SAT Critical Reading

Many people find the passage-based questions to be the most difficult portion of the exam. And in a sense, Critical Reading is the most difficult section of the exam to study for, and certainly the least possible to cram for.Unlike Math and (multiple choice) Writing, which are based on your understanding of and ability to apply a finite number of rules, Critical Reading tests your ability to make inferences and draw conclusions based on information not explicitly stated in a text. This point cannot be stressed enough: the SAT does not simply test your ability to find bits of factual information in a passage, but rather your ability to understand how the structure of a text and the language that the author uses contribute to its meaning. You are not only reading to determine 'what' a text says, but also 'how' the text says it.

Very few American students have ever been asked to read in this particular way before, and many are consequently confused when the literal answer they were expecting is nowhere to be found among the answer choices.

In fact, the correct answers to most questions will virtually never be stated word-for-word in the text. Generally speaking, the more directly the phrasing in an answer choice mimics the phrasing in the passage, the more likely it is to be wrong! The correct answer choice, on the other hand, will refer to an *idea* that has been discussed in the passage and that has simply been reworded. Your job is therefore to identify that idea and to look for an answer choice that deals with the same general concept. Often, questions will require you to make generalizations about the kind of argument or rhetorical strategy employed in a passage (is the author arguing in favor of an idea? refuting an idea? how does (s)he support that idea? do certain parts of the text function as background information? historical context? supporting evidence? etc.).

Since most schools do not explicitly teach these skills, it is important that you familiarize yourself with this approach to reading before you take the test. If you have taken a rigorous humanities curriculum and read extensively on your own, however, the majority of your studying will probably consist of your learning how to take the test – that is, how to pace yourself, and how to identify the quirks specific to the SAT. You will most likely not have to spend a significant amount of time studying the kind of material covered on the test, since you will already be familiar with it. If you're interested in looking at materials that the test is taken from, however, you can see my post entitled, "Where do critical reading passages come from anyway?")

If you don’t read on a regular basis, though, start. It isn’t necessary to read novels or the kinds of works usually considered “literature” in a high school English class. The SAT tests your ability to read for structure rather than simply meaning, which means that any piece of reasonably “serious” text is potential fodder for SAT questions. If you don’t like fiction, read biographies or history books. The point is, read something, and read it on a regular basis. You will not, however, be tested on wildly archaic vocabulary or abstruse (a good SAT word!) academic articles filled with incomprehensible jargon. The kinds of texts found on the SAT approximate the level of difficulty found in introductory-level college texts, and while the SAT is by no means a perfect test, in this sense it is in fact a test of your ability to understand college-level material.

Note also that the SAT does not test you on previous knowledge of any long works – all questions will test you exclusively on texts found in the test, none of which is longer than a page-and-a-half. If you’re not in the habit of doing so, start reading magazines or newspapers geared toward a relatively sophisticated adult audience. Information is usually presented in short, relatively dense amounts and mimics the kind of text that the College Board loves to test you on. The New York Times editorial page is a good place to start; so is The Economist or theWall Street Journal. The National Enquirer is not. If you are not already comfortable working with this level of text, the Verbal SAT will be very difficult indeed. Don’t simply assume that you will be able to recognize the right answer on the test. If you can’t already do this kind of analysis on your own, you’ll have a much more difficult time.

If you’re not used to reading this way, you’ll have to practice. Here’s a good exercise: take an article from the New York Times Op-Ed section and ask yourself the following:

What is the author’s main point?
What is the author’s tone (attitude toward his/her subject)?
If you have difficulty determining the Main Point or the Tone, try using the following formula:
Main Point = Topic + Tone + WHY
Topic: What subject is the author writing about?
Attitude: What does that author think about it? (Is it good or bad? How good or how bad? )
Why does the author believe this?
The answers to these three questions should give you the main point.
A note about main points
For most traditionally structured passages (i.e. non-fiction, centered around a single premise), the main point:
is NOT a topic such as "Bats" or "Canine Perception"
is NOT a theme such as "Oppression" or "Survival"
IS an argument such as "Humans fear bats for psychological reasons, not because bats are bad"(OR is condensed SAT terms: Hums. fear bats b/c psych., not b/c bad)
There is a major difference between the first two and the third. Subjects and themes will get you nowhere -- you need to be able to answer the "So What?"
Very often, the correct answer to many of the questions will be some sort of rewording of the main point. If you can determine this information before you even begin answering the questions, it will be far easier for you to pinpoint the correct answer without being fooled by any of the trick answers.

In addition, try the following exercise: go back to your selected piece of writing and try to draw a "map" of it. You've probably had to write outlines of your own essays in school -- now you're going to do the same thing...only backwards. Label:
* The introduction
* The main point (usually located in the last sentence of the first paragraph or the first paragraph of the second paragraph)
* The supporting evidence (usually one piece of evidence per paragraph)
* The conclusion
* Any objections or counter-arguments
In addition, note any figurative language and think about how it contributes to the point that the author is trying to make. The more precisely you can describe how a text functions, the less of a chance you have of being fooled by answers designed to trick you. Going on instinct alone or simply choosing the most sophisticated-sounding response will hurt you much more than it will help you.


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