SAT Prep Tip: Critical Reading


Art by Dale Eadeh (BC Teacher and Artist)

Today’s topic is the SAT’s Passage-Based Critical Reading, i.e., the part of the SAT that makes most student cringe and break out in hives. Hopefully after reading this you’ll not only feel better about Passage-Based Reading, but may actually start to like it.

What makes SAT Reading different from school reading?

There are three significant things about SAT Passages and Questions that make them different from the reading most high school students do. If you understand these things, then you will be much better prepared for them.

The 3 biggest differences between most high school reading and SAT reading:

1. Passages take complex, nuanced, positions

In order to challenge your comprehension skills the SAT intentionally chooses only passages that present complex, subtle, and nuanced positions. Let’s take a look.

Many of the texts we read in school would state a position like this.

“Chicken is the world’s best food!”

However, an SAT passage would never be that direct or, I daresay, unsophisticated. Instead, the SAT will only choose passages that present their position like this:

“Despite the valid protestations from proponents of the other white-meat, chicken remains the predominant – as well as healthiest – choice for white-meat fans, and the most commonly consumed poultry.”

To master SAT reading, you have to train yourself to detect subtlety and look out for nuance. If you go into the test looking for black-and-white stances, you will be fooled. Instead, you must embrace the ambiguous.

2. Questions are asked as oddly incomplete phrases

When considering SAT Passage-Based Reading the term “questions” is suspect, and often an outright misnomer. Less than half the SAT reading questions start with the traditional Who, What, Where, Why, or How, and even fewer end in a question mark. Instead, the SAT challenges your comprehension abilities by forcing you to translate what they say into an understandable question for yourself.

Your typical SAT reading question

15. The author compares genetic engineering to the process of bacterial growth (lines 23 – 28) in order to

(A) explain how RNA recombination functions most effectively

(B) point out the differences in genetic engineering

(C) infer that both are natural processes

(D) suggest the potential obstacles to this process

(E) point out that both are harmful to nature

Note how the “question” is incomplete and worded strangely. In order to maximize your SAT score, you should always make sure you translate questions so that you understand what they are asking.

3. All answers paraphrase the passage.

Perhaps the trickiest part of Passage-Based Reading is the SAT’s propensity for paraphrasing. Many of us have spent the last 10 – 12 years of school answering reading questions that required us to do one of two things:

1. Find information stated in the passage and quote it.

2. Give your opinion based on facts presented.

The SAT does neither of these things; in fact, it seems to specifically penalize those who expect these types of answers. Check out the following portion of a passage and question:

Yet the complex duality of its message of nonviolent
rebellion and extreme militancy is often overlooked by
casual readers and scholars alike. Some scholars suggest
that this speech does not serve as a true rallying cry or
revitalization of the Civil Rights Movement, as it lacks
the power and call to action found in King’s later orations.
These same scholars would also note that the speech
inaccurately solidified King as just a nonviolent dreamer,
rather than a protester, a nonconformist, or an activist.

It can be inferred that the scholars mentioned in
line 12 would believe the complete image of King
would

(A) emphasize the contradictions within King’s beliefs
(B) compare King with other Civil Rights leaders
(C) observe King’s powerful influence outside of the
United States
(D) observe King’s multifaceted message
(E) display King’s innermost thoughts and ideas

The correct answer, D, uses language that is not found anywhere else in the passage. However, the correct answer does accurately summarize the information stated in the text. Make sure that when you prep for the SAT, you learn to look for paraphrases as the correct answers to reading questions.

Good luck and good prepping!

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