The more time I spend tutoring, the more I become aware of the need for flexibility in my approach. The truth is that no one technique will work for everyone, and rigidly insisting on a strategy that simply doesn’t make sense to a student is likely a recipe for a disaster. I once got fired from a tutoring company because I refused to stick to its “script,” and although I was initially upset about losing the work, I realized that the job never would have worked out anyway. People think too differently, (mis)interpret things in too many ways, and have too many quirks for a one-size-fits-all approach to be effective — and if I’ve learned one thing from all this tutoring, it’s that you can basically *never* assume that someone will automatically understand a passage or sentence or turn of phrase in the way the SAT requires them to understand it.
I think that a lot of Critical Reading prep is ineffective because it’s based on the assumption that people will of course be able to understand the literal meaning of the passage with relatively little effort. While I’ve certainly worked with plenty of students who do fall into this category (and for whom test prep essentially consists of being reminded endlessly to slow down, work methodically through the questions, and go back to the passage to check out the answers), I think that they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Most people who are capable of understanding exactly — not just approximately — what the passages are saying and of nailing the main point on their own will typically score in the 650+ range with little to no prep, but needless to say, the average CR score is nowhere near 650 (it’s actually about 150 points lower).
Anyway, I digress. The point I’m attempting to make is that if you 1) are a slow reader who just can’t seem to finish CR sections in time, and 2) don’t always fully understand what the passages are saying, then reading the passage, trying the main point, and only then looking at the questions might not be the best strategy for you sometimes. It might work on the shorter passages, but on the longer ones — and especially on Passage 1/Passage 2 — it’s just going to be way too time consuming. You’ll get confused an bogged down and start to panic, then slow down even more.
Now, I am *not* going to suggest you read the questions first — if you do that, you’re almost certainly going to miss important contextual pieces of information when you go back to the passage, and because you’ll only have a partial view of things, you’ll overlook answers that would otherwise be much more straightforward.
What I am going to suggest, however, is a compromise, namely that you answer the questions while you read the passage . So you read, say, the first paragraph and answer perhaps the first question, maybe the second. The you read another short chunk, answer the next question or two, and so on. If it helps you to look ahead at the line numbers in the next couple of questions before you read, just to give yourself a sense of how far you need to go in order to be able to answer, by all means do so, but try not to avoid reading the question itself — you won’t approach the passage with a clear mind, and you risk being so focused on the question that you can’t actually absorb what the author is saying.
If you need to focus on the detail questions first and skip over the “big picture” ones until you’ve finished the passage, that’s fine. In fact, you’ll probably have to work this way. But doing the detail questions first will allow you to get to more questions than you might be able to otherwise — you also won’t be sacrificing questions you could answer in order to spend time pondering questions you’re really not sure about. And the more you see that you can actually finish sections in time, the calmer you’ll be approaching the test.
Note, however, that this is simply a strategy for getting yourself to answer more questions more quickly — it doesn’t mean that you can just coast. The answers to many questions are still unlikely to be in the actual lines given, and you may still have to go back and read above and below in order to determine the answer. Transitions, “interesting” punctuation, and strong language are still of utmost importance. So is trying to get a general sense of what the answer might be before you look at the choices (or, at the very least, immediately eliminating all answers that don’t make sense in context). But if you keep these things in mind and break the passage/questions into small, manageable bits, you might find that things get a lot easier.