SAT Reading: What You Need to Know

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If you are like many students, the Reading section of the SAT is your least favorite and, oftentimes, the most difficult one to improve. As for the first part, I don’t blame you. The SAT begins with a grueling 65-minute Reading section. When our tutors first took this version of the test in 2016, even we were tired at the end.

But why is this section so difficult for many students to improve? One reason is the disconnect between what you’re taught to do in school and what the test requires.

The SAT Reading section demands close, literal reading of high-level texts, with an emphasis on nonfiction. This style of reading is almost the exact opposite of what you’re typically exposed to and practice in school. Most reading instruction occurs in your English classes and often requires you to read selections from the Western canon of novels and then to write about them. And what does the teacher want to see? An original thesis, of course! They want you to read between the lines, to draw inferences, to find symbols and allusions, and to place the work in its larger historical context. Those are wonderful ways to spur interesting classroom discussion and encourage you to think deeply about important questions, but these approaches often lead to the wrong answer on the SAT.

Instead, the SAT requires you to be an attentive reader, to identify arguments and evidence, and to summarize and paraphrase main ideas without adding any of your own thoughts or arguments. These skills taken together will give you the ability to distill meaning from complex texts — an ability crucial to success not only on the SAT but also in college and the workplace.

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Overall Strategy

You can improve your score on this section primarily in two ways. You can either improve your reading skills or you can improve your understanding of the test itself. Unfortunately, making wholesale changes to your reading skills, such as expanding your vocabulary or changing your reading speed, isn’t practical on the timescale of weeks or months of SAT prep. But don’t fret; you should instead focus on learning as much as you can about how this test works so that you can apply all the reading skills you do have to push your score as high as possible. Let’s break down this section by looking at its three components: the passages, the questions, and the answers.

Reading Passages

Five separate passages and their questions comprise this section, and the first is always the fiction passage. The other four are made up of two STEM passages and two broadly concerned with history or social science. While the passages are all approximately equal in length and have roughly the same number of questions, they are far from equal in difficulty! The SAT reading section is intentionally uneven in its difficulty, so don’t be discouraged if one of the passages is absolutely killing you. There’s supposed to be that one passage that’s really hard. Different students certainly have different reading preferences, but the factor that most often affects the difficulty of the passage is its age. The older the passage (though you won’t really see anything older than the 1700s here), the more foreign the language will likely seem in its vocabulary and sentence structure.

You’ll want to read the short attribution in the smaller font before the passage begins in earnest; it can give you helpful context and always includes the publication date so you can be prepared for what you’re about to read. You’ll also likely have noticed that one of the passages is actually two shorter passages presented as a pair. The additional requirement of understanding not just the passages themselves but the relationship between them can make for more of a challenge. And buckle up if the paired passage is also the oldest one!

So how does one best approach these passages? Almost all students have seen a “Hey kid, read this and then answer these questions” section on standardized tests in the past, and they’ve taken a myriad of possible approaches. Do you read the passage first? The questions? Skim the passage? Since different students have different strengths — some are great at parsing difficult language, others read quickly and efficiently, yet others can rely on accurate short-term memories — there’s no one-size-fits-all method, but there are some guidelines:

Read First: Since the answers to all the questions are in the passage (more on that later), it’s impossible to accurately answer the questions without having read the passage. For that reason, I strongly encourage you to make sure you’re not trying to answer questions about parts of the passage you haven’t yet read. For some students, one useful strategy, then, is to read the whole passage for understanding. Not skimming. Reading it as if, oh, I don’t know, someone were about to ask you questions about it … In fact, if you’re someone who reads in your spare time, you’re likely thinking to yourself, “Duh? Why would you do anything other than that?” And good for you. But not every student is fortunate enough to have the attentional skills and short-term memory required to make that work. So if you’re chagrined at the thought of reading the whole thing at once, there are other valid, productive tactics you can employ.

Read in Chunks: If you think reading the whole passage at one time might be too much for you handle, that’s ok. You might think you’ll forget everything from the beginning of the passage by the time you finish it. Or you might know your own powers of focus will be severely taxed by line 95, and your reading speed will have slowed to a crawl. One solution is to simply break the passage into more manageable chunks. Read just the first column. Or just the first two paragraphs if that works better for you.

The whole idea is to lessen the time between reading the relevant portions of the passage and answering the related questions. Since everyone’s memories and comprehension skills are different, you’ll want to find the right-sized chunks that work for you.  But you’re still reading the passage before you answer questions. The good news is that the questions on the test come more or less chronologically throughout the passage. So you can begin by reading your first chunk, then start reading the questions to see if you’ve read enough to answer them. You’ll certainly need to skip all the main idea questions until you’re finished reading, but you can certainly answer questions with line references that you’ve already gotten to.

Once you get to a question that’s past where you’ve read, it’s back to the passage for another chunk. Rinse and repeat. Then finish up by answering all the “big picture” questions about the main idea or structure or tone. (By the way, saving all those main idea questions for last isn’t a bad idea even if you are reading the whole passage first!)

Read with Your Pencil: The passages on the SAT can be challenging to read, so you need to be a focused and active reader at all times. Using your pencil can help. I certainly don’t want you to move your pencil across each and every line or to lightly underline basically the whole passage. Those practices cost time and ultimately points. Judicious underlining, however, can help you better understand the passage as you read it and more quickly navigate the passage when looking back to find the answers to the questions. Aim to underline just one or two handfuls of lines or phrases over the course of the whole passage — no more.

So what are some good reasons to underline something? One would be if you’re saying to yourself, “Omigosh, this is soooooo boring I can barely pay attention to it.” If that’s the case, trying to find the most important line in the paragraph to underline might help you to pay closer attention. You might want to circle any transition words like “however” or “nevertheless” or “consequently” to signal the shift in the passage. You might want to try to identify topic sentences or conclusions. There are lots of ways to organize your thinking to help you understand what you’re reading, and you should experiment to find the one that works best for you. Once you’ve done a few practice tests, though, you might begin to get a sense of “I can totally see them asking me about this” when you come across a person or a quote or a detail. Yep, go ahead and underline those as well.

It’s important to understand that you don’t need to underline the exact evidence for questions in order for it to be helpful. That’s not the point. The point is that the process of deciding what to underline engages you with the text to make sure you’re being an active, attentive reader. And even if you’re searching for a line in the text that you haven’t underlined, you might be able to remember it’s before this underlined part but after that one and expedite your search.

Question Types

After you’ve finished reading the passage (or a portion of it), you’ve got to read the questions — and only the questions. If there’s only one piece of advice you take from this whole blog, this should be it: Read only the question stems. Do NOT read the answer choices until you first FIND the answers in the text. I assure you they are all in there. I know it’s difficult. The answer choices are right there begging to be read. And that’s how multiple-choice tests work in school, right? You read the questions then read the answers to figure out which one is correct.

But in school, you’re supposed to know something about why the answers are right or wrong. Not so on the SAT. The only reason one answer is correct and the others are incorrect is that the correct answer has the best evidence in the text. That’s it. So you’ve got to head back to the text to find that evidence before you can have any hope of choosing the best answer choice. Only then should you look to the answer choices themselves. Sound tedious? It is.

If the SAT Reading section doesn’t feel tedious, you’re not doing it right.

That big picture applies to all the SAT Reading questions, but you’ll have an easier time with the section if you can decode the different question types and understand exactly what the test-writers want from you:

Evidence: Each of the five passages has two paired evidence questions, which is approximately 40% of the test, so it’s critical you have a strategy to work through these linked questions. Here’s what we recommend. First, read the question stem of the first question. More often than not, it’s general enough that you won’t know or remember exactly where to look in the passage for the answer. (If you do, that’s great — head there, find your answer, and hope that line is one of the answer choices for the second question. If it is, pat yourself on the back and move on.) Next, move onto the line references in the second question. Carefully read each one and ask yourself if those lines provide any answers to the first question. If not, move on. If they do speak to the question, summarize what they say and see if there’s an answer choice to the first question that agrees with your summary. If so, mark the pair as a possibility but continue to check every single line reference. You can’t find the best answer until you’ve looked at all of them!

Word In Context: You should also expect two word-in-context questions on each passage. These always have line references and ask what the author most nearly means in the context of the passage when he uses a particular word. There’s a tight three-step process here, if you’re into those:

  1. As always, look to the passage first and find a word of your own to use as a substitute. Then use your perfect word to help identify the correct answer choice. And remember that context is central here! It’s less important that you think the word in the passage literally has the same meaning as the word you’ve chosen and more important that the word you’ve chosen fits in the passage and maintains both the meaning and the syntax of the sentence as you originally understood them.
  2. Put any remaining answers back into the passage to test whether it sounds good in context.
  3. THEN think about whether the answers mean the same thing as the word you’re replacing.

Detail: Questions that use the language “based on the passage,” “according to the passage,” or “according to the author” are the most literal questions on the text with the evidence most clearly stated in the passage and similar to what will be in the correct answer choice. These will never have line references, and the hard part is finding the correct lines in the text. Once you do that, choosing the correct answer choice should be easy. There is no “close enough” answers to these questions. If you have to work to make your answer choice work, you’re likely on the wrong path.

Inference: Questions stems that use the words “infer,” “imply,” or “suggest” don’t really mean “infer” like your English teacher would use it. On the SAT, you’ve got enough room to make about one logical step. That’s it. If you need to explain more than that, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Save it for English class. As an example of a classic type of SAT “inference,” the passage might say “the first reliable pictures of Venus were obtained in 1975,” and the correct answer choice would be something like “previous images of Venus were unreliable.” That’s about as much leeway as you get, and it’s not much.

Answer Choices

While some of the passages might be difficult to read and some of the questions might ask about the most difficult parts of those passages, I suspect the hardest aspect of the SAT Reading section for many students is actually the answer choices themselves. The test-writers are very good at writing compelling yet wrong answer choices. You can guard against many of them by following the strategies above, but it’ll be even more helpful if you understand more about how they craft their wrong answers. Here are some final pieces of advice:

Extreme Answers: The more specific or extreme an answer choice, the higher the burden of proof. You’ll need more and specific evidence in the text for these answers to be correct. So if you’re ever on the fence between answer choices that are similar, but one is more general and the other more specific, always go with the more general answer choice. In a sense, you’re just looking for answers that aren’t wrong — and the more specific an answer choice is, the easier it is to be wrong in some small way.

Finding the Flaws: In fact, you should always be looking for flaws rather than right answers. The SAT is great at writing answers that sound good and maybe even could be true, but you’re looking for answers that must be true based on what’s in the text. Looking for the right answer tends to creatively engage you, while finding flaws tends to keep you thinking more analytically, which is where you want to be on this section. So if you’re down to two answer choices, ask yourself which has the word or phrase you can most easily quibble with and then choose the other one.

The Right Words the Wrong Way: One final type of wrong answer is the one that uses the same words in the text but uses them in the wrong way. Perhaps the answer uses a phrase from the text correctly, but then includes some small incorrect detail. Nope. If any part of an answer is wrong, the whole thing is wrong. Perhaps you’re asked for the main idea of a paragraph but the answer includes a small detail from that paragraph almost verbatim. Don’t fall for it. The right answers on the SAT often don’t use the same language as the evidence in the text. Instead, they are effective summaries or paraphrases of the lines in the text using altogether different language.

Strategies for your SAT Reading Goals

Not everyone needs a perfect score on the SAT Reading section. In fact, the SAT Reading section is the hardest section of either the SAT or the ACT on which to score perfectly. Think about where you are and what you need to do to hit each benchmark along the way to your goal. And a note on scoring: The SAT Reading is scored from 10-40 and makes up half of the Reading & Writing portion of the test. So a 30 on Reading is half way to a 600 on that section of the test if your Writing score matches.

Getting to a 25 (on pace for 500): You’ll need to get about half the questions right, but those likely won’t be evenly distributed on each passage. As you’re going through the test, focus on picking the three passages you feel you understand the best and spend most of your time on them. For the other two more difficult passages (including the oldest passage), focus mostly on the questions with line references and make your best guesses on the remainder.

Getting to a 30 (on pace for 600): You’ll need to do a decent job on all the passages to hit a 30 and can only miss about three questions per passage on average. You’ll still likely want to save the hardest one for last, but you should be focusing on going back and finding that evidence for every question. You’ll need to prove to yourself that the answers really are in there for every question and work hard to understand how they’re being presented to you.

Getting to a 35 (on pace for 700): At this point your margin of error slims to only one miss per passage. You’ll need a very good understanding of the types of questions and answers on the test, so as you continue to work through passages you should be focusing on not just what the right answers are but why you chose the wrong answer you did. What kind of trap did you fall into? What didn’t you notice about the right answer? You’ll need to be very self-aware to make progress at this point.

Getting to a 40 (perfect): Just stop. You’ll need to be literally perfect to hit a 40. It’s incredibly difficult and, in general, only really happens for kids who happen to love to read. So if you’ve got a time machine to go back to 8th grade and start recreational reading for about an hour a day, that’d be your best bet. More seriously, congratulations for even being in this range! Try to keep the test and test day in perspective and treat it just like the practices you’ve been crushing. Stay cool, make good decisions, and hopefully you’ll have the perfect day you want.

Aaron Golumbfskie

Senior Tutor & Education Director

Aaron is the Education Director at PrepMatters and has logged more than 20,000 hours of one-on-one tutoring, helping teens change their self-images and achieve success, whether on standardized tests or in academic classes. He continues to tutor every day, but, realizing that individual efforts only scale so far, he hopes to serve even more students by spending much of his time leading the train...

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