24 October 2011

Critical Reading is not the place for thinking or feeling

One of the most telling exchanges I can have with a student typically goes something like this:

Me: So what’s the author saying in lines 34-37?

Student: Umm…. So I feel like the author is trying to say…

Me: Ok, but the question isn’t asking about what you feel like the author is saying. Look back at the passage and tell me exactly what the author is saying. As in word for word.

At which point the student typically glances back at the lines, pulls out a random phrase or two, and then gives me a look that clearly says “So what?”

I’m sorry if I’m destroying anyone’s illusions here, but feeling (and to some extent thinking, at least in the sense of “I think”) have absolutely no role in helping you to determine the answer to Critical Reading questions. The second you utter the words, “I feel like the author, passage, etc.” is trying to say xyz,” you’ve failed to make the very crucial distinction between restating — a neutral action that simply uses different words to recapture the idea that an author is attempting to convey — and interpreting, which by definition involves an element of subjectivity and personal bias that very likely extends somewhat beyond what the text is literally saying.

I feel like I’ve said it a million times, but I could probably stand to say it again, so here goes: the SAT is not a test of interpretation or “analysis,” at least not as most American high school students have been taught to understand those words. It is a test of the ability to deal with a text on its own terms — to understand clearly and precisely what a text is saying (and what the test-makers are asking), and then to make draw reasonable conclusions about its structure and intended meaning based exclusively on that understanding. Unless you can get an accurate gist of what the text is saying, chances are that any conclusion you draw about it will probably not be 100% supported. Since reading this way represents somewhat of a paradigm shift for most people (indeed, most people say “I think” or “I feel” so automatically that they don’t even realize they’re doing it), it can be helpful to have specific tools that help you practice reading more literally.

One of them is as follows: When you encounter a question that refers to only a short segment of the passage (say two or three lines), go back and read it out loud — slowly. Practice saying, “the author is saying… and then read the text word by word. Make sure you do not utter the words, “I think/feel like author means xyz,” and then try to remember just quite what it was that the author said. If you say “I think” or “I feel”, you have to start over.

Now, this is not a technique to be used when you’re actually taking the test. It’s a practice tool only, designed to raise your concentration and make you read more precisely. But forcing yourself to get rid of the ingrained, almost instinctive assumption that you can somehow figure out the answer by ignoring the author and going by own particular impressions can completely revolutionize the way you approach the test.

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