LSAT Kung Fu Blog / How to Assess Reading Comp Passage Difficulty

How to Assess Reading Comp Passage Difficulty

Now, that's an image we can stand behind.

Now, that's an image we can stand behind.

So, last week we decided together that you ought to be paying attention to the relative difficulty of the passages in the Reading Comprehension section of the LSAT.

Today, we’re going to briefly discuss how to do that. To make things simple, I’ve created a 4-star review system for you to use.

First, some notes: a really good, thorough review of difficulty would depend very heavily on the answer choices you’re given. But! Trying to assess difficulty by including a thorough reading of answer choices would take damn near as much time as it takes to actually read and work the passages. So that would be dumb. And even worse, it’s impossible to know whether answer choice sets are difficult until you have read the passage and the question. Only once you know the right answer can you really assess the relative toughness of the choices.

So, that’s just to say that while having the strongest possible assessment of difficulty is time-consuming and ultimately futile, a good, though imperfect, means of assessment can be done very quickly. 

And let’s keep our objective straight; we are not trying to place each passage in its proper order within the pantheon of LSAT Reading Comprehension Passages. We will not care a whit (not one! Nary a whit will we care!) how the passages stack up against each other—not even the passages within the very section you’re assessing! Our assessment exists instead to compare passages against some general principles about what makes passages easier for most people to read. 

So let’s set our expectations appropriately. It will help to have a framing idea, so let’s start there. Our frame is this: the whole goal with this process will just be for us to decide the answer to this question: “Should I do this passage now, or should I move on and come back to it?”

Easier passages should be done first (click here to read why). Harder passages should be saved for later.

I will rank passages using a star system. You could add up points or total little Vin Diesels or however you can best picture a rating system. But I’m going to be a traditionalist on this one, and I’m using stars. Also, in traditional ranking fashion, more stars = better = easier.

Almost every passage will have at least one star (that’s just a byproduct of my design). Lots of passages will have four stars. Remember, we’re not ranking them relative to each other in any strict sense; we’re just trying to decide whether to work or to pass. So, you’ll find that there are many, many sections that have three 4-star passages. There are even sections that have only 4-star passages (that just means that each passage appeared pretty doable (and in all likelihood they were!)).

Now, let’s do this:

Star One. This star (and the next, one, too!) derives from the premise that, generally speaking, the more paragraphs a passage has, the easier it is to read (we talk some about why that’s the case in the course, if you’re interested). Notice that I live this premise—we’re at paragraph 57* of this post already (*not actually 57), and that’s intentional; I want you to be able to read this and take it in quickly.

So, when you see a passage that has at least three paragraphs, it gets a star. Three paragraphs is our benchmark for “Normal Passage”. So, really, the system is set up in this way to punish passages with fewer than three; those passages are likely very difficult to read, and we think that’s a punishable offense.

Star Two. This one builds on the last. Almost all passages will get that first star. This one goes to passages with 4 or more paragraphs. Those passages are very likely to be easier to read than those with only three paragraphs, and we want our ratings to reflect that likelihood. So, if you see four or more indented lines, you’ve got yourself a 2-star passage at the least.

Star Three. Read the first sentence. Do you understand it immediately? I mean, is the language clear? Is the syntax normal? If so, give ‘er a star! Of course it’s possible that a passage that starts nicely will go off the rails further in, but that’s not likely! Most of the time, if a passage starts off with a readable first sentence, then it will continue readably. And (you may have noticed this?) readability is our main (fast) indicator of relative doability.

Star Four. In that first sentence, does this passage appear to be about a concrete idea? Generally, passages about concrete ideas are easier than those about abstractions. Like, I’d much rather read a passage about sidewalk maintenance (hey! That’s almost a “concrete” pun. Get it? Get it? Concrete!) than one about Subjectivist philosophies of mind. And I was a Philosophy major in college, even. See, this is not a matter of interest; it’s a question of how quickly you’ll be able to understand what you’ve read. And it’s likely that you’ll be able to understand a passage on something you can get your head around more quickly than something that you don’t have direct associations with. For most of us, we can wrap our brains around concrete ideas more quickly than abstract ones.

And that’s it for the ratings! Using them is easy:

Do any 4-star passage that’s in front of you.

If it has only three stars, then decide whether to do it now based on how confident you are in this section. Are you a capital-R Reader? Do any 3-star passage in front of you. Are you filled with trepidation and/or anger at the thought of Reading Comprehension? Skip the 3-star passages. Come back to them after you’ve done the 4-stars.

Skip any 2-star passage or below. There are certain to be 3- and 4-star passages in the section, and you want to do those first.

And that, my dearest readers, is that.

Read fiercely, and seriously be good to one another,


P.S. Questions, comments, suggestions? Sock ‘em to me.

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