Critical Reading for the Mathematically-Minded

All too often I encounter a student who does a stellar job on the SAT math, pretty well on grammar, and horribly on the critical reading. These are analytically-minded students, and they tend to struggle with the SAT’s reasoning-based critical reading questions. For these students, there are unique techniques to put their skills to use on the critical reading section. Here are three strategies to help the analytically-minded deal with the not-so-analytical passage reading:

1. Ask yourself, “What is the passage about?” instead of “What happened?”

Analytical people tend to be detail-oriented, which is why they often do well in math. They will distribute the negative signs, carry the two, or add exponents. They keep track of those details that help you get through a math problem. However, SAT passage reading is NOT about reading for details; it is about the main ideas, author’s intent, and passage structure.

Usually when I ask this type of student to give me the main idea of a passage, he or she will start naming specific things that happened. For example, a student reads a biography passage on Charlie Chaplin, and I ask, “What is the main idea of the first paragraph?” An analytical student will respond, “This paragraph talks about how Charlie Chaplin was a successful actor and director who directed almost seventy-five films and starred in even more than that. His career lasted almost fifty years.” The response is too detail-oriented, and can inhibit students from finding the right answer. Instead, I encourage the student to try to summarize the main idea of each paragraph with one sentence. Think about stepping back from the passage to see the forest rather than the trees.

2. Read to understand what the author is doing, not what the passage is saying.

Ask yourself: Why is the author writing this? You can answer this question by looking at the structure, flow, and tone of the passage.

  • Structure – The first sentence of each paragraph usually tells you what the paragraph is about. The author may have long, descriptive paragraphs with short, opinionated paragraphs in between. The author may just have three long paragraphs. The author may have lots of little paragraphs in the form of dialogue.
  • Flow – Is the passage in chronological order? Does the passage start with a theory, then provide evidence to support that theory? Does a character change from the beginning of the passage to the end of the passage?
  • Tone – Look for adverbs and adjectives that give you clues as to whether the author likes or dislikes the setting, situation, person, or place. Sometimes there is a tone change in the last paragraph of the passage. Look for this tone change; it may be the author reflecting back on his or her personal experience.

Whenever you are reading for the author’s intent, don’t read yourself into the passage, but do make inferences. For example, just because you would be mad if you were in the author’s situation, does not mean the author is mad, but if the author provides context clues that he or she was angry, then you can infer that he or she was angry.

3. Look for patterns in the kinds of questions that are going to be asked.

If there is one thing that analytical people do well, it is finding patterns. Well, use that ability to your advantage! If you practice enough SAT passages, you will start to notice a pattern in the types of questions that are asked. Here’s a few of them:

  • Autobiographies: These passages always describe some key turning point in the author’s life. There will always be a question on this turning point, and there will always be a question about the last paragraph (where the author reflects back on that turning-point).
  • Excerpts from books: Almost all of the questions are character-driven, whether it is what one character thinks about the other, or how one character responds to the other’s actions.
  • Science passages: Usually the author will present a field of study (example: the dancing movements of honey bees), propose a new theory, and show why his or her theory is correct. You will usually see questions asking about each of these three sections.
  • Social science passages: These passages usually contain general information about some particular area of study, such as voting methods, sand erosion in California, or the Elgin marbles of the Parthenon. These passages tend to be academic and even-toned, and most of the questions–whether they refer to a particular line number or not–can be answered by knowing the main idea of each paragraph.

Don’t let the critical reading section keep you from getting the SAT score you need to get into your dream school. Instead, play to your strengths.  Look for patterns and apply strategies to tackle the not-so-analytical passage questions.

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