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How to Comprehend Passages? (For Competitive Examinations like CAT)


Comprehension is about how speedily you are able to understand a written piece. Most people stress on reading word per minute. However, even if you are reading very speedily but cant understand a thing, speed wont help you. And so comprehension or understanding per minute is the right kind of speed that one needs to maintain.

Try to understand speedily and not just read.

Whenever you see a passage, do have a feel of it by reading the first few lines. See if that is the kind of subject that interests you. I have seen people choosing passages on the basis of their length. That is both good and bad. The bad part is that most short passages have indirect questions and they are generally more difficult to comprehend. So choose on the basis of your comfort level with the subject and not only on the basis of its length.

The Central Idea
After choosing a passage, you need to get what they call its ‘central idea’. Draw a circle on a piece of paper and make a dot in the middle. This circle is the passage and that dot is the central idea. In other words, every passage will revolve around a central idea. This central idea is not the theme on which the passage is based or the gist of the passage. It is the purpose for which the author has written the passage. If you are able to get the central idea of the passage, you would be able to comprehend it better and answer the questions better.

Chunks of Information
A very good way of cracking the comprehension of a long passage is to divide the whole passage into small packets of information. For example you read the first few paras, and underline the important points and try to keep them in mind. You can also enlist the important points on a rough piece of paper and read on the further paras, jot down the points again and so on. Though jotting down points may not be advisable every time as you may not have time, you can always keep the chunks of information in your mind while reading.

This is important because often after reading the entire passage, people think they have forgotten what they read in the beginning of it. This could be a scary thing to happen to you if you have wasted, lets say, full five minutes, on reading a passage. So just to save you reading the passage all over again, you must try and keep chunks of information in your mind while reading. You can also keep underlining anything that you think is important.


Dealing With Question/Answers
Broadly, the questions can be divided into two categories: direct and indirect. Lets first deal with the direct questions.

Direction questions are obviously related to explicit facts given in the passage. For ex- What were the scientists researching? Or What was the name of the thesis? Etc.

One way to choose a passage from the options is also to glance at the questions. If most of the questions are direct in nature, you have a better chance of scoring. So you can pick up a passage that has more direct questions.

The indirect questions are asked to directly gauge your comprehension skills. They are the real test of your understanding and comprehension. First of all, try and avoid as much as possible, passages that have more number of indirect questions. Still if you have to pick a passage that has such questions, here’s a way to deal with them.

Indirect questions would be about the tone of the passage, writing style of the author or questions such as: What does the author mean when he says, “I think I would make friends with my enemy’s enemy?” or what does the presence of ‘packets of lies’ implies in the passage? It is clear that you will not get to the answers of such questions easily. But still you have to find the answers from the passage only. The tones of the authors could be descriptive, analytical, critical etc.

A descriptive tone is generally like the articles published on the Edit page of a newspaper.

A narrative tone would sound like a story---points flowing in one by one-like a news report. A critical tone is something you can easily distinguish. So if there is any question on the type of tone, you will need to be observative about the passage right from the start.

As for other kind of questions, trying to figure out the central idea and diving the information into chunks of information are the only two ways of getting to the right answers. The best way to practice comprehension is editorials of newspapers like The Hindustan Times and The Hindu and also the articles published on the Edit pages.

Choosing the right passage:
As stated before, you can choose the passage on the basis of the following (if there is a choice ie.):

* Comfort level with the subject or topic of the passage
* Length of the passage
* Type of questions of the passage and the number of direct questions

Contributing Writer:  Mukti Masih has been a reporter with The Times of India, The Free Press Journal. Has worked as senior sub-editor with The Maharashtra Herald (now Sakaal Times) in Pune. Has a four-year work experience of writing, editing and blogging & has a great flair for


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