26 March 2013

Making the “big picture” leap

A while back, I was discussing Critical Reading strategies with Catherine Johnson, and she told me that even when she wasn’t familiar with the topic of a passage (e.g. modern art), she just looked for the argument and figured out what the author was for and against. More recently, I was complaining to someone that my students didn’t know how to identify arguments, and he asked me — in perfect innocence — why they didn’t just look for transitions like “however” and “therefore?”

To both of these statements, I burst out laughing. Both people were approaching the test like the adults with graduate degrees they were — they took for granted that a reader would not only know that they were supposed be looking for an argument and its key places, but also that the reader would know that there even was an argument to be looked out for in the first place! From what I’ve seen, neither of those considerations can be taken for granted.

For example, it recently emerged one of my students scoring around 700 did not know that authors usually put main ideas before the supporting evidence — he thought they put them after. A couple of years ago, I would have been stunned by that level of misconception in such a high-scoring student, but now I’m no longer even mildly surprised. (This is apparently what happens when schools decide that teaching students things explicitly is tantamount to destroying their creativity forever.)

To be clear: while there is also no single approach to Critical Reading that is guaranteed to result in a score increase, there are many approaches to Critical Reading that can result in a score increase. I’m ultimately a pragmatist, and in the end, I’ll encourage anyone to use the method that gets them results. The student is, after all, the one taking the test, and my job is to help them get the highest score they can — regardless of whether their approach is something I would personally go out of my way to advise.

There is, however, only one way to approach Critical Reading that directly addresses what Critical Reading is testing, which is something quite different. Critical Reading is fundamentally a test about arguments and how the various elements that go into making them (words, phrases, punctuation marks, rhetorical figures) contribute to those arguments’ meaning. Details have importance primarily insofar as they relate to the overall argument or point that the passage is making (and yes, there is pretty much always some sort of main idea). To read in a way that directly addresses what CR is testing, you have to be able to read for the big picture.

It is certainly possible to get a very high — even a perfect — score doing otherwise, but you’re reading in a way that fundamentally misses the point of the test. And you’re also reading in a way that has the potential to make things much, much more complicated.

More and more now, I’m getting students who are stalled somewhere in the 650-750 range, and lots of those students have done a fair amount of prep — either on their own or with another tutor — before coming with me. Unfortunately, a lot of those students have also used their current strategy to max out their skills. They’re getting pretty much everything they can right given what they know and how they read, but to get to the next level, there’s no strategy that can help them — they need to actually work on whatever skill(s) they’re missing. And very often, that skill is recognizing the big picture — or as one SAT passage put it, recognizing “the message through the static.”

A lot of time, they’re also reading in such a way that encourages them to view passages as random collections of details — that is, they’re focusing only on the areas around the line references and ignoring the big picture completely. From a high school reader’s perspective, this makes sense: if the question tells you to look at line 17, why on earth would you pay attention to line 12, especially if you’re pressed for time? Besides, the test is telling you to look at line 17, so that means the answer has to be right there. (Well… sometimes yes, sometimes no.) It simply doesn’t occur to them that other things could be more important than what the test is telling them to look at.

If these kids are generally strong readers, they tend to get to about 700-730 this way. And then they can’t get any further. Often that’s because when they hit a “big picture” question, they can’t take all the details they’ve read and form them into something coherent, so they stumble through by process of elimination and sometimes completely miss the mark. It never occurs to them to go back and read key places in the argument because they don’t know really know that those key places exist or how to identify them.

This is exactly the opposite of how most educated adults read: they figure out the argument, its basic structure, and its key points, and then consider everything in relation to those factors. It doesn’t matter if they’re familiar with the topic; they know how to recognize arguments, and they know how to work from the big picture down.

But why does it matter how someone reads a passage if they’re getting a high score anyway? 730, or even 700, is nothing to sneeze at, and no school would reject a student merely for having a score in the (gasp!) low 700s. Well, I would say that it matters because you simply cannot read in college using high school strategies. The SAT is the only place in high school that lots of kids will encounter college-level reading, and if they’re never exposed to the idea of reading for big-picture arguments, they’ll be in for a rude shock once they get to college and have to get through hundreds of pages per week. Studying for the SAT is a way to practice those skills on a small, manageable scale. If you enter college only knowing how to read for details, you’ll waste a whole lot of time sweating over things you don’t need to worry about, and your classes will be a whole lot harder.

My job, as I’m increasingly coming to see it, is to help people make that leap from high school to college reading, and to better do so, I’m trying to understand *how* someone moves from reading texts as a series of random details to reading texts as arguments structured around a central claim or idea. How on earth does that leap occur? What factors have to be in place? What prior knowledge has to exist?

It’s certainly not enough to simply tell someone to focus on key places in the introduction and conclusion because they sometimes can’t see the relationship between the points being made there and the information in the rest of the passage.

It’s not entirely a content issue, although familiarity with a topic certainly plays a role; readers like me and Catherine have no problem understanding arguments about topics we know next to nothing about.

Literal comprehension — the ability to understand complex syntax, diction, and sentence structure — also plays a role; if someone can’t understand what a text is actually saying, they’re pretty limited right there. But that’s not the whole story either because plenty of times kids can understand what discrete parts of the passage are saying but can’t turn those separate bits into a coherent picture.

I think that what it comes down to, in addition to the above factors, is the ability to understand the kinds of “cues” that indicate an author isn’t “just talking about” a subject but actually taking a stance. I’m becoming increasingly aware of this since I finally (finally!) got a copy of Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say,” which is basically a primer for recognizing those “cues” in academic writing. Phrases like “Many people say,” “Other people say,” and “It is commonly believed” are red flags that an author is introducing an idea that they do NOT agree with, and authors tend to present ideas that they don’t agree with *first.*

The purpose of a passage/section of a passage that starts off with those kinds of phrases is, by definition, to “dispute/refute an idea/claim/assertion,” but kid who skips the introduction because he “might get confused” if he reads places that aren’t in the line references and jumps to line 17 is probably going to miss that fact completely. A reader like me or Catherine, on the other hand, would quickly take note of what the author *didn’t* believe, jump down a paragraph or two to confirm what the author *did* believe, and then probably jump to the conclusion to reiterate. Based on that information alone, the answers to most of the questions would be immediately obvious.

It would also take us a lot less time, but the speed is beside the point: the point is that we would using the author’s textual cues to pinpoint the argument. And if you really understand the argument, everything else usually falls into place without too much difficulty. If you just see a mass of details, you’ll grope, and eliminate, and cross out, and second guess… and you might get to the right answer in the end, but you also might not fully understand why it’s the right answer. And then you’ll probably conclude that the whole thing is really pretty subjective and pointless, and that it doesn’t really have anything to do with anything beside the SAT. In which case you would be absolutely, completely, utterly mistaken.

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