If you want to demonstrate your English proficiency, why sit through a reading test? What does one stand to gain in proving his or her mastery of decoding meaning in a paragraph?
There seems to be a presumption of intelligence if one is able to read well—and by well we mean read sharply. The notion goes that when one is able to read perceptibly one is capable of learning so much from the hundreds of thousands of books around the world. A learned person is a powerful person. Knowledge is power, they say.
The argument may take a different turn, however, when we consider that, most who take an English proficiency test, aren’t born into the language. In the Philippines, for instance, English may be a test-taker’s third language. So one can imagine the lengths one goes to be able to gain a certain level of proficiency in the language. Then there’s the perennial issue of economics: the price of one good book is more than a movie ticket; whereas if people watch a movie (a movie version of the book), they’ll enjoy it much more than buying a book (which they can’t read for lack of time anyway). But, on closer inspection, economics is really a silly excuse: people spend thousands on mobile phones and boy band concerts, but they won’t buy a book of poems at Php 300 because reading doesn’t just rank high in their hierarchy of needs.
Reading is a skill that takes a long time to develop. It is also the most difficult skill to teach. Perhaps because reading skills are difficult to evaluate and one has a feeling that there really is no way of telling if one has reached a high degree of reading mastery. On any given day, no one bothers himself with serious reads and such as things as the level of one’s critical reading skill. With the social media holding sway over much of our lives today, we care so little about going past the third word in a news headline. Memes do the business of condensing meaning for us: so it is not surprising that, when people are asked to explain or argue about something, we get spurts of random phrases amounting to gibberish. Unless one is a student of writing (even this may be debatable), it is kind of rare to come across clearly worded social media posts (some people have to hire a ghost writer). Rarer still to come across people talking sense about a book and its merits.
Reading is basically a textual engagement. One doesn’t just stare at a passage and wait until meaning presents itself to him or her. One has to sift through the different layers of meaning across several levels: the sentence, paragraph, the whole passage. And then, one synchs these layers into one’s storeroom of meanings. I’m using the word storeroom to mean one’s supply of prior understanding in a way that when one reads somehow there occurs a correspondence between what he knows (prior to reading) and what he reads about. So, if you’re reading something that you have encountered before, the textual engagement happens fast and easy, comprehension comes fast as well.
This is why most reading tests are timed. The test is telling you, if you’re good you should be able to do this quickly.
Sometimes passages come devoid of linkers and implicit transitions. The paragraphs are tossed about in chaos so one’s job is to put order and sequence where there is none. There are sign posts scattered in the passage, but one is given no clue where to find them. Taking the text at face value (for instance, connecting the dots between proper nouns and their relationship to the gist and other things) may help, but only to a certain extent. Other meanings are submerged and can only be dug up by inferential reasoning as opposed to the obvious ones. Very tricky, really.
In the end one’s most reliable secret weapon in sitting a reading test, is an intense reading habit. You can tell a reader by the way he speaks.