In the SAT classes I teach, our introduction to reading comprehension often begins something like this.
I pose a general query to the class: “So, how many of you enjoy the reading comprehension section?”
One student (out of eight) tentatively raises her hand.
“Why don’t the rest of you like it?”
Another student volunteers: “I never finish it in time. I feel like I have to rush through the passages, but then I don’t understand the questions. Also, the reading is boring.”
The rest of the class nods in agreement, relief at not being the only one who hates reading obvious in their faces.
One of the most common complaints tutors hear about reading comprehension on the SAT is that students feel they don’t have time to read the passages thoroughly and answer the questions. When I meet with parents to discuss test preparation, they often ask if we can help their student improve his reading speed.
While it seems like speeding up your reading should be the ticket to a great SAT score, this is exactly the wrong approach for most students. Instead, we advise our students to slow down!
A recent article in the New York Times by Jeffrey Zacks and Rebecca Treiman illuminates the problem with “speed reading”. Speed-reading methods grew in popularity in the mid-20th century, and presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter were noted proponents. (JFK is reported to have read between 1200 and 2500 words per minute.) Modern technology has given us speed-reading apps that present single words to you at a high rate of speed. However, scientific research on reading seems to show that there is a clear tradeoff between reading speed and reading comprehension.
As Zacks and Treiman note in their article, “[E]xperiments have repeatedly confirmed that when people ‘speed read’, they simply do not comprehend the parts of the text that their eyes skip over.” Skimming a reading passage may enable you to pick out some important points, but it doesn’t mean that you necessarily have a complete understanding of what you just read.
So is a “slow reader” doomed to failure on the SAT? No! While reading comprehension is usually the most difficult section to improve, it’s possible to bring up your score without resorting to speed-reading tricks.
A strong strategy for reading comprehension on the SAT includes the following:
Read the passage thoroughly and slowly. Contrary to what most students believe, quickly skimming an SAT passage doesn’t help you finish faster. Instead, students often fall into the trap of reading without focus, requiring them to read the passage a second or even a third time while they’re answering the questions. Rather than saving time, skim reading can multiply the amount of time a student spends on a passage. Reading the passage once with deep concentration allows the student to confidently and quickly move through the questions and get to the next passage.
Annotate while you read. It’s one thing to know that you should focus while you read, but how do you put that into action? The answer is annotation, or marking up the passage. (Note that this does not mean underlining every line.) After every paragraph, get in the habit of asking yourself: “What is the main argument of this section? How does it connect to the author’s overall point? Why did the author choose to include this paragraph here?” These questions serve the dual purpose of forcing you to engage with the passage at a deeper level as well as periodically checking to make sure you’re still paying attention to what you’re reading. And make sure you actually write down the main argument – otherwise it’s too easy to let yourself off the hook.
Focus on the author’s main argument. As you read the passage, keep a tight focus on the overall main point the author is trying to make. Why did he or she write the passage in the first place? If it’s a fiction passage, is there a character or conflict being described? After you’ve finished reading the passage, jot down the main argument in one sentence, in your own words. Many SAT reading comprehension questions rely on a deep understanding of the point of the passage – if you understand this, you’re likely to do well on the questions.
Read widely outside of SAT prep. Test prep is effective and helpful in the quest to improve your SAT score. However, there’s little substitute for a habit of voracious reading. The more you read in your daily life, the greater your facility with written English and the stronger your cultural literacy. These skills, not speed-reading tricks, are what really lead to top-flight reading comprehension scores. If you’re not a reader, start small – publications like the ESPN Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly have well-written feature-length articles that might capture your interest more than Jane Austen does.
Tutoring companies are often criticized for just teaching “tips and tricks” for the SAT that have no usefulness beyond the test itself. Truthfully (and perhaps unfortunately for
test-takers), there are no flashy tricks that will lead to a high score on reading comprehension. We prefer to teach a reading strategy with the long game in mind, one that will help students focus on the reading task at hand while improving their reading ability beyond just the SAT.
And for our students – get out there and pick up a book! To quote Zacks and Treiman, “If you want to improve your reading speed, your best bet – as old-fashioned as it sounds – is to read a wide variety of written material and to expand your vocabulary.” Wise words indeed.