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Page 1 - Reading Comprehension Study Guide for the LSAT

General Information

This test will assess your ability to read and understand written material and is similar to other reading comprehension tests in this way. On the LSAT, however, the reading comprehension section is different in these important ways:

  • You must be able to read very precisely and ferret out very specific details.
  • Reading passages are dense and complex.
  • Content is of the level you will encounter in law school.
  • The passage writers employ high-level vocabulary and complicated rhetorical structure.

This section of the LSAT contains four sets of passages and questions. Three of the sets contain one passage, followed by five to eight questions. The fourth set contains two passages, followed by questions. In this fourth set, the questions will require you to compare and contrast information given in the two passages.

LSAT reading passages are drawn from multiple disciplines, including the social sciences, biological and physical sciences, the humanities, and concepts of law. The text will include complex vocabulary and argument structure. There may be multiple viewpoints presented in a very sophisticated manner.

The questions you will encounter involve using the passage to:

  • Identify the author’s purpose or the main idea.
  • Locate facts that are explicitly stated.
  • Make inferences from the text.
  • Define words as they are used in a passage.
  • Tell how the passage is organized.
  • Locate information that can be applied in a new situation or context.
  • Identify functional principles that apply to the passage.
  • Develop analogies for information given in the passage.
  • Make judgments about the attitude of the author based on his/her tone.
  • Present new information that would impact the author’s claims.

Concepts to Understand

Main Idea or Primary Purpose

The main idea (or primary purpose) of a piece is the central idea around which the work is structured. In a persuasive essay, for instance, the main idea (also called a thesis) might be that cats make better pets than ferrets. In a narrative, the main idea is likely to be more nuanced, and may be the growth of a character, or the unraveling of a community.

Explicitly Stated Information

Explicitly stated information is information directly addressed in a text. If something is stated explicitly, it is not utilizing figurative language and is not meant to be inferred. It is leading the audience directly to an idea or information.

Ideas that can be Inferred

The opposite of explicitly stated information is inferred information. While explicitly stated information may be found directly in the text, inferences must be reached by the audience. When inferring information, look at the information surrounding the text. Relationships, occurrences, or even supporting details may be implied. For instance, look at this sentence:

“Rose decided not to go to the party, as she had nothing to wear.”

It is clearly stated that Rose both has decided against attending a party and that she has nothing to wear. It is inferred that Rose does not, in fact, have an absolute shortage of clothing, but that she feels she does not have party-appropriate attire.

Organization or Structure of a Passage

The organization or structure of a passage is the order in which ideas are presented. In a simple essay, the most common method of organization is the five-paragraph structure: introduction, body, and conclusion. There will be one paragraph each for the introduction and the conclusion and three paragraphs for the body.

But this structure is not the only way to organize a piece―particularly in fiction. Fiction often uses flashbacks to tell a story, making the piece more erratic in structure rather than strictly linear. Some essays might present the conclusion first, then provide supporting details.

Organization is important for two reasons:

  • It provides clarity for the author and reader. A well-organized story or essay leads the reader along, rather than making them guess at what is being said or where the piece is going. Simultaneously, it provides a rhythmic structure for the writer to follow.

  • The manner in which a piece is organized can lend insight into the intentions of an author, and the goal of a particular passage. For instance, an author who utilizes flashbacks may wish to acquaint the reader with a situation as it is, then gradually explain the reason for the occurrence. In a passage, the structure typically reveals which information is considered the most important or the most pertinent.

Specific Skills to Practice

Apply Information to New Context

The context of a word, passage, or idea is pivotal because it provides insight into the meaning of that word, passage, or idea. It is not enough to only be able to divine the meaning of something in its original context, however; you must be able to take the information provided, understand it, and apply it to a new context.

For instance, if you and your friend are talking about fish in an aquarium, and he/she utters the phrase, “Don’t get too close to the edge,” your friend is likely talking about staying away from the edge of an aquarium. If that phrase is uttered in an undercover investigation, however, the meaning changes based upon the context―you must be able to discern the difference in meaning in the same phrase in different surroundings.

Determine Word/Phrase Meaning from Context

Determining the meaning of a word or phrase from the context involves looking at the word (or phrase) in question and searching the surrounding area for clues as to what it means. For instance, look at the following sentence:

“Andrew was unscrupulous in many of his dealings, leading to the majority of his clients leaving for more principled partners.”

In this sentence, what does the word unscrupulous mean? Given that Andrew’s clients are leaving for principled partners, it is safe to assume that the meaning is not a pleasant one. From there, you can look at the word principled, and its use as an antonym to unscrupulous. It is then safe to assume that the meaning is something along the lines of unprincipled or questionable.

Identify Principles Used in the Passage

To identify principles used in a passage, first read the passage through. From there, go back through, focusing on the most pertinent information offered. What are the supporting details? What is given greater weight within the text? Answering these questions will identify key principles―even somewhat obscured ones.

Form Analogies for Arguments in the Passage

To form analogies for arguments, first, identify what exactly the argument is in a favor of, or against. When you have a clear idea of what the argument is, search for a similar argument.

For instance, if an argument in a paper is arguing for the use of euthanasia chambers in animal shelters, but speaking out against the lack of animal cruelty laws in the area, you might form an analogy such as, “Arguing for euthanasia while gunning for stricter animal cruelty laws is like supporting gun control, but encouraging more men and women to purchase firearms: it doesn’t quite make sense.”

Identify the Author’s Attitude from Tone and/or Language

The author’s attitude can be tricky. However, with a little help from the language used in a piece and the overall tone of a piece, the task is not impossible. First, a look at tone. Is the tone of a piece serious? Lighthearted? Angry? Confrontational? Read the work, and determine what type of feeling or “vibe” you get from the overall piece. From there, analyze word usage. Are words large and nearly indecipherable? The author might be working to appeal as an authority on the manner. Is the language sarcastic and biting? The author might be demonstrating contempt for the subject.

Analyze the Effect of New Information on the Passage Argument

To analyze the effect of new information on the passage argument, first identify the strength and purpose of the argument. From there, plug in the new information and re-examine the main idea and supporting details of the argument. Are they weakened? Does the point hit home even harder? Is the argument belittled? The most effective means of determining this is to identify the argument, add in the new information, and reread the passage. This will illustrate any faults, flaws, weaknesses, or strengths that are more apparent than before.

Compare Two Passages

When comparing two passages, focus on the commonalities; to do the opposite is to contrast. Read one passage, determine its purpose and meaning, and move on to the next. As you read, search for similarities between the two. There may be similarities in tone, writing style, language, or purpose―the possibility for similarity is nearly endless. As you analyze, be thorough and identify first any similarities in the subject. From there, look for similarities in wording and style. Next, look for similar tones. Continue exhausting each of these avenues until you have identified the parallels in the passages.

Tips and Tricks

Identify Your Own Strategy

To identify your own test-taking strategy, plan ahead and practice. First, try reading the passage, then taking a look at the questions. Next, try reading the questions and then reading the passage. While there is no right answer, it can make a significant difference both in time and in energy when you know how you are best able to discern information.

Mark Helpful Words and Points as You Read

Rather than blasting through a passage and searching for important information later, make a note of anything you think might be important, interesting, or helpful. While not all of these notes may come in handy, you will drastically cut down your testing time by being prepared.

Base Your Answer Only on Material Presented

Although it can be difficult to overcome bias, it is vitally important to focus on the passage at hand, regardless of any prior knowledge you might have, or your own opinion on the subject. If a passage contains information regarding a conspiracy you find ludicrous, for instance, curb your own opinion and search the passage for facts and information pertinent to the questions at hand. The test is not there to measure your opinion, or even necessarily your knowledge, but your ability to clearly and concisely follow directions.

Compare Two Passages Carefully

Be meticulous in your comparisons. Do not simply identify similar ideas in a passage, but similar word choice, backgrounds, author attitude, and more. Comparison requires a thorough reading of both passages, as well as a basic understanding of the conventions of English. As you prepare for the exam, practice comparing two passages―even ones that are seemingly polar opposites. This will give you confidence and the skill needed to adequately compare.

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