Improve My SAT Critical Reading Score?

Many students complain that Critical Reading is the most difficult section of the SAT, and in many ways, they are correct. Unlike SAT Maths and SAT Writing, which test a set number of rules in various configurations, SAT Critical Reading passages can come from a wide variety of sources and CR questions can cover just about any aspect of the text. While certain kinds SAT Critical Reading of questions (e.g. vocabulary, inference, tone, etc.) are predictable, there are no set formulas that can be memorized to guarantee a correct answer. This does not mean, however, that it is impossible to study for SAT Critical Reading.

If you hate memorizing vocabulary, a fun way to study is with Tooth and Nail (available at Amazon, Written by a couple of Yale grads, Tooth and Nail is an entertaining, often tongue-in-cheek alternative to the drudgery of flash cards and vocab lists. It tells the story of a college freshman who becomes rapidly enmeshed in a mystery during her first weeks away at school and it just happens to have dozens of common SAT words conveniently sprinkled throughout the text, as well as a glossary in the back. Confession: I bought the book to give to one of my students, but I started reading it and couldn't put it down (I did eventually give it to my student, though, and she thought it was hilarious). Most of the plot exists as an excuse to throw in as much vocab as possible, but the authors recognize as much and clearly don't take their work too seriously. Probably the most painless way to study if you don't already have a strong vocabulary.

If you do already have a strong vocabulary and want to push yourself, read The New York Times every day and look up every single word you don't already know. Or read any relatively sophisticated work -- fiction or non-fiction, it doesn't matter -- and look up every single word you don't already know. Keep a running list, just keep reading.

So will reading alone help you prepare for the SAT? Yes and no. The more vocabulary you're exposed to the better, and the more comfortable you are reading sophisticated prose the better. However, the SAT also asks you to go a level beyond simple comprehension and understand why an author makes specific choices in a given text, as well as the implications of those choices.

Vocabulary is the first hurdle: if you don't understand what an author is literally saying, it is virtually impossible to draw inferences about what that author isn't saying. You also need to hone your ability to keep track of arguments and changes in point of view, and to recognize the distinction between main ideas and supporting details. If you can do that automatically, great! In that case, I would suggest covering up the answers and trying to answer the questions yourself before you even look at the answer choices. It may take a little longer, but if you can come up with the answer on your own and it matches an answer choice, you will almost certainly be correct.

If you don't have experience with or are uncomfortable reading this way, you'll have to practice "stripping" passages down to their main point and tone. The underlying points of most SAT passages aren't terribly complicated, but you need to know how to recognize them underneath all that vocabulary. To this end, you need to practice looking for "clues": words and phrases such as "In general," "most prominently," "most significantly," "However," "Despite," etc. that tell you whether an author is about to make a key statement or contradict a point. You also need to know how to interpret an author's tone by looking for positive and negative words (often adjectives) -- very rarely will an author be entirely neutral, and sometimes an author will display a very positive attitude toward one idea or person he/she discusses and a very negative attitude toward another. Paying attention t0 -- and circling -- important words can help guide you through the passage and prevent you from getting panicky and distracted. It can also help you keep the big picture in mind, even if you don't know the definition of every single word.


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