage. You will naturally enough get to know in advance what the test-setters have planned to focus on. But do this only if it suits you, as some people consider it to be time-consuming.
Be free to refer back to the passage as many times as you like. Indeed, it is unsafe to answer merely from memory. This is specially so in the case of multiple choice questions where some of the answer choices could be subtly, though not clearly, wrong. Only a careful review will help you to zero in on the fact that shows why one answer choice is correct and not the others.
A common mistake made by students is to bring their own knowledge to bear on their answers. This happens when the subject of the passage is familiar to the student.
If you know a great deal about the subject of the passage, be doubly careful in answering the questions: you are required to base your answer or choice of answer entirely on the passage. So, if the passage says, for some reason, that only black cats exist, you had better forget—for the space of answering questions—that you have seen white cats, spotted cats, and striped cats. In the multiple-choice type, especially, you may be tempted to pick an answer choice just because you know it to be factually true, or because you agree with what it says. In either case, you would be committing a mistake if the substance of those answer choices is not based on the information in the passage. The correct answer choice must reflect the opinions and facts expressed in the passage, irrespective of your own beliefs and knowledge.
In the descriptive type, you may tend to write details which may be true but which are not to be found in the passage. Strictly curb this tendency, and do not give your opinion unasked.
Question-setters often resort to tricky answer choices in the multiple-choice type. Some of these sound plausible, and are often placed among the first few choices, say, as (a) or (b). Restrain yourself from marking it off immediately as the correct one; if you go on to read the other choices, you may find a better answer. In these questions, unlike in mathematics questions, there may be degrees of right and wrong, and you are required to choose the best of the answer choices given.
Yet another pitfall to avoid is marking as correct an answer choice just because it seems familiar; it probably is, because the idea occurs in some part of the passage, but it may not be the answer to the question asked. It is always better to refer back to the passage to get the correct answer.
Questions on comprehension passages often relate to meanings of words or phrases in the given passage. If you have to write the answer, express yourself clearly, bringing out the meaning of the term in the context of its use in the passage. The word may have more than one meaning; see to it that you choose to give the one that makes sense in the context of the passage. It is also to be kept in mind that the meaning is expressed in conformity with the part of speech—noun, adjective, verb, adverb—in which it is used. Remember these points, as they will help you even while choosing your answer response correctly in the multiple choice format.
Practice Improves Skills
Practice, to repeat that well-worn cliche, makes perfect. There is no doubt that the more you practise, the better you will do. The first two sets of exercises in the following pages should give you good practice at answering questions to test your comprehension—the multiple choice as well as the descriptive variety.
A precis, as any dictionary will tell you, is a “summary of a text; an abstract”. It is from this French word that the English word, ‘precise’, originated. The French word itself originated from the Latin praecidere, meaning ‘to curtail’. Clearly then, to make a precis involves compressing a given passage to express a gist or the essential theme of that passage. A precis is not a paraphrase; it can and, indeed, needs to omit the smaller details, the irrelevant embellishments, that occur in the given passage. A precis must be clear, concise and roughly one-third in length compared to the original passage.
Precis exercises demand reading with concentration, so that you understand and retain the substance of what you have read. It is only when you can grasp the main ideas of a passage that you can summarise it. In this demand for concentrated reading, the exercise is similar to Reading Comprehension.
Precis also requires you to write well—to communicate your thoughts briefly, precisely and effectively. Writing precis teaches you to avoid vagueness, haphazard arrangement of facts, irrelevant details and repetitions. You learn to choose the correct and effective word in a particular context, construct sentences which are brief yet full of information, and put your facts and ideas in a logical pattern.
Strategies and Techniques
Reading The first and foremost step is to read the passage in the same manner as you did for Comprehension. You need to get at the main ideas in precis exercises, too. Zero in on to the subject and what is said about the subject.
A precis usually needs to be given a title. Reading to locate the main idea of the passage will help you devise a suitable title. Again, what you have already read about in relation to Comprehension may be applied to precis—how to locate the main idea. Summarise the main idea into an effective title of not more than five words; it may be shorter than that, of course.
Careful reading will give you an idea of the important details which you cannot leave out in your precis. It is necessary to be clear about the meanings of words in the passage. Refer to a dictionary when in the least doubt, for the very essence of the passage may be lost if you misunderstand a key word or phrase.
Make notes in the margin, and underline sentences you feel are most important as you read. It is practice that makes you an expert at selecting the important and discarding the unimportant. The strategy is to always keep in mind the main theme of the passage and ask yourself, as you read, whether the other sentences are relevant to that main idea. Ask whether they illustrate some aspect; whether they complete, in some way, what the theme states; whether they lead on to some fresh idea on the main theme.
Underlining and making marginal notes are not enough; you must note down the points that strike you as important.
Writing The next step is to make a rough draft. You have your notes. See if they follow a logical structure. If not, rearrange them into a more coherent pattern. At times, the original passage may not be logically structured, but your precis must show the ideas arranged systematically. Set before yourself a clear goal—you have to shorten the passage to one-third its length. If the number of words are not mentioned, count the words in the passage and calculate what is to be your word limit. Remember, it is important to keep to that number, or very close to it. You may have to make several drafts before you can get it right. Above all, even while making a rough draft, use your own words and not those in the passage—unless there are technical words, which had better not be substituted.
The best way to go about it is to summarise each paragraph or unit of thought/main idea and then link them effectively. A school of thought insists that a precis should be a single paragraph. This is no longer thought to be necessary. There may be paragraphs, especially if the passage is very long or deals with several distinct ideas on a subject. But the precis must be a connected whole, reading continuously and not as jerky statements strung together.
Make sure your precis is complete and conveys the gist of the passage in its entirety. There should be no need to go back to the passage to clarify some aspect. In other words, no loose ends, please. But there is no place in a precis for ‘extras’ such as colloquial terms, repetitious descriptions, circumlocutions, or too many examples.
Now read through your rough draft, checking and correcting grammatical and spelling errors, if any, critically assessing it for meaning, seeing if all main points have been included and if the word limit has been observed. Write out the final precis after making the alterations required, once again making sure about the word limit. Add the title if you have not already put it there at the top.
Read the precis once again to make sure you have got it right.
Compressing Techniques If you have been given a passage for precis, you may be almost certain that it can be shortened. There are writers, of course, whose work is already so concise and precise that any attempt to make a precis of it would only damage the effect of the passage. But such passages will almost surely not be given for you to summarise. Passages that can be summarised will have long sentences and details which can safely be left out of the precis without damage to the meaning.
Long, meandering sentences can be condensed. Many a time, the main clause of a sentence can be retained and the subordinate clause, ignored, or the sentence reconstructed to express the thought briefly. Consider the sentence:
The breeze was very strong and the clothes, big and small, coloured and white, were blown away.
This 17-word sentence could be condensed to 11 words:
The breeze was so strong that the clothes were blown away.
Or to a mere 7 words:
The strong breeze blew away the clothes.
You will note that the adjectives describing the clothes are irrelevant to the main idea, and may be left out of the precis.
A precis must be written in indirect speech. Indeed, if the passage is in first person, you must be careful to convert it to third person. If there are conversations in the passage, reduce them to their essentials in indirect form. Be very careful of the grammatical rules governing transformation of speech. In the process of transformation, there can be condensation.
He said to me, “Read this play written by Shakespeare which is about a prince who delayed deciding about his actions.”
Condense and transform to:
He told me to read Shakespeare’s play about the procrastinating prince.
Just as procrastinating is a single word substitution for ‘delayed decision’, there are other such substitutions which may be noted and used. A few examples:
speaking without preparation: ex tempore; impromptu
knowing everything: omniscient
without thinking about himself: unselfishly.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Precis-writing requires patient practice before it can be mastered. You must read and widen your vocabulary. Practise summarising articles and reports in newspapers and magazines. Learn words which can substitute for a number of words. Think hard on how to shorten a sentence without changing its meaning. You will, however, get enough practice with the passages in this book.
Strategies and Techniques for Comprehension and Precis
Comprehension Passages (Multiple-Choice Type)
Answers to Questions
Comprehension Passages with answers (Descriptive Type)
Precis Passages and Precis