SAT Tip of the Week: Asking Questions to Answer Questions

SAT Tip of the Week - FullSAT Critical Reading passages are known to be a bit…well…boring. They can range from obscure 19th century literature to scientific articles on the principles of walking. Although some students might find these forays into otherwise-never-read writing interesting, most students are understandably turned off by what they have to read. I never blame students for feeling this way; what I do fight against is letting a lack of interest in a passage detract from a student’s score.

Even though it is hard, it is crucial to be engaged in a passage even if the content isn’t exciting. The best way to get yourself to be engaged and prepare yourself to answer the passage-based questions is to have an internal dialogue with yourself as you read. For me, I’ve always found that asking questions is a great way to stay on task and think critically about the passage at hand. Here are a few good general questions to begin the process of activating your internal voice when approaching SAT reading passages:

  • How does one part of the passage relate to the rest of the passage?
  • What purpose does placing this section of the passage here serve the author?
  • Where is the author using evidence, and where is he or she sharing his or her opinion?

Equally important is asking questions internally once you get to the actual SAT questions relating to the passage. Actively questioning the answer choices is a great way to make sure that you understand the question and don’t get tricked by trap answer choices. Here are a few good questions to ask when attacking a specific problem:

  • Was this actually stated in the passage, or is it merely plausible? (Remember – avoid assumptions!)
  • Where does the author support this claim?
  • Does the answer fit in with how I understood the passage? With how the passage was directly written?

Keeping a running dialogue of these types of questions helps you both to remain focused and to identify correct answer choices.  Let’s see how this strategy can be applied to a real SAT problem. Consider the following passage:

The Space Race, which occurred between 1957 and 1975, began when the Soviets launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, into space. For the Soviet Union, Sputnik was a tremendous technological achievement. For the United States, it was an embarrassing wake-up call. The United States had previously been regarded as the forerunner in the new field of space exploration, but Sputnik proved that the Soviets were viable contenders for that role.

When I read that passage, a couple key questions come to mind. Some questions occur as I read, others afterwards; it is important to know yourself in order to realize when your internal dialogue will be beneficial and when it will be distracting:

  • How (or does) the author define the Space Race?
  • “Wake-up call” seems figurative. What does the author mean by it and where can I justify that?
  • What is the value in talking specifically about the events in the Space Race?

Once you’ve thought about or answered these questions, it’s time to go on to look at the SAT problems. Keep the understanding you derived from your questions in mind as you think about how to approach the problem presented to you. Now lets look at a specific question related to the passage:

The author most likely uses the phrase “wake-up call” in line 5 in order to:

(A) emphasize the bitterly competitive nature of the space race

(B) highlight the need for the United States to begin its own weapons development program

(C) imply that the Soviets did in fact contact the United States government to notify them of the launch

(D) convey the shock and humiliation the United States felt when it heard about Sputnik

(E) suggest that any American attempt to launch a satellite at that time would be doomed to fail

My favorite strategy is to ask a challenging question directed at each answer choice. This ensures that I am critical of each answer choice and don’t give any answer the benefit of the doubt. The best questions are ones that are framed in such a way that they either eliminate or affirm an answer choice, since this obviously leads you to the correct answer on the problem.

For answer choice A, I’d ask: Is the space race bitterly competitive, or is bitterly too extreme a word?

For B, C, and E, I’d ask: Are the details from the answer choices actually present in the text? Respectively, does the US need to make its own program? Did the Soviets contact the Americans? Is there a suggestion of failure?

For D, I’d ask: Does a wake-up call usually go along with shock?

Answering these questions, I found that “bitterly” was, in fact, an inaccurate description of the situation; the US had no discernible need to start a program; there was no mention of any notification; there was no suggestion of failure; wake-up calls do involve being surprised, which goes along closely with shock. Through this analysis, I can eliminate choices A, B, C, and E, leaving me with just the correct answer, which is D.

As you can see, asking the right questions and keeping yourself engaged is a great way to stay focused and think critically about SAT passage-based reading questions.

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By Aidan Calvelli.