23 July 2013

Does reading help raise Critical Reading scores?

On the surface, the answer to that question might seem pretty simple. If Critical Reading is a reading test, then wouldn’t the obvious way to raise one’s score be to read more? Well… maybe. But also maybe not. Like most thing involving the SAT, it depends where you’re starting from, what you know, and where you want to get to. And if you’re looking for a summer study plan, then you need to think about what you can realistically accomplish in the space of a few months.

If you’re not one of the “lucky” people who’s read so much since childhood that you can simply intuit the answers to Critical Reading questions, then spending your summer trying to slog your way through Dickens or Dostoevsky probably won’t miraculously allow you to acquire that skill — especially if you don’t actually enjoy reading five-hundred page nineteenth-century novels and will spend most of your time trying not to tune out while reading them. You might pick up some vocabulary, especially if you keep a list of unfamiliar words, look up every single one, and go out of your way to learn how they’re actually used, but if you’re not a strong reader in the first place, a Great Work or two won’t suddenly compensate for years of just reading things like Harry Potter or Twilight (or nothing at all). As a matter of fact, reading fiction will most likely have limited value in terms of helping you recognize and summarize arguments, understand rhetorical strategies, and make inferences in the precise way that the SAT requires.

A couple of months back, I stumbled across a paper in which Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein discusses the difficulties that the Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction pose for English teachers. Bauerlein makes the very valid point that English teachers are trained to teach literature, not “informational texts,” and that requiring them to shift their focus to non-fiction would not only require them to abandon their area of expertise but would essentially create a curriculum that would place a physics textbook on the same aesthetic footing as Hamlet.

I’m not entirely convinced by Bauerlein’s next claim, however, namely that students who are continuously exposed to a rigorous curriculum consisting primarily of challenging classic works of fiction do not really need to study non-fiction because they will be able to automatically transfer the comprehension skills they’ve developed over to non-fiction texts for tests like the SAT. As evidence, Bauerlein cites Massachusetts pubic schools, which do generally offer a traditional curriculum based on challenging works of fiction and whose students consistently obtain some of the highest reading scores in the country.

As a product of the Massachusetts public school system who studied a curriculum much like the one Bauerlein describes, and who went on to achieve top Verbal scores with minimal formal prep, I think Bauerlein is generally correct in stating that the comprehension skills developed through the study of complex classic work of fiction do carry over to non-fiction.

At the same time, however, there are important differences between the two genres, and it seems like an oversight for schools to focus on developing the former at the expense of the latter (especially since so much of college is based on non-fiction reading). The type of character/plot/theme-based analysis I did in school and the kind of structural/rhetorical/inferential reading required by the SAT required two very different approaches, and the fact that I literally understood what I was reading on the SAT did not make what it was demanding of me any less foreign. I intuited the gist of what it was trying to accomplish well enough to figure out what I needed to give it, but it would have been much, much easier if someone had sat me down with a “complex text” like, say, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and directly taught me to analyze its arguments rhetorically and logically à la the SAT.

But I digress.

The point I’m trying to make is that unless you fall into the very small minority of people who have somehow automatically absorbed everything the SAT tests just by reading, the best way to improve your Critical Reading score is to practice reading critically — the extent to which you can do that outside the structured format of SAT practice tests depends on you. But if you are going to do some independent reading for the specific purpose of prepping for the SAT, here are some suggestions.

1) Focus on relatively short pieces of non-fiction. They don’t have to be as short as CR passages, but they should be short enough for you to practice looking at how they’re organized. That’s much easier to do in a three-page article than in a twenty-five page one.

I would strongly suggest that you go on Arts & Letters Daily and pick an article or a couple of articles to read every day; pretty much everything on there is written at or above the level of the SAT. The New York Times Opinionator is also great.

2) Look out for pieces that discuss some of its most common topics and themes: string theory, the effects of technology on the reading/writing and the humanities, animal cognition, the body/mind problem, immigrant/minority experience. (There are LOTS of articles that touch on these subjects on Arts & Letters Daily because these are hot topics in the real world.) After a while, you’ll start to get familiar with the conventional arguments surrounding these debates, which means you’ll have to waste a lot less energy just trying to figure out what they’re literally saying.

3) Look up every unfamiliar reference, not just vocabulary words — names, places, concepts. Never heard of de Tocqueville or Hegel or Stanislavsky? Go find out who they were and why people care about them. Critical Reading does not exist in a box; it’s designed to reflect the Common Core, and passages are deliberately drawn from a wide range of topics in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. The more you know about the world, the easier it will be to literally comprehend readings about an incredibly wide range of topics (it’s much harder to appreciate a passage about an anthropologist if you don’t know what an anthropologist does.) It’ll also give you lots of fodder for the essay.

4) Treat everything you read like an SAT passage. Pay particular attention to the introduction and the conclusion when looking for the point, and see how quickly you can figure it out. Make sure you’re clear on when an author is expressing their own ideas vs. someone else’s ideas, and look at the words and phrases they use to indicate or suggest agreement vs. disagreement. Notice when an author is supporting their point with personal anecdotes vs. hard facts vs. broad generalizations, using extreme language (expressing “the strength of a conviction”), and using common words in alternate meanings.

Provided you understand what you’re reading and can accurately identify the elements discussed above, pending even thirty minutes a day reading this way will most likely help you go just as far — if not farther — toward increasing your Critical Reading score as simply sitting with a Princeton Review book and taking practice test after practice test. You’re also a lot more likely to learn something in the process.

Leave a Reply