The SAT Reading Comprehension: Basic Principles

Looking to improve your SAT Critical Reading score? Learn the basic principles and tips behind the reading section of the SAT.
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The SAT Reading Comprehension: Basic Principles

Why Your Comprehension Improves the Less You Read of a Passage
Three sections of the SAT Reading Test begin with sentence completion questions before the reading passages; one section consists of reading questions. To give you a better idea of the layout of the passages within the SAT Reading Test, let's take another look at its three sections:
  • 25-minute section: 8 sentence completions and 16 reading questions (2 paired small passages, 1 long passage)
  • 25-minute section: 5 sentence completions and 19 reading questions (2 small passages, 2 medium-to-long passages)
  • 20-minute section: 6 sentence completions and 13 reading questions (1 pair of medium-to-long passages)
Again, there might be some variation from test to test, but you can expect this basic layout.

These passages are primarily nonfiction, and cover a broad range of topics. SATs have included passages as diverse as the hunting of whales, women in the workplace, religious freedom, and even professional wrestling. Apart from vocabulary, the reading questions do not require any specific knowledge. All the information you need to answer the questions is provided in the passages.

The passages usually express someone's point of view in a discussion or explanation of something. Unlike the kind of fiction reading you do in English class, the passages require little or no "interpretation." Instead, your main job is simply to follow the author's argument or explanation or whatever, and answer questions on the content or implications of the passage.

Here are the instructions to the reading passages:

Each passage below is followed by questions about its content. Answer the questions based on what is stated or implied in each passage and in any introductory material that may be provided.

As you can see, these directions are straightforward. They will not change, so do not waste time reading these directions again during the test.

Like I Said, SAT Reading Is Different
Reading seems like a skill you learned a long time ago, but SAT reading is different from the kind of required reading you do all the time in school or from the kind of reading you do outside of school for pleasure. If you read an SAT passage the way you read a textbook or a novel for homework, you're going to be in big, big trouble on the test!

Let's consider the how and what you typically read. One important aspect of your reading is that you always have background information about the subject or at least a context in which to place it. When you read it's either a subject you're studying or an area or genre of personal interest. If it's for class, the book or article is in a subject you're familiar with, and your teacher has probably discussed the main points. If you're reading for your personal enjoyment, you're probably quite comfortable with even difficult material.

Don't underestimate how much all this background information paves the way for what you read. And if you get stuck on something, no prob—you can take your time to reread it as many times as necessary. You're not in any rush, so you can ponder what you've read for additional insights. If you're still confused, you can seek out additional references or perspectives in other resources or on the Internet. In short, for your normal reading you have it pretty easy.

Now let's consider how and what you'll be reading on the SAT. On an SAT passage, you're reading an excerpt in an unfamiliar area, totally divorced from context that would help you understand it. If you're confused, tough luck: there are no class notes to refer to for an explanation, there's no glossary or index, nor any other source material for an explanation. If you don't understand a word—whoops—there's no dictionary or online encyclopedia in which to look it up. Then of course there's the time pressure factor. You have barely enough time to read a passage once and still answer the questions, much less read it a second or even third time as you might at home.

And that's just what you have to cope with for a passage. Reading the choices correctly presents its own set of even more difficult challenges.

How Not to Read an SAT Passage
Okay, tell me whether any of the following sounds familiar from your experience reading an SAT passage.

You read the first paragraph carefully, but by the end of the first paragraph you realize you're a bit confused. Undaunted, you push on (Mistake #1). You plod through the text conscientiously, sentence by sentence, trying to take in as many facts as you can. Perhaps you underline key words or phrases that seem important. You move through the passage doggedly, determined to get as detailed an understanding as possible (Mistake #2).

You've spent quite a bit of time on the passage (Mistake #3), so you're surprised that when you arrive at the end of the passage, you don't understand very much of the text and can remember even less. Yikes, but now you're short of time—can't reread the whole passage—so you rush through the questions (Mistake #4).

Here's the deal. You simply don't have enough time to understand and remember all the information in even a brief SAT passage. As we discussed in The SAT: How to Gain (or Lose) 30 IQ Points—Instantly!, your short-term memory has a very limited capacity. Once it "fills up" with half-a-dozen facts or ideas—likely to happen some time in the first paragraph—your short-term memory hits overload and your thinking capacity drops to near zero. Not only is getting a detailed understanding of a passage impossible on a timed test like the SAT, but trying to do so is only going to get you confused. Moreover, you'll need that time to spend on the questions.

Since you're operating under extremely rushed conditions, all you can hope for is a very general understanding of the passage. Fortunately, since a multiple-choice test provides you with all the answers, a cursory understanding of the passage is all you need to answer the questions. After all, you don't have to come up with the answer to a question; you just have to recognize the answer among the choices.

You may have heard or read the suggestion that you not try to read the passage at all, but instead go directly to the questions. This approach is extremely ill-advised—unless you're running out of time during the last few minutes of a reading section.