In my tenure as an SAT teacher I have heard all explanations imaginable as to why the reading on the SAT is the most boring and awful reading in the known universe. Students tell me the reading is too dense, too dry, too descriptive, too hard.
There is no arguing with the fact that some of the passages on the SAT are less than thrilling, but in order to score at the highest level on the SAT, students must find a way to stay present and actively consume the material. There are a couple of techniques that can help with this process and allow students to answer questions about the passage effectively.
Make Short Summaries of Paragraphs Including What a Paragraph is DOING
This technique will not only help students to remember what content is covered in which paragraph (which is especially helpful for longer passages), but it will also prep students to have an answer ready when the SAT inevitably asks what the “purpose” of a paragraph or phrase is. Almost always, the purpose can be explained as “what is this language trying to accomplish?”. Is it supporting a point of view? Discrediting a theory? Describing a memory? If students can identify what a paragraph is doing, it will essentially give them a starting point to attack a question about purpose when it arises.
If something seems strange, interesting, or even awful, identify it and ask why the author chose to phrase something in that strange, interesting or awful way. It is likely that pieces of language that are unusual will be referenced in a question. For example, suppose there was a passage which contained the following sentence:
“There is no sin so decadent, so devious, so divine as the first instance of breaking a diet that has left you starved and broken.”
A student’s instinct should be to note this phrase and ask why the author chose to use it. In this case the use of the words “sin” and “devious” with the words “divine” and “decadent” probably show that this action, which is considered bad, feels really good. Doing this helps students to anticipate questions and be ready for them.
Translate Hard Sentences or Sections
Sometimes, all it takes to understand a difficult section is to translate some of the tough vocabulary. The time and energy spent studying all those SAT vocab words will come in very handy in this endeavor. Say a question asked why the author used the following phrase:
“To be intractable was more than his whim: it was his modes-aparendi, and there was no dissuading him once an idea had him in his clutches.”
This phrase is a little dense, but mostly because of a few tricky vocabulary words. “Intractable” just means stubborn, and “modes-aparendi” is Latin for mode of operation. A “whim” means a momentary desire or thought, and “dissuade” is the opposite of persuade. Let’s look at it again:
“To be stubborn was more than his momentary desire: it was his mode of operation, and there was no way to un-persuade him once an idea had him in its clutches.”
The passage is simply saying that this character is really stubborn. Once the translation is done, it is easy to see what the true nature of the passage is.
Look for Answers While You Read
As students read the passage, they should refer back to the line specific questions as they are reading so that they are actively looking for the answers as they read. For example, imagine there was a question relating to the following lines which we have already seen:
“There is no sin so decadent, so devious, so divine as the first instance of breaking a diet that has left you starved and broken. If there is, friends, I have yet to experience it!”
Now imagine the question asks the following:
“Which of these techniques is NOT utilized in lines 6-7 of the passage?”
a) Alliterative language
c) Religiously charged comparisons
d) Verbal repartee
e) Personal declaration
If a student encounters this question, he or she could simply start marking off what does and does not happen in the section of text referenced as he or she reads. A quick glance shows there is alliteration (“decadent, devious, and divine all have the same first consonant sound”) and hyperbole (“starved and broken”) as well as religious comparisons (“no sin so…”) and a personal declaration (“I have yet to experience it”). Thus, the only technique NOT used is repartee as there is no other character to offer witty replies.
Reading actively can be a challenge, but is essential for a great score on the reading section. With a little practice, staying present in these passages will not seem like such a chore. In fact, students may even find themselves learning something new, or at least actively tearing apart some writing that they hate. Happy studying!
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David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.