How to Prepare for Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension for the CAT (2014)
Part 1: Building Skills for Reading Comprehension
Section 1: Reading Comprehension
Chapter 1. Introduction
Reading Comprehension (RC) forms one of the most critical parts of the CAT question paper.
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Every year, over the past 20 years of the CAT, RC has constituted anything between 15–30% of the total number of questions in the exam.
Thus, for instance, while CAT 2003 (re-exam) had 25 marks out of 150 from the RC section, CAT 2004 had 25 marks out of 150 (16.66%) and CAT 2005 had 20 marks out of 150 (13.33%). Since CAT went online, 10 questions out of the total 60 from the whole paper, are from RC carrying 16.66% weightage in the exam. Hence, developing the appropriate level of skills for tackling the reading comprehension section is something that a student preparing for CAT simply cannot afford to ignore during the preparation phase for the CAT exam. Needless to say, the correlation between good Reading Ability and good Reading Comprehension Ability is very high. Hence, in order to develop your ability to solve reading comprehension questions, your first focus should be to take your reading ability up from its current level (whatever that might be.)
READ MORE AND MORE
This advice is what you will come across from every trainer across the country. However, what is not so readily available for students is what skills should one focus on developing while reading, as well as under what framework of self development should one take up the task of reading more and more. Consequently, in our decade long experience of training students, we have seen that students normally end up trying to blindly read more and more without a framework, a direction or a focus. As a result, the returns from reading that students achieve are not proportional to the effort that they put into their reading.
Picking Contextual Clues
We have always believed that blindly reading, without working in a framework, will result in sub-optimal results. Hence, a major thrust of our initial emphasis in this section will be to give you a framework for developing your reading habits. Before we go into that aspect, let us look at another issue which we believe is of utmost importance for you to understand.
THE PROCESS OF WRITING AND ITS RELEVANCE TO THE PROCESS OF READING
Language can be defined as a set of sounds which has been developed in order to convey ideas from one mind to another. Prior to the invention of the first languages, humans used to convey ideas either through sign language or through pictorial representations (as borne out in the paintings in caves through which messages were conveyed). The invention of language represented a paradigm shift in man’s ability to communicate his thoughts and ideas to other fellow humans. Initially, all communication used to be oral and passed on orally from generation to generation. Speaking and listening were the two opposite ends of this chain of communication.
As the complexity of human life increased, the introduction of the written word was necessitated. In this chain of communication, reading is basically the reverse process of writing. A piece of writing is incomplete unless it is read by a reader. In this context, understanding the act of writing can take you a long way towards becoming a good reader.
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Since any and every reading that you do involves comprehending and connecting to the author of the passage, in order to become a good reader you need to understand the process through which a good writer goes while writing any piece—(be it as short as a paragraph long to a passage of 1000 words to a full length book).
Let us suppose that you are asked to write a 500 word essay on ‘The relevance of Management Education in India’. Would you straightaway put your pen to paper and start putting down whatever comes to your mind or would you first formulate the outline of the idea structure that you might want to convey through the piece? If you are not an amateur writer, chances are that you would do the latter.
As a matter of fact, all good writers will follow this appro-ach, i.e., they would formulate a kind of a skeleton (map or outline) of the idea they want to convey through their essay, before they put their pen to paper for the first time. This skeleton/map often includes the main idea, the supporting ideas, supporting evidences as well as the conclusion.
Most writers see the skeleton in the form of a picture of the idea structure. (A picture that consists of flowcharts, symbols, etc.) It is only after this that the pen is put to paper and the idea structure conveyed through a sequence of words, sentences and paragraphs.
As a reader, your task essentially, is to decode this sequence of words, sentences and paragraphs and come up with your own picture or interpretation of the idea conveyed by the author. The closer this picture is to the original one in the mind of the author, the better is the comprehension of the passage. In other words, you can even define the objective of reading as ‘to photocopy the idea structure of the author into your mind’. Remember a crucial point:
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The closer your skeleton/map is to what the author must have formulated, the more comprehensive will be your understanding of the passage you are reading.
It is in the light of the above that you should embark on what follows below. The following approach, if applied consistently to your daily dose of reading, will help you develop your level of reading from your current levels.
HOW READING SKILLS ARE IMPORTANT FOR ASPECTS OTHER THAN THE READING COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS OF THE CAT ENGLISH SECTION
The relevance of preparing well for the RC section does not simply end there. In fact, a closer look at the questions and question types asked under the head of Verbal Ability in the CAT, XLRI and other Management entrance papers of the past few years, clearly points at the overwhelming requirement of good reading habits for this section. Let us take a closer look at the question types in Verbal Ability asked in the CAT over the past few years to illustrate the importance of good reading habits for solving the same.
Verbal Ability Question Type 1: Paragraph Jumbles (Frequency of use: Consistently used every year over the last 12 years)
This has been one of the most favorite question types of examiners over the last 12 years. In this question type, a set of sentences which constitute a paragraph, are jumbled. The student is supposed to find out the correct order of sentences so as to form a coherent paragraph. For instance, try solving this question, which appeared as a two mark question in CAT 2005.
The sentences given in the question, when properly sequenced, form a coherent paragraph. Each sentence is labeled with a letter. Choose the most logical order of sentences from among the given choices to construct a coherent paragraph.
(a)Similarly, turning to caste, even though being lower caste is undoubtedly a separate cause of disparity, its impact is all the more greater when the lower-caste families also happen to be poor.
(b)Belonging to a privileged class can help a woman to overcome many barriers that obstruct women from less thriving classes.
(c)It is an interactive presence of these two kinds of deprivation—being low class and being female—that massively impoverishes women from the less privileged classes.
(d)A congruence of class deprivation and gender discrimination can blight the lives of poor women very severely.
(e)Gender is certainly a contributor to societal inequality, but it does not act independently of class.
1.EABDC 2. EBDCA
3.DAEBC 4. BECDA.
The correct answer here is EBDCA. The skills required to solve a question of this type (which is discussed in detail in Part Two of this book) include:
(a)Identification of opening sentence,
(b)Identification of the topic sentence,
(c)Getting and understanding the main idea in the question,
(d)Identifying transitions of ideas,
(e)Ordering of ideas,
(f)Slotting in the details in their right places,
(g)Understanding Vocabulary in context.
All the above are reading skills which we will learn about in the later part of this chapter.
Verbal Ability Question Type 2: Inappropriate Usage of Word
Here, we would look into the usage of a single word in four different contacts. These type of questions were first introduced in CAT 2003.
In each question, the word at the top is used in four different ways. Choose the option in which the usage of the word is incorrect or inappropriate.
1.I have my hand full, I cannot do it today.
2.The minister visited the jail to see the breach at first hand.
3.The situation is getting out of hand.
4.When the roof of my house was blown away, he was willing to lend me hand.
1.Your stand is beyond all reason.
2.Has she given you any reason for her resignation?
3.There is little reason in your pompous advice.
4.How do you deal with a friend who doesn’t listen to a reason?
Other words that have been asked are: Help, Paper, Business, Service, For, Near, etc.
There is no way you can study grammatical rules to help you improve your ability to solve these kinds of questions—nor does it have anything to do with vocabulary since the words given are extremely easy in nature.
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As you must have understood, your ability to solve these questions depends directly on the extensiveness of your reading habits and how often and in what form of usage you have seen the word earlier.
Verbal Ability Question Type 3: Paragraph Completion
In this question type, introduced for the first time in CAT 2005, the question contains a paragraph where the last statement has been removed. The student is expected to decide the appropriate option which best completes the paragraph.
Consider the following question that was a two mark question in the CAT 2005 paper:
The following question has a paragraph from which the last sentence has been deleted. From the given options, choose the one that completes the paragraph in the most appropriate way.
Federer’s fifth grand slam win prompted a reporter to ask whether he was the best ever. Federer is certainly not lacking in confidence, but he wasn’t about to proclaim himself the best ever. “The best player of this generation, yes”, he said, “but nowhere close to ever. Just look at the records that some guys have. I’m a minnow.”
1.His win against Agassi, a genius from the previous generation, contradicts that.
2.Sampras, the king of an earlier generation, was as humble.
3.He is more than a minnow to his contemporaries.
4.The difference between ‘the best of this generation’ and ‘best ever’ is a matter of perception.
The correct answer here is 3.
CAT aspirants in 2005 faced a lot of difficulty in solving this question type. Needless to say, solving this question needs an ability to catch:
(a)the author’s topic,
(b)the main idea he/she is trying to convey and
(c)understand the transitions he/she is using in the paragraph.
Needless to say, it is not possible to eliminate the doubts that crop up in one’s mind while solving such questions… only a good reader with a lot of reading exposure would be able to clearly see an answer to such a question. If you want to be able to see the answer to such questions, minus any ambiguities, development of good reading skills is the only way out.
(And considering that there were a clear 8 marks in 4 questions, it gave a clear advantage to the ‘good reader’.)
Verbal Ability Question Type 4: Identifying Grammatically Correct/ Incorrect Sentence(s):
Consider the following question asked in CAT 2005.
This question consists of four sentences on a topic. Some sentences are grammatically incorrect or inappropriate. Select the option that indicates the grammatically correct and appropriate sentence(s).
A.People have good reason to care about the welfare of animals.
B.Ever since Enlightenment, their treatment has been as a measure of mankind’s humanity.
C.It is not a coincidence that William Wilberforce and Sir Thomas Foxwell Buxton, two leaders of the movement to abolish the slave trade, helped found the Royal Society for the Prevention of cruelty to animals in 1820s.
D.An increasing number of people go further: mankind has a duty not to cause pain to animals that have the capacity to suffer.
1.A & D 2. B
3.A& C 4. C&D
The correct answer here is 1.
As you must have realized, solving these questions is not about cramming up complex grammatical rules. Even if you are given a comprehensive book on grammar to consult while solving these questions, you are unlikely to come out with the relevant rule which applies to the particular sentence under consideration. Then, on what skills would you depend to solve these kinds of questions? To draw a parallel, let us ask you a question in turn. How would you solve a similar question if it were asked in your mother tongue? Would you rush to the nearest available grammar book? Unlikely! In fact, your ability to solve such a question would depend solely on the frequency of the number of times that you have seen the particular nuance of the language being used. If you have not been exposed to the same, it is unlikely that you will be able to apply any sort of logic to solving this question type.
Verbal Ability Question Type 5: Summarising a Paragraph.
Consider the following question which appeared in CAT 2003.
Four alternative summaries are given below. Choose the option that best captures the essence of the text.
Some decisions will be fairly obvious—“no-brainers.” Your bank account is low, but you have a two week vacation coming up and you want to get away to some place warm to relax with your family. Will you accept your in-laws’ offer to free use of their Florida beachfront condo? Sure. You like your employer and feel ready to move forward in your career. Will you step in for your boss for three weeks while she attends a professional development course? Of course.
A.Some decisions are obvious under certain circumstances. You may, for example, readily accept a relative’s offer to free holiday accommodation or step in for your boss when she is away.
B.Some decisions are no-brainers, You need not think when making them. Examples are condo offers from in-laws and job offers from bosses when your bank account is low or boss is away.
C.Easy decisions are called “ no-brainers” because they do not require any cerebral activity. Examples such as accepting free holiday accommodation abound in our lives.
D.Accepting an offer from in-laws when you are short on funds and want a holiday is a no-brainer. Another no-brainer is taking the boss’s job when she is away.
1.A 2. B
3.C 4. D
The correct answer here is 1.
As for the previous questions, solving this question depends on your ability to understand the author’s topic sentence, get a grip of the main idea, identify where the details are and what is the message conveyed through them—all skills of reading rather than anything else.
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A closer look at other question types on Verbal Ability will further bear out this fact that—strong reading exposure, habits and skills are a must in order to solve questions of Verbal Ability.
It is due to this fact that Part I of this book on English is devoted to helping the student develop the skills set required to be a good reader. You are required to clearly understand the framework required for developing good reading habits, which is explained in the following part of the chapter. After that, you need to follow through consistently by applying the same framework in your daily reading scheme.
YOUR DAILY READING SCHEME
How much time should I spend on reading daily?
If you want to have any hope of developing your reading skills, the authors recommend a minimum of two hours per day of reading, over a year’s time. (Needless to say, if you are trying to achieve this in a shorter time span, the minimum recommended reading will go up proportionately.)
What kinds of stuff should I read?
Well, a true and frank answer to that question would be more like everything and anything under the sun. But where and at what level you start off your reading (under the framework we will be mentioning below) would depend on how much of a reader you have been during your school and college life. Remember, whatever your current reading skills are, there is always a level of writing which will challenge you. The basic concept that you need to adhere to for your reading exercises is that you should read things that constantly challenge and invigorate your mind. However, be careful to ensure that the challenge that the reading material puts forth to you should be small and not too big. If the material you choose to read is too challenging, the end result might be that you lose comprehension and subsequently, your interest in reading—an end result we are definitely not targeting!
So, when deciding the sources from which you are going to do your daily dose of reading, first of all define what level of writing represents a challenge for you. Then, you should identify the source/s (newspapers, magazines and books) that will give you that level of writing.
Thus, for instance, for some students, the editorials in a national daily represent a challenge, while for some others, the same level of challenge might be experienced in advanced philosophical (read: heavy) text.
In our experience, based on their reading exposure levels, students might be classified under four categories:
1. The Poor Reader
This category of students has had no exposure to reading in English. Most students whom we have encountered under this category come from vernacular medium schooling backgrounds (although that is not an absolute rule since even convent school educated students might belong to this category if their reading exposure has been poor.)
Consider the following excerpt, which will prove challenging for students belonging to this category:
“I was deeply embarrassed last week before a distinguished audience of sophisticated investors abroad–they virtually called me a liar. A year ago, I had reassured them that our stellar reformers—Manmohan Singh, Chidambaram and Montek—would not only ensure that our economic reforms would continue but they might even accelerate. A year later, the reforms are stuck and they were angry. I could not pretend that the reformers had become victims of coalition politics, for insiders tell me that the problem is with the Congress Party itself, which has lost the will of reform.
Luckily, I was bailed out by the Indian economy, which continues to grow robustly, and has been doing so for two decades, contemptuously ignoring our governments. The only way to explain this contradiction is that politics and economics are increasingly getting divorced in India, and we may have become like Italy, where they used to say, the economy grows at night when the government is asleep. Stephen Roach, the chief economist of Morgan Stanley, who exercises considerable influence on investor minds explains: ‘India is on the cusp of something big. After my third trip there in 18 months, I am as enthusiastic about India as I was about China in the late 1990s. What excites me is the potential for an increasingly powerful internal consumption dynamic—the missing link in most development models.’
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If you think you belong to the poor reader category, your initial reading should start off with editorials of good quality national level newspapers (like The Hindu, The Hindustan Times, The Deccan Herald, The Times of India, The Pioneer, The Indian Express, etc.), analysis based articles in these newspapers and analytical articles in national level current issues magazines (like India Today, Frontline, Week, etc.). You can also graduate to books written in simple English (both fictional and non fictional).
2. The Average Reader
In this category, students do not have a basic problem in reading and understanding English (since most of them are educated in English Medium schools). However, what we have seen is that in spite of the advantage of having studied in English medium schools, this category of students have not developed their reading skills, simply because they have not worked towards developing their reading habits. This group of students faces problems the moment they are confronted with a slightly complex or an unfamiliar topic. Thus, they might have no problem reading about the latest exploits of the Indian cricket team, but give them a topic about the latest advances in medical technology or for that matter, Freud’s interpretation of a dream and they lose contact with the subject matter of the passage.
Consider the following extract which might prove challenging to a reader of this category:
“What reader could resist so delicious a topic: a book that sets out to explain how cuisine came to be deeply ingrained in France’s cultural and intellectual make-up? Unfortunately, little of this hard-to-digest work concerns the actual history of French cuisine and how it came to ‘triumph’. Much of it seemed at embedding the subject in a sociological framework to prove that food is worthy of academic study. Accordingly, it piles on jargon, including sentences such as: ‘The cluster of activities that surround cooking and eating stakes out culinarity as a privileged entry into the social order.’
This is a pity, because beneath the layers of intellectual stodge, the author, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, offers some tantalizing morsels. Almost in passing, she mentions such iconic moments as the suicide of 17th century chef Vatel, when the fish arrived late for a banquet he was preparing for Louis XIV. She also cites the banquets of the Sun king at Versailles as a defining moment in French cuisine, but sadly does not describe them. Nor does she consider the influence of his minister Cardinal Rachelieu. Yet it was in this nation-building era of the Sun King that the first specifically French cookbooks were written.”
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If you think you belong to the average reader category, your reading scheme should start off with reading editorials from newspapers mentioned above, as also from Economic newspapers and should also include higher level magazines which use good quality English in their writing (like Time, Fortune and Economist).
3. The Good Reader
This category of reader has developed himself through consistently being in touch with reading. His/her reading exposure includes reading novels (fictional mainly), coffee table books on self development and newspapers on a daily basis. He/she will not face problems in reading and connecting to the author’s message in either of the above two extracts.
However, for this level of reader, something which goes beyond his/her comfort level of reading poses a problem. Consider this extract which might pose problems for this category of reader:
Philosophers have discussed the mode of existence which belongs to works of art, debating whether they are material things or mental constructs or whether perhaps they are more correctly to be described as ‘types’ of which the mental objects which come to awareness of this or that observer in moments of appreciation are the ‘tokens’. To sturdy common sense it seems at first sight obvious that some works of art are material things: pictures and sculptures are transported from place to place in lorries; they are hung on walls or set up on pedestals; they are weighed and measured, their physical properties can be tested and verified. Yet when we consider such arts as poetry, music, and dance the case is different. Wordworth’s Prelude and Verdi’s Requiem are unique entities which we agree to be works of art: but there is no one material thing anywhere, and no one happening, which can be identified with either of them. Moreover, as has already been seen, even in the case of painting and sculpture we ascribe to the art work properties which are incompatible with its being merely a material thing. There are important senses in which the picture which we talk about and enjoy as a work of art is not identical with the material piece of pigmented canvas which is crated and carried about in a lorry.
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If you belong to the good reader category, your objective should be to raise fair level through consistently reading material that challenges your comprehension. Magazines like Time & Economist & articles/books on Philosophy, advanced Scientific texts etc. should from your daily reading scheme.
4. The Excellent Reader
This category of reader has gone beyond the levels required to connect to any of the above three extracts. He/she has typically read a lot on diverse topics and at varying levels of language usage. If you think you belong to this category, you can skim through the reading lessons and frameworks in the next part of this chapter (since we believe you might already be aware of all the points we are making). All you need to do is to continue your good work and further expand your level of exposure and increase the coverage of topics with which you are familiar.
Consider this extract, that might prove challenging to you if you belong to this level:
Man is seen as a component of this order of things, and his psychic-mental life as reproduction of the life of the cosmos, in both its material and its mode of organization. This view was advanced in the sixth century B.C. by the thinkers of the Miletian school (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes) and by Heraclitus of Ephesus. They were all products of the commercial-industrial and cultural centres of Asia Minor—the Greek colonial city-states*, in which new social and economic relationship were being formed, with maximum destructive effect upon the old order of tribal society.
These thinkers of classical times did not all take the same form of matter to be the primary material of the world: Thales held that this was water ; Anaximander, that it was vague, boundless essence (apeiron**); Anaximenes, that it was air; and Heraclitus, that it was fire. The “nature philosophers” of classical times, explaining the natural world as proceeding from a single, all-penetrating primary principle, supposed that the particular form of life and behaviour which language (still reflecting the level of mythological thinking) designated as “the soul”, must likewise be a manifestation of this principle.
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Whichever level you belong to, a common objective for you as an MBA/CAT aspirant will be to increase and develop the scope of subjects with which you can claim familiarity.
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A closer analysis of the CAT question papers of the past decade reveals very clearly, that familiarity with certain topics is a must for all aspirants. Not just the passages but even the shorter Verbal Ability questions are normally extracted from one of the following topics/subjects:
(4)National and International Polity
(9)Art, Music and culture
(10)Science and Technology (incl. Medicine and Information Technology.)
A WORD OF CAUTION: THINGS THAT DO NOT WORK
Why Speed Reading Does Not Work, and in Fact is not Needed
There are a lot of books and trainers around who talk about speed reading, promising inexperienced readers a never before and almost magical jump in their reading abilities. However, in our experience of training thousands of students, we have seen the futility of speed reading techniques. The fact that the ‘magic’ wears off the moment you try to read anything outside the provided exercises has been a constant in our years of experience of having trained students. In fact, the moment a ‘speed reading trained student’ is confronted with something remotely heavy, the speed reading techniques stop working.
The basic reason why these reading techniques do not work under the examination reading conditions is that these techniques are designed for sparse and easy reading materials. (Speed reading is typically defined for ordinary, non technical matter). On the contrary, the passages and extracts used in the CAT, XLRI and other top management entrance exams are dense in terms of their content. They contain too much information and any attempt at skimming and scanning (which are recommended speed reading techniques) result in a loss of comprehension. Sometimes, missing on a crucial sentence might just end up making you lose your connection with the author totally.
Furthermore, at what speed (in words per minute) do you think you need to read in order to do well in the RC section? Take a guess… 400, 500, 700, or even more??? Incidentally, these are the kinds of reading speeds that speed reading books promise you that they will help you achieve.
Now consider this fact. A typical CAT passage is anywhere between 800 to 1200 words. The questions further form approximately 300 to 500 words. This means that in order to read a passage and solve the questions, all you need to do is read and completely understand anywhere between 1100 to 1700 words. CAT 2005 had 3 passages constituting 20 marks in all, and students had approximately 20 to 22 minutes to solve the same. A total of 3073 words — translates to a ridiculous reading speed requirement of 139.68 words per minute if you want to solve all the three passages. If you add the fact that most successful CAT aspirants solved only two out of the three passages, the statistic becomes even more ridiculous—especially in the light of the tall claims of 600 to 800 words per minute that these speed reading trainers and books claim that they can help a student achieve. Looking at it from another angle—if someone was able to achieve these reading speeds he/she should have been able to complete the 20 marks in the RC section in CAT 2005 in about five minutes flat!! Doesn’t happen, does it?
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A look at CAT 2003 gives a similar picture:
5702 words in five passages (including their questions) were required to be read for 25 questions (reading speed of 228.08 wpm if you were, to solve all five passages). CAT qualifiers attempted at most, 3 passages out of the five, in about 25 minutes. This required a reading speed of approximately 134 wpm.
Where does the need for speed reading arise? It simply does not.