If there is a section that the average student dreads most on the SAT, it is the Critical Reading. Why? Well, because of the “critical reading.” Try saying those words around any high schooler and notice the unconscious subtle curl of their lips.
SAT reading passages are usually dry, complex, and insipid (there’s an SAT word for you.) To contend with this, many students are recommended to employ “tricky” strategies for the reading passages to save time and preserve attention. Some of these tricks include reading the questions first, skimming the passage, and reading the first and last line of each paragraph. In short, these tips are awful.
The SAT Critical Reading section does not test your understanding of a passage’s plot; it tests your understanding of its meaning – a huge difference. Want to know how to get a better score on the SAT Critical Reading? Read the passages.
“But there’s not enough time to read the passage and answer the questions.”
The first excuse a student throws is that there is not enough time to read all the passages and get to the majority of the questions. Yes, pacing is a skill that has to be mastered on the SAT to get a high score; however, this doesn’t mean skimming the passages to gain time for answering questions. Again, the SAT tests your understanding of a passage’s meaning. Students often don’t realize that by devoting adequate time to reading the passages, they gain a much better sense for the meaning of a passage thereby cutting down time spent answering questions while improving accuracy.
Let’s look at the test. The longest Critical Reading section is 24 questions and 25 minutes long. A sample section I’m looking at right now has five sentence completion questions followed by two short paragraph-long passages with two questions each, and two longer passages with six and nine questions, respectively. Let’s assume that the sentence completion section takes five minutes to complete (this is being very generous), leaving 20 minutes for the reading passages. In these particular passages there are 1314 words total. The average reading speed of a high school student is about 250 words per minute. (I’ll even slow it down a bit to 225 words per minute account for the extra focus required to get through the dullness of these passages and the length of the test.) Therefore, the passages in this particular section would take just under six minutes to read. That leaves about 45 seconds to devote to each question – well more than enough time to read the question and answer choices, recall information, and even refer back to the text to make answer selections.
Why “Tricky” SAT Reading Strategies Backfire
What happens when students employ these aforementioned “time saving strategies” is that they get to the questions and, because they do not grasp the meaning of the passage, they end up referring back to the passage and reading select parts for each question, often more than once, so much that it would have been quicker to simply have read the passage in the first place.
These “tricky” strategies may help if you are reading to determine the plot line, but, again, you’re looking for meaning. SAT questions are going to ask you things that require contextual understanding, not a regurgitation of what is written. You’ll be asked about the authors’ attitudes, opinions, and assumptions; characters’ motivations; rhetorical devices; and main ideas. To do well, you must read and understand each passage fully. For the majority of critical reading questions, you should be able to provide your own version of an answer to every question without even looking at the five answer options.
So, if someone recommends a time-saving strategy for the Critical Reading section that involves anything less than reading the passages in their entirety: beware. Instead, prep time should focus on honing active reading strategies and understanding the meaning behind the passages.