The New SAT is coming on March 5! Are you ready? Here’s some advice on how to tackle the new SAT Reading section. This is based on Chapter 1, of Section 3 of Barron’s New SAT, pages 115 through 130, my personal experience with the sample “new SAT” tests released by the College Board, and my general experience with SAT reading questions.
1. Read the Introductions. There is often a little italicized blurb at the beginning of the reading passage. It’s easy to ignore, especially when you’re worried about running out of time, but don’t. Read it. It may contain information that will help you, such as what kind of person wrote this, when it was written, etc., that may give you a clue as to the person’s motivation for writing it, whether the person is being serious or sarcastic/ironic, etc.
For example, let’s say you read the following sentence in a passage: “The Native American is still keenly aware of the effect the European white settlers had on his or her ancestors, since he or she is still experiencing it today.” If the introduction says “This passage is adapted from the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a book written in 1970 by the Native American historian Dee Brown,” you would probably interpret that sentence as meaning the Native Americans are still disadvantaged by injustices they suffered at the hands of settlers and the U.S. Army.
The same sentence would probably read very differently to you in a passage prefaced by “This passage is from a history of the settlement of the West written by an official U.S. Army historian in 1920.” In that case, you would probably understand that the statement was meant to be positive – that the white European settlers had “civilized” and brought many cultural gifts to the Native Americans. Not being able to know how to interpret an ambiguous statement is very likely to lead to your choosing a wrong answer on the SAT, so it’s better to read the little introductory blurbs and possibly get some useful information, even though you’re possibly wasting a few seconds if the introduction doesn’t contain any useful information.
2. Check the Line Numbers to Make Sure You Go Back to the Right Part of the Passage.
SAT question writers may try to trick you by asking a question with two questions that both look right, but where only one answer is right based on the evidence in the lines referenced by number in the questions. If the answer is based on evidence in different line numbers, it’s WRONG. This can be as simple as the same word being used in different ways in different lines of the passage – One sentence may use “page” in sense of “part of a book;” the other may mean “to call someone by a general announcement, as from the front desk of a hotel.” Another “page” may reference a young boy who is part of a nobleman’s court. If you look at the wrong-numbered line, you’ll be suckered by a wrong answer that references the wrong line.
3. Do Sections About Subjects that You Understand or that Interest You First.
The reading passages will be about various topics – history, science, fiction, and so on. Some of these will be more interesting to you than others. If you like science, and hate novels from the 1800s, do the science passages first, then the others, then save the Jane Austen novel passage for last, since you’re most likely to understand and pay attention to passages you like, and least likely to pay attention to passages that bore you. You’re also much more likely to understand passages subjects with which you are familiar than ones that are unfamiliar to you.
4. First Read the Passage, then Read the Questions.
Generally speaking, you should skim the passage, reading as quickly as you can without losing comprehension, marking off main ideas and points, and then look at the questions. It’s easier to answer the questions by going back to the relevant portions of the passage to make your answer choice after you’ve read the passage. Having skimmed the passage, you’ll be able to eliminate answer choices that are obviously wrong, since they don’t relate to the main point of the passage.
5. Answer All the Questions on One Passage Before Moving on to the Next.
This should be obvious to you, but in case it isn’t, I’ll discuss it. It’s not easy to focus on a new passage when you’re still thinking about the last one. So you may well miss questions you otherwise would have gotten right if you don’t just move on and concentrate on the next passage. Just mark the question that’s giving you trouble in your booklet, guess an answer (there’s no guessing penalty on the new SAT), and move on! You can go back if you have time after you’re done with the other questions.
6. Know Your Reading Question Types.
a. Main Idea: These questions ask you about the “big picture,” which is often stated at the beginning, the end, or throughout the passage (in that case, they’re really hitting you over the head with the theme). These questions will ask you what the passage’s “primary focus,” “primary purpose,” “main idea,” or “chief theme,” is, or something similar. Hopefully, you’ll be able to pick up on this easily. In cases where the theme isn’t explicitly stated at the beginning or the end, you should ask yourself “What does he or she seem to care about most in this passage?” “What is he or she trying to tell me in this passage?” The last two questions give you the main idea. If you’re still having trouble, try asking “Who is writing this?” “What kind of person is he or she?”
b. Specific Details: These questions are generally straightforward, since they just ask you to identify things that are directly stated in the passage. However, they can be tedious and annoying because they can be asked as “The author cites to all of the following as examples EXCEPT:” That means you have to look for each example in the passage and find the one that isn’t mentioned – it could be a misstatement of something that is mentioned, or it could be a true statement relating to the passage’s subject matter that simply isn’t mentioned. The latter example is an illustration of why you need to read carefully and find evidence to support your answer, and how “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” You can know a little about something, use that knowledge instead of what’s actually in the passage, and get a wrong answer.
c. Inferences: “I imply; you infer.” When I imply something, I hint at something, but “let you do the math,” as people often say. If I say “I had $100 in cash on my kitchen table when Bob was visiting me. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back, Bob was gone, and so was the cash.” Did I SAY Bob stole my money? No. But I implied it, and you inferred it. So you should look for questions like “The author implies that…” “The author apparently believes that…” “This passage is most likely aimed at the following group….” “Which of the following statements can be inferred (or logically follows) from the passage.”
Of course, implications can be used to imply false conclusions in the listener or reader’s mind, which the speaker or writer can deny – it happens all the time in advertising. An advertiser can truthfully state “Nothing works better at [doing what the product is supposed to do] than our product! So why settle for less?” Does that imply that the product is better than other products? You bet. Did it actually state that? No! It simply told you that there weren’t any products BETTER than that one, and asked you why you would settle for a product that isn’t as good, which itself isn’t a claim about the product.
The first statement would still be true if all similar products worked as well as their product, and the second question is a rhetorical question, not a statement. “Wouldn’t you be silly to use a mouthwash that could kill you?” “Why yes; does some mouthwash actually pose an actual risk of death?” “Well, no, not unless you drank a lot of it instead of just rinsing your mouth out with it as directed.” But I digress.
d. Tone/Attitude: Ask yourself “How is the author describing the subject of the passage?” Look for adjectives and adverbs – words that modify nouns, adjectives, and other adverbs. For example, if an author is describing a smell – he could use words like “fragrant” to indicate a pleasant smell, or “reeking,” “noisome,” (really, this means stinky) to describe an unpleasant odor, or use a word such as “pungent” to make a statement about the strength, but not necessarily the desirability, of an odor (some pungent smells may be good or bad, since they’re just strong – a pungent smell of mint may be pleasant, while the pungent smell of old, unwashed gym clothes probably isn’t). Is the author being serious? Silly? Sarcastic? Again, what kind of person is the author? What does he or she find important? Why is he or she writing this?
e. Vocabulary: The SAT will ask you several questions, on the order of 10, that ask you to figure out the meaning of words from their context (you know, the words around them). Read a few lines above and a few lines below the line referenced in the question (and make sure you go to the right line, as I’ve discussed above). If you still can’t figure it out, see if two or more of the answers all mean basically the same thing. Since they can’t all be right, they’re probably all wrong, so pick the one that means something different.
Use the context to figure out the meaning of the word – if you see a word like “disingenuous,” you may not know it’s meaning, but you should be able to guess its meaning from a sentence such as “While the prosecutor argued to us jurors that the witness’ answers to his questions were disingenuous, during our deliberations, we all agreed the witnesses answers seemed straightforward and sincere to us.” From that sentence, you should be able to figure out that “disingenuous” means something like “dishonest,” “insincere,” or “tricky.”
f. Technique: How is the essay or other passage organized? Does the author start with a statement? A question? Something else? Does the author list evidence to back the assertion he or she made, or evidence on two or more sides of the question he or she has asked? Is the evidence historical or scientific fact? Personal anecdotes (stories)? Hypothetical situations or “thought experiments?” How do the paragraphs relate to each other? Is the first paragraph the introduction, with two following paragraphs detailing supporting examples, and a concluding paragraph? Is there some other structure? Pay attention.
g .Graphics: Make sure you know how to read a graph or a table, and how the information would be represented in words – you will be asked if text in the reading matches with the information in the graphic, or otherwise asked to interpret a graph. See, for example, http://ucatlas.ucsc.edu/howto/graph.html (“How to Read a Graph”); http://staff.argyll.epsb.ca/jreed/math7/strand4/4103.htm , https://www.ixl.com/math/algebra-1/interpret-bar-graphs-line-graphs-and-histograms, http://biostat.mc.vanderbilt.edu/wiki/pub/Main/TheresaScott/Interpret.Graphs.TAScott.handout.pdf and more!
h. Interpreting and Using Evidence: What part of the passage best supports your answer to a question? Many of the questions that ask you to make a conclusion about the passage will be followed by a question asking which of four portions of the passage support your answer to the previous question. This can be helpful, since if you’re stuck on the first question, you can examine the four portions that are answers to the “evidence” question, decide which evidence is best, and figure out which answer to the first question is best supported by that evidence.
7. Try to Find the Main Idea by Examining the First and Last Sentence of Each Paragraph.
Most writers either start paragraphs with the point they want to make, then list the supporting evidence in the following sentences, or they list the evidence, then state the conclusion from their evidence in the last paragraph. Reading those sentences should show you of the main point of the whole passage.
If that doesn’t work for you, ask yourself the questions listed above in the “Tone/Attitude” subsection – “What is this passage about?” “How does the author feel about it?” “What does think the author want me to ‘take away’ from the passage?” Most of the time, it won’t be too hard to answer these questions and figure out the main idea of the passage.
8. Know the Terms Used to Describe Passage Organization and Structure.
Here are questions and answers that can help you understand these terms. You should also look through your English textbooks or seek helpful resources online (Google is our FRIEND!) or at the library (I know, how old-school, right? ;-) ).
What’s an “assertion?” It’s a direct statement that the author believes is true.
What’s an “expository” piece of writing? It’s something that explains or shows (“exposes”) something.
What about a “generalization?” It’s a statement of a general principle that applies in many different cases, not just one. (e.g., “Things fall when you drop them.”)
What’s a “simile?” It’s a comparison using “like” or “as.”
What’s a “metaphor?” It’s a comparison where you say something is something else – “L.A. is a great big freeway…”
What’s an “analogy?” An extended comparison of something to something else – e.g., “The computer repair shop was like a junkyard near the Information Superhighway, with disassembled computer cases and motherboards all over the place.” “Voltage is to electricity in a wire as pressure is to flowing water in a pipe.”
What’s a “thesis,” as in a “thesis statement?” The main idea; perhaps a point to be proven. “Gun control will make us all safer.”
What’s an “antithesis?” The opposite of the thesis. For example, the antithesis to the gun control example would be “Gun control would endanger us all, since then only criminals, who by definition don’t obey laws, would have guns.”
What’s a “rhetorical question?” (No, that question was not itself a rhetorical question.) It’s a question used in an argument or speech; it’s one you’re not supposed to answer, or one where there’s obviously only one right answer. Example – if your mother asks you “Do you expect me to clean up after you for the rest of your life?” you know she isn’t looking for you to answer “Yes,” and probably doesn’t even want you to answer “No.”
This is related to the idea of a “rhetorical threat,” one that’s so over-the-top that it’s obviously being made to make a point, not actually to make you afraid. “If you don’t put that blasted iPhone away NOW, I’m going to make you EAT IT!” probably isn’t a serious threat, but you should probably put it away if your parents, teachers, or others with authority over you tell you that. If it comes from someone with no authority over you, feel free to ignore that person, but I’d still get the heck away from him or her…
What does “abstract” mean? This is a term used to describe an idea, an emotion, or something else that exists in our hearts and minds, but not in the physical world. You can’t go to the store and ask for a pound of courage or intelligence, because courage and intelligence are abstract ideas.
How about “concrete?” No, not the stuff they use to make sidewalks. Something that is concrete is something you can touch, see, hear, smell, taste, or otherwise experience with one or more senses. It is a physical thing that exists. So concrete, the building material, is indeed very concrete. Some concrete items are symbols of abstract ideas – the Stars and Stripes flag is a symbol of the United States, which is as much an idea as a geographic location; a crucifix is a symbol of Christian faith; a medal is a symbol of the recipient’s honor and bravery.
9. Scan for Keywords or Synonyms to Find Specific Details in the Passage.
You will be asked questions about specific details in the passage. Be careful; be very careful. The SAT writers love to mess with you by including sucker-punch wrong answers that include a word that is in the passage. So if the passage says something like “She grew every vegetable in her garden, including corn, squash, tomatoes, and much more, with the notable exception of rutabagas, which she despised,” you can be sure that a detail question might ask something like “What did she grow in her garden?” and a wrong answer will be “Corn, squash, tomatoes, and rutabagas,” designed to catch the careless or panicked reader who thinks “Oh great! I saw all those words listed there – this answer must be right!”
The SAT writers are also very good at making a correct answer look wrong by using synonyms for the words that are confusing or incomprehensible to the average high school student and/or too dull, general, and generic-looking to seem like the right answer. So a correct answer about “He kicked the football through the upright to get a field goal” could appear something like “He propelled an oblong leather-covered air bladder between two poles by contacting it vigorously with the end of one of his lower appendages.”
I’m exaggerating a little to make my point, but trust me, the answers can be almost that convoluted and purposely disguised. In that case, it’s a good idea to examine the other answers, such as the sucker-punch detail questions listed above, eliminate the obviously-wrong answers, and then quickly examine the remaining choice – if there’s nothing OBVIOUSLY wrong (meaning you know exactly why it’s wrong, not that it uses a word you don’t know – but don’t assume an answer is right ONLY because it uses a word you don’t know- eliminate the other answers first), then pick it and move on. It was a disguised correct answer.
10. When Reading Paired Passages, Read the First Passage, Answer the Questions About It, and THEN Read the Second Passage.
This method allows you to answer questions about the first passage without confusing yourself with statements in the second passage (trust me; the SAT people are not above trying to distract you with answer choices that pertain to the wrong passage). Even if a question that references both passages comes first, skip it, do the questions about the first passage, and then come back to that question. Don’t let them throw off your rhythm.
11. Use the “Command-of-Evidence” Questions to Your Advantage.
One new feature of the new SAT reading passages, in addition to the graphs, is the “command of evidence” question. These questions always ask “Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?” and list four choices of line references, with the beginning and ending words separated by ellipsis (e.g. Lines 13-15 – (“John … the ball.”))These questions can be real bummers, in that if you get the questions before them wrong, you’re almost certainly going to get them wrong, since you’ll pick the answer choice that references the lines where you found evidence to support the wrong answer, not the right one.
However, these questions can also be helpful, since if none of them support YOUR answer very well, you might want to make sure you picked the right answer to the previous question. Also, if you have NO idea what the answer to the previous question is, you can just skip to the “command-of-evidence” question, read the lines referenced in each answer, and pick the answer to the previous question based on the information in those lines.
Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
I'm the proprietor and only tutor for this business; that's why I named it after me.