By Marian Dent, Dean, Pericles American Business & Legal Education Project
I just read a book by Ruth Ann McKinney about reading comprehension for law students. The book used the mnemonic: EMPOWER. It struck me that, with slight adjustments, the pneumonic can apply equally well to helping students read for standardized tests.
E in Empower stands for “enthusiasm”. Most of us like reading for pleasure, but for some reason we turn off when reading passages for standardized tests. We are bored, and that boredom results in less comprehension. Try, instead, to treat every comprehension passage as a chance to learn something new. Try to approach the passage with an interested and enthused attitude, and you will understand and remember much more of what you have read.
M stands for Monitor for the Main idea. This means approaching the reading passage with a hypothesis in mind. You see the title or the first sentence and you have an idea: a hypothesis regarding what the passage will tell you. As you continue reading, keep that hypothesis in mind and decide whether the hypothesis is holding true, or if the passage is going in a different direction than you anticipated. Modify the hypothesis if needed. As you go through the reading, ask yourself questions that help you determine the author’s point of view. If you expected the author to discuss X about the topic, why did the author discuss Y instead? Does this mean that the author has a different opinion than the opinion or statements he made at the beginning of the passage? Monitoring for the Main idea as you read can help you handle the very common, “main idea” type questions that occur on standardized tests, as well as help you handle questions about specific parts of the passage.
P stands for Purpose. There are all kinds of good reasons to read a passage, but on standardized tests your purpose is to answer specific questions about the reading. Play it smart: if you can read the questions before reading the passage, do so. Then, while you read, focus on the part of the text that can be expected to answer those questions. Even if the particular test you are reading for doesn’t let you see the questions before finishing the passage, you can often guess what kinds of information you are likely to be asked about, and can read with the purpose of spotting that information.
O means Own. By this, I mean that you should apply your own knowledge and experience to the reading. What you can understand from any reading is clearly influenced by what you have experienced in your life. If the reading talks about a college, for example, you might start by imagining the college you attended and applying your knowledge of that college to the passage. The passage will trigger associations in your mind that will help you remember and understand what is being discussed. Perhaps the passage continues to describe a college very different from the one you attended. Noting the differences from your initial mental picture of “college”, and changing your mental picture accordingly, also helps you to understand and remember the passage.
W is used to refer to the 5 W’s of detective techniques often referred to as the main facts: Who, What, When, Where, Why? You should take note of these facts as they appear in reading comprehension passages. Jot them down on your scratch paper. Doing so helps you focus your mind as well as helping you identify where the information occurs in the passage.
E stands for Evaluate. Don’t simply accept what you are reading in the passage, but ask yourself whether the author’s conclusions make sense to you? Has the author convinced you of a position or do you see holes in his reasoning? If the passage is describing something rather than arguing something, is that description accurate? If the passage is teaching you how to do something, has the author missed any steps? Evaluating rather than simply understanding the text you are reading is especially valuable for critical reasoning type questions on standardized tests, and for tests where you are asked to write about something you have read.
Finally, R stands for Review and Rephrase. Although this is the last letter in our pneumonic, it shouldn’t be the last thing you do in your reading, but should be done as you work. To really understand a passage, one of the best things you can do is to rephrase it in your own words. So after reading a paragraph, glance back at it and tell yourself, in your own words, what it is saying. This also works for individual sentences. Especially when reading for a test like the GMAT or the GRE, sentences tend to have convoluted phrasing and difficult words. Rephrasing in your own words shortens the ideas in your mind and ensures that you fully understand what you have read.