Monday, March 12, 2012

Reading Comprehension: Main Idea or Title

This is the first post describing the classification system Zen of 180 uses for the reading comprehension section; if you're not sure how to approach studying for the LSAT, our 19 reading comprehension standards break it down into manageable chunks; also, our free online LSAT analyzer will let you know which types of passage structures give you the most trouble.

As a wise woman once said: "Let's start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. When you read you begin with A-B-C. When you read on the LSAT you start with the main idea."

No offense meant to the wonderful Julie Andrews or anyone who worked on The Sound of Music .

But identifying the main idea of an LSAT passage is not always as easy as it might sound, especially because LSAC has committed itself to crafting four enticing distractors. Getting this task correct is vital, however, becuase many of the other tasks on reading comprehension sections turn on an accurate overall picture; thus the Zen system suggests that you continually return to the correct main idea answer to "refocus" on the central elements of the passage. As a last point, the main idea question is almost always at the beginning of the passage and section, so being confident and correct is a great boost.

Thus, the main idea or title task is where we begin.

While there are many ways to approach the reading comprehension passages, today I'll outline a basic strategy that will not only help with this task, but can serve as a basis for atacking any RC passage. The goal is to actively read the passage, taking special note of the structural elements, both the more obvious--like new paragraphs--and the more subtle--such as the author moving to a different expert to present a slightly different point of view.

At each new structural change, you should reflect on how the new information fits in with each previous structural element: for instance, you might note that the author uses the first paragraph to present a general overview of a scientific field, the second paragraph describes a new study that challenges a common understanding within the field, and the third and fourth paragraphs discuss two possible applications of the study's findings.

The overall main idea would not focus on only the first paragraph, the general scientific field, because it omits all of the following paragraphs' topic. Similarly, a distractor might only discuss one of the study's applications. These are "evidence" distractors--by far the most common on main idea or title questions--in the sense that they are restatements of information from the passage, but they don't adequately address the broader idea.

While such general advice might be helpful, it's probably more useful to--sigh--actually look at an entire passage and break it down structurally element by element. You can find this passage and the others we'll be using to describe the RC section on LSAC's website. LSAC helpfully identified this passage as being written in 1980.
        The struggle to obtain legal recognition of
        aboriginal rights is a difficult one, and even if a right
        is written into the law there is no guarantee that the
        future will not bring changes to the law that
(5)   undermine the right. For this reason, the federal
        government of Canada in 1982 extended
        constitutional protection to those aboriginal rights
        already recognized under the law. This protection was
        extended to the Indian, Inuit, and Métis peoples, the
(10) three groups generally thought to comprise the
        aboriginal population in Canada. But this decision has
        placed on provincial courts the enormous burden of
        interpreting and translating the necessarily general
        constitutional language into specific rulings. The
(15) result has been inconsistent recognition and
        establishment of aboriginal rights, despite the
        continued efforts of aboriginal peoples to raise issues
        concerning their rights.
Don't go down the wrong track...
The yellow highlighting is the first topic introduced in the passage, and the first several pieces of evidence are building on that same general topic. The "But" clearly shows that the author is about to change direction, so a savvy LSAT examinee will be sure to note where the author is headed so they don't take the wrong track.

A great examinee will also try to predict where the passage will go next, to serve as a constant check on their understanding. If you are caught off guard by where the author goes, you clearly didn't understand the previous material; these passages are well written and structurally sound, so don't be satisfied if you're thrown for a loop in your reading.

        Aboriginal rights in Canada are defined by the
(20) constitution as aboriginal peoples’ rights to ownership
        of land and its resources, the inherent right of
        aboriginal societies to self-government, and the right
        to legal recognition of indigenous customs. But
        difficulties arise in applying these broadly conceived
(25) rights. For example, while it might appear
        straightforward to affirm legal recognition of
        indigenous customs, the exact legal meaning of
        “indigenous“ is extremely difficult to interpret. The
        intent of the constitutional protection is to recognize
(30) only long-standing traditional customs, not those of
        recent origin; provincial courts therefore require
        aboriginal peoples to provide legal documentation
        that any customs they seek to protect were practiced
        sufficiently long ago—a criterion defined in practice
(35) to mean prior to the establishment of British
        sovereignty over the specific territory. However, this
        requirement makes it difficult for aboriginal societies,
        which often relied on oral tradition rather than written
        records, to support their claims.
This paragraph is a great example of how important it is to recognize and mark these structural "signposts." Although it provides several excellent pieces of information and concrete examples, there are three discrete broader concepts implicated by those examples. We first return to the overall concept of aboriginal rights (yellow), and dive into a specific positive definition (dark blue). Hopefully the examinee noted that this information provides greater clarity on the previous paragraph's opening sentences, as well.

Moving on, however--and using the same "But" structure--the author next presents a positive definition (dark blue) of a legal example that illustrates the burden on the courts (pink). Note that the author then utilizes a negative definition--i.e., what an important actor or concept is not, highlighted in cyan--to emphasize the difficulty for a court in weighing whether a custom is "longstanding" enough.

Finally, the great examinee will notice the "However" and realize that the author is now presenting a new topic, the difficulty this evidentiary burden places on the aboriginal societies (highlighted in orange)--as opposed to the courts' troubles highlighted in pink.
(40) Furthermore, even if aboriginal peoples are
        successful in convincing the courts that specific rights
        should be recognized, it is frequently difficult to
        determine exactly what these rights amount to.
        Consider aboriginal land claims. Even when
(45) aboriginal ownership of specific lands is fully
        established, there remains the problem of interpreting
        the meaning of that "ownership." In a 1984 case in
        Ontario, an aboriginal group claimed that its property
        rights should be interpreted as full ownership in the
(50)contemporary sense of private property, which allows
        for the sale of the land or its resources. But the
        provincial court instead ruled that the law had
        previously recognized only the aboriginal right to use
        the land and therefore granted property rights so
(55) minimal as to allow only the bare survival of the
        community. Here, the provincial court’s ruling was
        excessively conservative in its assessment of the
        current law. Regrettably, it appears that this group
        will not be successful unless it is able to move its
(60) case from the provincial courts into the Supreme
        Court of Canada, which will be, one hopes, more
        insistent upon a satisfactory application of theconstitutional

The "Furthermore" should alert the reader that this paragraph continues to build on the dychotomy presented at the end of the previous paragraph: the burdens on aboriginal cultures (orange) and courts (pink). It then dives into another example (dark blue) of land claims, and delves further, into a specific case (lighter blue) with both the aboriginal claims (light orange) and, after warning us of the contrary outcome with "But," the court's contrary finding (light blue).

Finally, the author reveals his or her hand, and lets the reader know the opinion we should be leaving the passage with: this "conservative" approach is too restrictive and should be overturned by the Supreme Court (highlighted in purple), which will in turn help guide lower courts with their interpretive problem (pink).

Whew! After all that prep work, the question choices are much easier to go through. The correct answer choice will implicate almost all of the highlighted topics and associate them in the same relationships that the author does.
Which one of the following most accurately states the main
point of the passage?

(A) The overly conservative rulings of Canada’s provincial
       courts have been a barrier to constitutional
       reforms intended to protect aboriginal rights.
(B) The overwhelming burden placed on provincialcourts
       of interpreting constitutional language in
       Canada has halted efforts by aboriginal peoples
       to gain full ownership of land.
(C) Constitutional language aimed at protecting
       aboriginal rights in Canada has so far left the
       protection of these rights uncertain due to the
       difficult task of interpreting this language.
(D) Constitutional reforms meant to protect aboriginal
       rights in Canada have in fact been used by some
       provincial courts to limit these rights.
(E) Efforts by aboriginal rights advocates to uphold
       constitutional reforms in Canada may be more
       successful if heard by the Supreme Court rather
       than by the provincial courts.

Hopefully you were able to see that answer choice C hits all the right chords: the Constitutional language, the aboriginal interests, the lower court's struggle, and references the passage's many examples--without inappropriately focusing on any one example--of these issues getting in each others' way.

Answer choice A is an opinion distractor, in that it emphasizes the author's final shot over the bow and does not appropriately discuss the other 85% of the passage.

Answer choice B is an evidence distractor, as it only refers to the information in lines 40-50.

Answer choice D is also an evidence distractor pulled only from the final paragraph, but it also misconstrues the author's opinion that the case's outcome was "conservative" to mean an active attempt by the provincial court to thwart aboriginal rights.

Answer choice E is an extrapolation distractor, because it uses the author's expressed opinion about the Supreme Court decision and takes it one step further to suggest how best the aboriginal societies could vindicate their rights. Even if this might be implied by the author's final paragraph, it does not accurately summarize the conflict from the first two paragraphs.