Monday, November 14, 2011

don't let the SAT Critical Reading section
make your head explode

At my day job, I often help students familiarize themselves with the SAT. Many of them dislike the Critical Reading section, which is composed of two parts: Sentence Completion and Reading Comprehension. Here's a bit of advice for how to handle each of those parts.

I. Sentence Completion

1. Know your vocabulary. You have to know what a word means if you want to understand it. You might be able to guess a word's meaning in context, but while you have time in the weeks before you test, you should think about learning the definitions of as many SAT-level words as you can. Myriad publishers have created myriad lists of the so-called "1000 words most likely to appear on the SAT." Strangely enough, every publisher seems to have a different idea as to what those 1000 words are, which means you might want to study more than one such list.

Vocabulary words are the most basic building blocks of a language. Without knowing words, you can't even think about more complex notions like grammar. Vocab is fundamental. You know what the deadliest moment on the SAT is? It's when you've got a selection of five words... and you don't know what a single one of them means.

Here-- from the College Board's website:

There is no doubt that Larry is a genuine _____ : he excels at telling stories that fascinate his listeners.

(A) braggart
(B) dilettante
(C) pilferer
(D) prevaricator
(E) raconteur

Do you know the above words? No? Then you're toast. But surely you can at least figure out that a braggart is someone who brags. Choices (B) and (E) are loan words from French; if you've studied French, you may or may not be able to figure these words out. Choice (C) is of uncertain origin, but probably French; choice (D) is derived from Latin.

The above question is ridiculously easy to answer, however, if you know these words. A braggart is someone who brags; a dilettante is a dabbler who engages in many activities, but none of them deeply; a pilferer is a thief; a prevaricator is a liar; and a raconteur is a storyteller. It should now be obvious, if it wasn't before, that (E) is the correct answer.

If you're an avid reader, take advantage of that tendency: read around. Read works that interest you, but be sure to include works that challenge you. Reading older works can be useful, too: many words on the SAT have a venerable pedigree; they've been in use for centuries. If you're not an avid reader, then you need to get reading, but try sticking with subjects that interest you. Find books about your favorite subjects that aren't written for kids. Interested in sports? There are tons of books about your favorite sport-- memoirs, books on technique, etc.-- and they'll all use SAT vocabulary at some point. Don't give up by uttering a lame, "I'm just not a reader." Well, too bad: the SAT tests reading skills. If your skills suck, don't be surprised if you end up with an execrable score.

2. Study etymologies. The two most basic etymologies to study would be Greek and Latin, but German can also be useful. I often tell my students about the Greek or Latin origins of a given word; alas, very few students actually write down what I say! But I'd recommend that you do so: print out or photocopy some etymology lists and look them over. See whether you can use those lists to help you guess at word meanings.

One root I've seen repeatedly in my tutoring sessions is anima: it's Latin for "soul" or "mind." An animal is an "ensouled" lump of matter: it's animate: because it has life, it moves. When something moves as opposed to sitting still, it's animated, like an animated cartoon or an animated keynote speaker (as opposed to a boring, lifeless keynote speaker). If you and a group of people have to vote on something, and your vote is unanimous (uni + anima), this means you've acted with one mind. A magnanimous person is generous because he or she has a great (magna) soul (anima).

Studying etymologies won't guarantee that you'll successfully decode every unfamiliar word you come across. Some roots can mean different things, so you have to be careful. Take the Latin root di-, for example: in the word dioxide, it means "two." But in the word diurnal, di- means "day," and is in fact from a totally different Latin root (dies, day). This happens sometimes: two similarly-spelled words will prove to be from two totally different roots. A harpy has nothing to do with harps, for example.

But don't let the fact that etymologies aren't a foolproof weapon discourage you: the more test-taking techniques you have at your disposal, the more likely you are to score higher on the SAT. Knowledge of etymologies is but one tool in your arsenal.

Visit for more etymological information. Wikipedia also has a pretty impressive list of Greek and Latin roots. See here.

3. Understand the sentence you're reading. Here's an example straight from the College Board's website:

Although some think the terms "bug" and "insect" are _____ , the former term actually refers to _____ group of insects.

(A) parallel . . an identical
(B) precise . . an exact
(C) interchangeable . . a particular
(D) exclusive . . a separate
(E) useful . . a useless

Very quickly, you need to understand that the word Although indicates a contrast. It also helps to realize that you're probably reading a sentence from a biology textbook, or some bio-related article. Plunge into the miniature "universe" of each sentence you encounter. It's a bit like flipping channels on TV: in a fraction of a second, you can understand whether you're looking at a movie, a game show, a commercial, a drama, a comedy, the news, etc. In the same way, as you leap from sentence to sentence in the Sentence Completion section, try to grasp what each sentence is about as quickly as you can.

Since we know the sentence is hinting at some sort of contrast, it's a good guess that the two words you'll need will either be opposites or else just very different in their meanings. We can eliminate (A) right away: "parallel/identical" isn't a pair of opposites. Same for (B): "precise/exact" isn't a pair of opposites, either. (C) is a possible candidate: the word "interchangeable" implies sameness, whereas "particular" implies distinction and difference. With (D), we're back in the swamp: (D) doesn't work because "exclusive" and "separate" may actually be synonymous, or at least notionally similar, in certain contexts. Think about an exclusive party. Is that a party for the general public? Hell, no-- it's for a group of people who are separate from the mainstream. Choice (E) is interesting because it is a pair of opposites, but once you plug those words into the blanks, you see right away that "a useless group of insects" is a hilariously ridiculous phrase. Of all of our choices, (C) seems to be the best, and (C) is indeed the correct answer.

4. Classic tip: try filling in the blank(s) with your own word(s) first. This advice follows hard on the heels of what we just talked about. Once you have a good grasp on what the sentence is saying, where the writer is coming from, it's possible to make some educated guesses as to what might go in the blanks. You can use the process of elimination discussed a paragraph ago, but you can also try guessing like this:

Although some think the terms "bug" and "insect" are [similar, synonymous] , the former term actually refers to [a different/specific] group of insects.

Notice that the guesses I wrote in the blanks don't use sophisticated vocabulary. The point, here, is to get your mind into the correct notional ball park so that, when you do finally look at the answer selections, you're mentally primed to see the correct answer right away.

This method often gets you to the correct answer more quickly than does the method described in (3.) above. But the two methods are so interrelated that you may find yourself using both nearly simultaneously. That's good! It means your brain is doing some furious parallel processing to get you to the correct answer.

II. Reading Comprehension

One thing I've learned in tutoring students the Reading Comprehension section is that attitude affects comprehension. If a student has decided that he or she hates a particular reading passage, then from that moment on, it's a struggle for the student to stay focused. The advice I have to give in this section is a bit more holistic and less technique-oriented.

First, come into the SAT session well-rested and well-breakfasted. If you're tired and hungry, there's a good chance this will affect your focus. Come in awake and alert and ready for war, not sleepy and sluggish like a doomed security guard in an action movie.

Second, practice scanning the reading passages for information. Many test prep companies recommend reading through each passage first; my own advice tends to be, "Go with what works for you." If you're a fast enough reader, then go ahead and read the passages; familiarizing yourself with them that way is very effective, and your brain, which will be operating on several levels simultaneously, may form connections that become evident to your conscious mind once you turn to the reading comp questions.

One of the best scanning methods involves reading the questions first and isolating where, in the passage, you think the answers are most likely to lie. As a rule (there are exceptions, of course!), the questions follow the flow and sequence of the passage itself: the answer to the first question is likely to be located in the first part of the passage; the answers to the ensuing questions can probably be found in the middle, etc. While not as comprehensive a method as reading the entire passage through, this strategy might save you time, and might even be your preferred method if you consider yourself a slow reader.

Third, if you have access to an SAT manual with an answer key, use the answer key to your advantage: after you've checked your answers and determined which ones you've gotten wrong, look at the correct answers to those problems, then re-scan the text to determine why those answers are correct. Find, if you can, the line numbers where the evidence is located. If the question itself provides line numbers, then write yourself a brief sentence to explain why a given answer is correct: "B is correct because the passage says..."

The point of such an exercise is to help you improve your ability to scan for information. If you initially got the problem wrong, this is because you failed to find the information you needed. Now, post-test, you have the luxury of scanning the passage at a slower speed. Do so. The cognitive skill you're learning here isn't one that can be taught directly by any teacher. As you practice scanning over and over again, you'll find yourself getting better at it.

In the meantime, practice active reading in your daily life. Don't simply scroll through an article when you're online; ask yourself questions to stimulate thought. If you're reading an article about, say, the economic crisis in Europe, ask yourself whether you know who the major players are, what historical forces have contributed to the crisis, what different solutions have been proposed, and which ones seem best. Get curious! Don't let a negative attitude affect your ability to comprehend something. Approach all texts with an open, inquisitive mind. Do what you can to develop your scanning skills, and while you're at it, build your vocabulary by noting words you don't know, defining them, and writing sentences with them. Don't be afraid to Google words and see how they appear in various sentences. You can learn a lot that way.

III. Conclusion

People who do well on the SAT are those who practice this sort of global mindfulness: they're awake, alert, and curious about whatever they're reading. They care about their futures and are proactive in their attempts to master the SAT. They energetically strive to build vocabulary, understand words in context, think logically about conceptual interrelationships, and ask questions about whatever they're reading. You can do that, too. It means a lot of work, but now is the time to be doing such work.


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