Reading comprehension accounts for half of the questions on the GRE verbal reasoning section. To do well on these questions, you need a framework for understanding the purpose and structure of the passages.
Some passages are very short – really more accurately termed “prompts” than “passages” – and present isolated scenarios followed by a single question about the scenario. For those familiar with the GMAT verbal reasoning section, these are roughly equivalent to critical reasoning questions. But these account for only 4 of the 20 scored reading comprehension questions on a GRE.
The remaining 16 questions are attached to longer passages, and you must accurately comprehend these passages at the “wide angle” level in order to answer most of their questions correctly.
Reading comprehension: understanding the purpose and structure of the passages
The “wide angle” level means that you understand what the passage is doing, or what the author is trying to do in the passage. To understand the author’s purpose, always think in terms of what the author would like you, the reader, (1) to know/understand, (2) to believe/agree with, or (3) to do. Passages of this third variety – the kind that call for action – are rare on the GRE. Even so, you should understand the existence of the category. Let’s call these degrees of purpose. A passage may exhibit more than one of these three degrees of purpose. But any passage – especially one short enough to be a GRE reading comprehension passage – will conform mainly to one of the three.
This is your starting point for understanding not only the passage’s main idea or purpose, but also how the various references and details contribute to achieving the purpose. In other words, this is your key to correctly answering almost every reading comprehension question on the GRE.
However, you need something more. In order to clearly and accurately express the author’s purpose as a useful key to the passage, you need the Levels of Engagement paradigm.
Levels of engagement
The best way to explain this paradigm is to define each of the three levels of engagement:
Level 1: The author/passage interacts directly with the topic.
Level 2: The author/passage interacts with another treatment of the topic, presenting it, critiquing it, or commending it.
Level 3: The author/passage interacts with the scholarly conversation on the topic, perhaps taking a side but mainly presenting the record of discovery or opinion.
To help clarify these three levels, let’s practice with some examples:
Practice Problem 1
Passage: In a plausible but speculative scenario, oceanographer Douglas Martinson suggests that temperature increase caused by global warming would not significantly affect the stability of the Antarctic environment, where sea ice forms on the periphery of the continent in the autumn and winter and mostly disappears in the summer. True, less sea ice would form in the winter because global warming would cause temperatures to rise. However, Martinson argues, the effect of a warmer atmosphere may be offset as follows. The formation of sea ice causes the concentration of salt in surface waters to increase; less sea ice would mean a smaller increase in the concentration of salt. Less salty surface waters would be less dense and therefore less likely to sink and stir up deep water. The deep water, with all its stored heat, would rise to the surface at a slower rate. Thus, although the winter sea-ice cover might decrease, the surface waters would remain cold enough so that the decrease would not be excessive.
Is this a first-level, second-level, or third-level passage? It is quite clearly a second-level passage. Right off the bat, the passage mentions Douglas Martinson’s suggestion and deems it “plausible but speculative.” This is mainly a presentation of Martinson’s theory, but the author does offer his assessment of the theory. So this passage occupies the second level of engagement and the second degree of purpose.
Purpose statement: The author wants me, the reader, to agree that Martinson’s theory regarding global warming and the antarctic environment’s stability is plausible but speculative.
Let’s try another one:
Practice Problem 2
Passage: Scientists formerly believed that the rocky planets – Earth, Mercury, Venus, and Mars – were created by the rapid gravitational collapse of a dust cloud, a deflation giving rise to a dense orb. That view was challenged in the 1960s, when studies of Moon craters revealed that these craters were caused by the impact of objects that were in great abundance about 4.5 billion years ago but whose number appeared to have quickly decreased shortly thereafter. This observation rejuvenated Otto Schmidt’s 1944 theory of accretion. According to this theory, cosmic dust gradually lumped into ever-larger conglomerates: particulates, gravel, small and then larger balls, planetesimals (tiny planets), and, ultimately, planets. As the planetesimals became larger, their numbers decreased. Consequently, the number of collisions between planetesimals decreased.(Separate Paragraphs)
First-level, second-level, or third-level? This is a textbook example of a third-level passage. It is tracing the history of scientific discoveries and scientific opinion regarding the formation of the rocky planets. Third-level passages generally have a first-degree (knowing/understanding) rather than a second-degree (believing/agreeing) purpose.
Purpose statement: The author wants me, the reader, to understand why 1960s observations of moon craters swayed scientific opinion about the formation of the rocky planets away from the then-popular deflation theory and towards Otto Schmidt’s 1944 accretion theory.
This is probably more specific about the science than you really need to get, but it is good practice to write such detailed statements in your preparation.
Now that you’ve seen some good examples of second-level and third-level passages, let’s try reading and classifying two passages at once!
Practice Problem 3
Passage: Was Felix Mendelssohn(1809-1847) a great composer? On its face, the question seems absurd. One of the most gifted prodigies in the history of music, he produced his first masterpiece at sixteen. From then on, he was recognized as an artist of preternatural abilities, not only as a composer but also as a pianist and conductor. But Mendelssohn’s enduring popularity has often been at odds – sometimes quite sharply – with his critical standing. Despite general acknowledgement of his genius, there has been a noticeable reluctance to rank him with, say, Schumann or Brahms. As Haggin put it, Mendelssohn, as a composer, was a “minor master . . . working on a small scale of emotion and texture.”
Historians credit repeated locust invasions in the nineteenth century with reshaping United States agriculture west of the Mississippi River. Admonished by government entomologists, farmers began to diversify. Wheat had come to nearly monopolize the region, but it was particularly vulnerable to the locusts. In 1873, just before the locusts’ most withering offensive, nearly two-thirds of Minnesota farmland was producing wheat; by the invasions’ last year, that fraction had dropped to less than one-sixth. Farmers learned that peas and beans were far less vulnerable to the insects, and corn was a more robust grain than wheat. In addition to planting alternative crops, many farmers turned to dairy and beef production. Although pastures were often damaged by the locusts, these lands were almost always left in better shape than the crops were.
Make your decisions before reading on. Although both passages mention some other view (Haggin’s view in the Mendelssohn passage and historians’ view in the locusts passage), neither passage is second-level! The Mendelssohn passage is third level. Here’s the key line: “there has been a noticeable reluctance to rank [Mendelssohn] with, say, Schumann or Brahms.” The author is presenting the scholarly verdict on Mendelssohn; Haggin is merely an example provided for this verdict. Notice that the author does not weigh in himself or react to Haggin or the prevailing view. If you were given a question about the purpose of this passage and you chose an answer choice saying either “Mendelssohn was a great composer” or “Mendelssohn was not a great composer,” you would be wrong. The correct answer must mention the scholars who hold the view on Mendelssohn.
Purpose statement: The author wants me, the reader, to know that scholars are generally reluctant to rank Mendelssohn among the greatest composers.
How about the second passage? Again, it might be mistaken for a second-level passage, but it is actually first-level. The author mentions “historians” but gives no opinion on whether these historians are right or wrong to credit locusts as they do. Instead, the passage just starts telling us the history. It seems that the historians were right to give credit to the locusts, but that’s not the point of the passage. It’s about events themselves.
Purpose statement: The author wants me, the reader, to understand how locust invasions in the nineteenth century reshaped United States agriculture west of the Mississippi.
Sometimes when writing a purpose statement, you simply copy a key line that functions more or less as the passage’s thesis, framing it in terms of the author’s purpose.
Now you’re ready to “plot” GRE reading comprehension passages in terms of degrees of purpose and levels of engagement, creating the key to correctly answering every kind of RC question.
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Contributor: Elijah Mize (Apex GRE Instructor)