21 September 2011

When to read slowly and when to skim

A couple of weeks ago, Debbie Stier asked me a very important question in response to a comment I made on her blog: when (and where) do you need to read SAT Critical Reading passages slowly, and when is it ok to skim them? Unfortunately, I got caught up in some other things and neglected to answer it immediately (sorry!), but I haven’t forgotten about it, and here are my thoughts.

First, what makes this such a fantastic question is that it cuts to the heart of what the SAT is testing — namely, the ability to sort essential information (main ideas) from information of secondary importance (supporting details), and to use the “clues” that an author provides within a text to identify just what that important information is.

What that means, practically speaking, is that while you do need to read slowly enough to get the gist of a passage, you don’t have to read everything slowly — at least not the first time through. Very often, what looks like a time problem is really a problem recognizing when it’s ok to skim through things and, consequently, of getting overly caught up in irrelevant details.

So in a nutshell, you need to read carefully:

-The introduction, until you figure out the main point

-The beginnings of body paragraphs (topic sentences)

-Anything that indicates that the author is giving the point, an explanation, or a really important piece of information (e.g. the point is, it is essential/necessary, the key is, the answer is, italicized words, etc.)

-The conclusion, especially the last sentence

-The *entire* sentence (and often the sentence before or after) in which a word or phrase given in a question appears. Do not read just the word or phrase given; do not read the sentence starting from the word or phrase given; go back to the very beginning of the sentence and read the whole thing carefully. If there is a major transition (e.g. however, furthermore) located around those lines, you must pay particular attention to it; that is probably where the important information is located.

And you can skim: 

-The introductory blurb at the beginning of each paragraph (you need to at least take it into account; sometimes it provides important context you need in order for the passage to make sense)

-Body paragraphs after the first sentence (initial read-through)

-Lists of examples, as long as you know the point they’re supporting (initial read-through)

-When a question gives you a huge number of lines to refer back to: skim looking for major transitions, explanations, etc. When you identify those spots, then read carefully.

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