GRE Reading Comprehension: Red Light, Green Light
May 26, 2015
In an earlier blog post, we introduced a very challenging GRE reading comprehension passage about fractals and offered some tips on how to improve your accuracy when it comes time to answer difficult reading questions.
In the example from that post, we explained that the colon at the end of the passage should clue you in on how to better understand the context of difficult or unknown terms—in this case, “self-similarity.” Regardless of whatever minute details come before it, the colon suggests that the important thing you need to know about “self-similarity” is about to follow.
The traffic signals of GRE reading comprehension
Another way of putting this is to think of language as signaling you to either speed up, slow down, or read with caution. You’ll need to learn when you have a “green light” to cruise through the details in your reading, but you should be on the lookout for “red light” keywords and punctuation that indicate significant content within the passage.
Let’s look at some further examples of traffic signals you might encounter in the GRE reading comprehension section. Here’s another sentence from the end of that same passage on fractals:
“Enthusiastic practitioners in the field of fractal geometry consider it a new language…”
What’s the rest of this sentence going to give you? Because the sentence begins with a key subject—i.e., the “enthusiastic practitioners,” you can infer that whatever follows will describe their point of view. Further, you should keep in mind that any point of view presented, whether supporting or differing from that of the author, is extremely important.
Fortunately, in this case the word “enthusiastic” already tells you everything you need to know: these guys love fractal geometry. This keyword acts as a yellow light—you can keep driving, but a little more cautiously. Keep your eyes peeled in case the point of view shifts. The next sentence in the passage begins:
“They anticipate that fractal geometry’s significance…”
Who’s the subject here? The word “they” signals that it’s still the enthusiastic practitioners. So, you have a green light to speed on and not worry about this sentence.
Know when to hit the brakes
When should you come to a full stop? Certain signals should give you pause in the course of reading a passage, as they’ll likely be prime material for subsequent reading questions. Let’s look at the next sentence, which begins:
“Other mathematicians have reservations about…”
Whoa—there’s our first red light. The author has explicitly raised a different point of view, and these people aren’t nearly as excited about fractal geometry as the first group. So, pay attention: what’s the source of the disagreement?
“Other mathematicians have reservations about the fractal geometers’ preoccupation with computer-generated graphic images and their lack of interest in theory.”
So, the Eager Beavers of the first group love fractal geometry and think it’s great, whereas the Surly Smurfs of the second group think that the people doing fractal geometry are too distracted with pretty pictures to do actual math. This is important to understand, because clashing points of view are always the driving force of a passage. These types of sentences are where you need to come to a stop in the passage and pay attention.
Anticipate reading questions
Of course, colons and differing points of view are only a few of the traffic light punctuation and keywords you’ll encounter on the GRE. Every passage contains signals that tell you when and where to breeze along, slow down, or stop and pay attention with an eye to what sort of things will reappear in the reading questions.
Look for these traffic signals and your overall GRE reading comprehension will move along smoothly—not because you’re reading quickly but because you’re reading more intelligently.
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