Land Your Score: Reading Comprehension Passage Mapping

April 27, 2017
Jennifer Land

Here’s how to create a Reading Comprehension passage map.

Orient yourself to important themes using navigational reading strategies.

In a recent Kaplan GMAT class, several of my students were very excited about the results they were seeing from using the Kaplan Method for Reading Comprehension. I’ve discussed this Method before, but now I want to emphasize part of the first step.

Mapping Reading Comprehension passages

The first step of the Kaplan Method is to read the passage strategically. Kaplan students know that part of strategic reading is making notes as you move through the passage; this passage map is your guide through the passage.

In the map, note the purpose of each paragraph. What function does it serve? Why did the author include it? Think of a passage map as if it were directions through the material. Just as you don’t want an actual map or directions to be cluttered by unnecessary details (“there’s a gas station on the left, but don’t turn there; turn right just past the post office that used to be a burger joint….”), you don’t want your trail through the passage to be cluttered by trivial details. Details are only useful if they equal points. If you need the details, you can use your map to find your way back to them.

Navigate by major themes, not minor details

Here’s an example first paragraph:

A pioneering figure in modern sociology, French social theorist Emile Durkheim examined the effect of societal cohesion on emotional well-being. Believing that scientific methods should be applied to the study of society, Durkheim studied the levels of integration in various social formations and the impact that such cohesion had on individuals within the group. He postulated that social groups with high levels of integration serve to buffer their members from frustrations and tragedies that could otherwise lead to desperation and self-destruction. Integration, in Durkheim’s view, generally arises through shared activities and values.

This paragraph provides background information about Durkheim and introduces one of his theories, which will likely be discussed in the following paragraph(s). Shorthand notes to that effect would be all I put in my map: Durkheim theory.

Durkheim’s beliefs about scientific methods, observations about levels of integration, or his postulation about particular social groups do not belong in a map; those are the details you will use the map to retrieve, should you need them.

The second and third paragraphs are as follows:

Durkheim distinguished between mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity in classifying integrated groups. Mechanical solidarity dominates in groups in which individual differences are minimized and group devotion to a common goal is high. Durkheim identified mechanical solidarity among groups with little division of labor and high degrees of cultural similarity, such as among more traditional and geographically isolated groups.

Organic solidarity, in contrast, prevails in groups with high levels of individual differences, such as those with a highly specialized division of labor. In such groups, individual differences are a powerful source of connection rather than of division. Because people engage in highly differentiated ways of life, they are by necessity interdependent. In these societies, there is greater freedom from some external controls, but such freedom occurs in concert with the interdependence of individuals, not in conflict with it.

Each of these paragraphs discusses one of Durkheim’s classifications. Take note of any major distinctions drawn by the passage’s author—in this case, the distinction between two classifications.

Locate shared assumptions

Just as you should look for distinctions in Reading Comprehension, so you should also take note of comparisons and similarities drawn between different categories, themes, or topics. The final paragraph is below:

Durkheim realized that societies may take many forms and, consequently, that group allegiance can manifest itself in a variety of ways. In both types of societies outlined previously, however, Durkheim stressed that adherence to a common set of assumptions about the world was a necessary prerequisite for maintaining group integrity and avoiding social decay.

In this last paragraph, the author points out a similarity between the two classifications. My map for the entire passage would look like this:

  • ¶1 Durkheim theory
  • ¶2 mech sol
  • ¶3 org sol
  • ¶4 both: shared assumptions

Now if I see a question that asks about mechanical solidarity, I know where to research the answer; if I see a question asking about shared assumptions, I also know where to look. I’ve created a table of contents for the passage that allows me to locate the information I need quickly, without needing to reread and waste precious time on Test Day.

Want to check your Reading Comprehension performance? Sign up for a free GMAT practice test and review to see how you would score on Test Day.

Jennifer Land

Jennifer Land Jennifer Mathews Land has taught for Kaplan since 2009. She prepares students to take the GMAT, GRE, ACT, and SAT and was named Kaplan’s Alabama-Mississippi Teacher of the Year in 2010. Prior to joining Kaplan, she worked as a grad assistant in a university archives, a copy editor for medical web sites, and a dancing dinosaur at children's parties. Jennifer holds a PhD and a master’s in library and information studies (MLIS) from the University of Alabama, and an AB in English from Wellesley College. When she isn’t teaching, she enjoys watching Alabama football and herding cats.

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