When people first begin their SAT preparation, they often ask me for any tricks or tips to help them do better on the reading comprehension section. People tend to ask similar questions, for example, whether you should read the questions first and then read the passage, or whether you can skip the reading passage, jump directly to the questions, read the questions, and then look for the answers in the passage. (Note: Neither method is effective.) Many people also think that it is possible to read the passage quickly and then answer the questions. (Note again: Also ineffective.)
Unfortunately, most tricks, at least for the critical reading section of the SAT, don’t work well at all. There actually are a handful of “tricks” or strategies that work surprisingly well for other sections of the SAT, but not so much for the reading section. Why? The SAT reading comprehension section is simply too difficult for such tricks; the passages are relatively sophisticated and require genuine critical thinking skills to understand. In fact, if it were possible to raise your score quickly using relatively simple strategies like this, the SAT creators would rightly be open to the valid criticism that their test does not accurately access a student’s ability to read and understand a complex text. The College Board would then react and change the SAT to make it harder to game the system.
That the critical reading section of the SAT is a genuine challenge makes perfect sense. Think about it – we have all read some texts that are fairly simple to comprehend and answer questions about. For example, many of the reading tests that we take in elementary school, middle school, and sometimes even in high school, are fairly straightforward. Such reading passages will ask questions like, “What time is Jackie planning to take the train?” Or, “To prepare tabbouleh, it is necessary to soak the bulgur wheat in water first. True or false?”
The SAT test does not ask questions like this. The SAT asks questions more related to a deeper understanding of relatively complex ideas. For example, the SAT may ask how the opinions of two people mentioned in the passage compare. Or the SAT might ask about an assumption that is necessary to arrive at a certain conclusion. Such questions are not nearly as easy to answer as questions that ask for basic bits of information.
Furthermore, if you skim (and by skim, I mean reading quickly without understanding most of the information) a passage, you could very easily miss important information. For example, it is very easy to overlook a negation word (such as no, not, doesn’t, and can’t), especially if that word is not very close to the word, phrase, clause, or idea that it is negating. And obviously, if a reader misses a word that negates the meaning of the sentence, she will completely misunderstand the intended meaning of the passage. To continue with the example of negations words: note that not all negation words are easy to spot; we are trained to look for the ones that start with n (such as no and not), but many other words can serve to negate a meaning, for example yet: I have yet to see the movie means I have not seen the movie.
To understand this point a bit better, let’s compare various ways to say that I have not seen a movie:
- I didn’t see the movie.
- I haven’t seen the movie.
- I have yet to see the movie.
- I couldn’t in all honesty say that I have yet seen the movie.
- I can deny seeing the movie.
- It would be inaccurate to say that I have already seen the movie.
- If Joanna denied that I have yet to see the movie, then I’d be inclined to dismiss any claim that she is reluctant to obfuscate the truth. (Note: No one talks like this. If “they” do, then “they” should be taken out back and given a one-hour grammar lesson.)
All of these express more or less the same information, but the earlier sentences are easier for the “reading part” of your brain to parse; if you read the passage without taking a moment to follow the logic, you will be more likely to miss the information contained in the more complex ways to express the information.
Finally, direct, in-class experience with literally tens of thousands of students has shown me time and again that students will miss more questions when they skim reading passages or otherwise do not concentrate fully than when they apply their full attention to the critical reading section. In fact, there are several questions in the Official SAT Study Guide that are hard to answer if you do not read every single word carefully in the reading passage. If there is enough interest from our readership, I will be happy to schedule an article for the future to discuss a few actual questions found in the Official SAT Study Guide to explain them in detail.
I hope this information has been helpful. Feel free to leave comments, ask questions, and the like.