Reading Comprehension

‘Comprehend’ means ‘to take in the meaning, nature, or importance of something or somebody’. It is the act of grasping the meaning of a given passage or text. It is often not realized that comprehension broadly means ‘understanding through reading and integrating it with the knowledge you already have. It involves a wide range of skills and interests. It is truly a multi-dimensional affair. 

It encompasses a variety of abilities with respect to vocabulary, grammar, spirit of the text, inferential processes and contextual knowledge. The most important factors operating in comprehending a text or passage are: remembering word meanings, following the structure of a passage, finding answers to questions answered directly or indirectly, recognizing the writer’s purpose, attitude, tone and mood and thus drawing inferences from the passage.

Usually, making out the meaning of a question and writing the answer down is one way often found in school and college examinations? Besides this, there is the second kind known as objective comprehension, in which multiple answers are given only to choose the correct answer out of the alternatives given under the questions. This type is often found in the present competitive examinations.

Some important techniques:
  • Use your pencil as a pointer to guide your eye along a line of the text and to read as speedily as possible.
  • Circle key words and phrases in order to identify them immediately as an answer to a question posed.
  • Don’t get bogged down even if there is a word or a phrase or a sentence which you don’t understand. Don’t worry. You can sense the meaning from the context later. So move on to come back later if the time permits.
  • Another good reading comprehension strategy is to read the questions first (which doesn’t mean to read the answer choices). This helps you know what information you need after reading the text. It will remind you to concentrate more on the required details from where the questions drawn.
  • Read the passages as fast as you can and re-read the questions for correct understanding. For fast reading understanding the spirit of the text given, you have to train your eyes and mind to function simultaneously. 

As your mind begins to look for ideas rather than words, your eyes will begin to obey your mind, which is always supreme. Good reading is good grasping and good grasping is only good reading.
The questions for reading comprehension usually test the ability to find out the following.
1. Main idea or a suitable title for the text.
2. Information directly given or specified in the passage or text.
3. Any inferences to arrive at logical conclusions from the passage given.
4. The meaning of new and strange words in the text.
5. The author’s style, mood or point of view.

Among the choice answers, there will be certainly one or two answers most illogical and inappropriate. They must be eliminated. Some general knowledge, common sense and logical thinking will do the job of elimination. The remaining answers are either from the information given directly from the text or for inference. So, finally, the three words information, elimination and inference will do the job for being successful in reading comprehension. The following example from Davis quoted by Carroll would make any reader proficient only in simple comprehension feel out of his depth.

The delight Tad had felt during his long hours in the glen faded as he drew
near the cabin. The sun was nearly gone and Tad's father was at the wood pile. He was wearing the broadcloth suit that he wore to Church and to town sometimes.
Tad saw his father's hands close around a bundle of wood. He was doing Tad's work and in his good clothes. Tad ran to him. "I'll get it, Pa."
When Tad saw his father, he felt
A) disappointed B) impatient C) angry D) guilty

It is not easy to say which linguistic skills in what order and combinations would enable the expert reader to infer or deduce D as the correct answer. However, as pointed out by Carroll, the following two important points seem to be indisputably involved in comprehension:

1) Language comprehension occurs in situational contexts whose characteristics may influence not only the degree to which comprehension processes operate but also the nature and extent of certain other processes that may accompany comprehension, usually as a consequence of it. The special arrangements that are frequently necessary to test comprehension constitute such situational contexts.

2) Two processes often co-occurring with comprehension are memory and inference; while they are conceptually distinguishable from comprehension, their occurrence may make it difficult to assess the separate occurrence of the
comprehension process itself.
Let us look into comprehension in practice as part of language in use.
We are going to take up sample passages and illustrate various kinds of difficulties involved in comprehending them.

Passage 1: Luckily at the moment he was much too busy talking to the man
opposite him to catch sight of me.
Two things are necessary to understand this sentence fully. First, one has to know the structure ‘too – to’ (too busy to catch sight of me), so that one gets to
know that the person mentioned was so busy doing something that he could not see the narrator. Secondly, under the given circumstances the narrator did not want to be seen by the man referred to. The latter understanding is implied by the use of the word ‘luckily’.

Passage 2: These nephews of mine never give me any peace – that young man is the worst of them all! As you see, when he needs money, he even follows me into the country. Well, perhaps next time he won’t even warn me by writing me a letter.
Confronted with a text like the above, assuming that the context is not known, one is called upon to make intelligent guesses, particularly, if one were asked to say what kind of man, a person who says such things, could be. This point can be exemplified by framing the following question:

The person who said these things is most likely to be
a) Contented b) angry c) complaining d) miserly

Surely, there must be some skill or skills which would enable the reader to make the correct guess and choose c) as the best alternative. This too is an important part of the general ability making full comprehension possible.

Passage 3: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. The general recognition of this fact is shown in the proverbial phrase, 'It is the busiest man who has time to spare.' Thus, an elderly lady at leisure can spend the entire day writing a postcard to her niece. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another hunting for spectacles, half an hour to search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar box in the street. The total effort that would occupy a busy man for three minutes, all told, may in this fashion leave another person completely exhausted after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.

1. Explain the sentence: 'Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion'.
A) The more work there is to be done, the more the time needed.
B) Whatever time is available for a given amount of work, all of it will be
C) If you have more time, you can do more work.
D) If you have some important work to do, you should always have some additional time.

The answer here is B. This can be found out through simple inference. A statement is made right in the beginning of the passage and the story of the lady illustrates the fact that whatever time is available for a work, people tend to use all of it.

2. Who is the person likely to take more time to do work?
A) A busy man B) A man of leisure
C) An elderly person D) An exhausted person

Here, the answer is B. It requires inference. The answer is to be inferred from the facts given in the passage that the more the time you have, the more you will need.
Therefore this answer is arrived at through complex inference.

3. What does the expression 'pillar box' stand for?
A) A box attached to the pillar B) A box in the pillar
C) Box office D) A pillar-type post box

The answer is D. It can be derived through implied information. The lady has to go to the pillar box to drop her letter.

4. What happens when the time to be spent on some work increases?
A) The work is done smoothly B) The work is done leisurely
C) The work consumes all the time D) The work needs additional time

Here the method of elimination applies and simple inference confirms it. A and D are eliminated at the first reading. The description that the lady who has enough leisure time takes the entire day in writing the postcard gives us the clue that the correct answer is C. This again is complex inference.

5. What is the total time spent by the elderly lady in writing a postcard?
A) Three minutes B) Four hours and five minutes
C) Half an hour D) A full day

The answer is D and it is based on the information given in the passage.