New: SAT/ACT Reading Resources Page

New: SAT/ACT Reading Resources Page

From time to time, I get emails asking me to provide suggestions for SAT/ACT reading prep materials, and it finally occurred to me that I should create a formal SAT/ACT Reading Resources Page with all of my recommendations grouped in one place.

In the past, when I’ve received these types of requests, I’ve simply pointed people to Arts & Letters Daily; however, that site contains a huge number of links, some of which go to publications well beyond the scope of college-admissions exams. As a result, I’ve identified a smaller group of (online, free) magazines whose articles I find most reflective of SAT/ACT reading, and provided links to those.

I’ve also included a list of suggested authors, both fiction and non-fiction, classic and contemporary, in case you want to do some poking around on your own. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I’ve included links to a number of key historical documents.

If you’re not much of a reader, though, I’d recommend that you start by focusing on broadening your general knowledge and read shorter pieces about a variety of topics. I strongly suggest you start by picking one of the linked periodicals (magazines) such as Smithsonian or Scientific American and spending a good 15 minutes or so a day reading a couple of articles. That’s probably a better approach than getting bored and frustrated with a 350-page book you don’t really like. Besides, two out of four ACT passages involve natural or social science, as do three out of five SAT passages, so those are the areas you stand to benefit most directly from learning about.

Moreover, the more you know about a lot, the better a chance you’ll have of encountering a familiar topic when you take the test. Studies have actually found that weak readers with strong knowledge of a subject actually outperform ones who have stronger overall reading skills but weaker subject-specific knowledge.

Despite the usual cautions against injecting your outside knowledge into the test, in my experience the issue is usually too little knowledge of a subject rather than too much.

Also, despite the College Board’s insistence that the redesigned SAT reflects “what students are learning in school” (a nonsense statement if ever there was one, given the curricular inconsistency that characterizes the American educational system), the reality is that there continue to be plenty of passages that have, quite frankly, nothing in the least to do with what gets taught in the average high school classroom. As has always been the case, students who read on their own about a lot of different subjects will be at a significant advantage over those who don’t.

New: SAT/ACT reading quizzes!

New: SAT/ACT reading quizzes!

While going through all of my quizzes to make some edits/updates, I noticed that while there were an awful lot of grammar exercises, I was sorely lacking in the reading quizzes department — and that was really a major oversight (oops!) since for a lot of students, that’s the hardest part of the test. So I’ve decided to remedy the issue. (more…)

Remember the introduction on ACT Reading

I recently noticed that a couple of my students were kept missing ACT reading comp questions that should have been very straightforward. Their reading was strong enough that they shouldn’t have been getting those questions wrong, and at first I wasn’t sure why they were having trouble. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized that the questions giving them trouble consistently had answers located in the introduction.

What I suspect was happening was this: they saw a question without a line reference, and if they didn’t remember the answer, their immediate reaction was to panic and (subconsciously) assume  that the answer was going to be buried somewhere in the middle of the passage — somewhere very difficult to find. Basically, they were so used to assuming that things would be hard that it never occurred to them that they might actually be easy!

Had they simply scanned for the key word/phrase starting in the introduction and skimmed chronologically, they would have found the answer almost immediately. Inevitably, when I had them re-work through the questions that way, they had no problem answering them correctly.

So if you find yourself confronted with a straightforward, factual reading comprehension without a line reference and have absolutely no recollection of where the answer is located, don’t just jump to somewhere in the middle of the passage and start looking around.

Instead, figure out what word or phrase you’re looking for, and start scanning quickly for it from the very first sentence, pulling your finger down the page as you scan to focus your eye and prevent you from overlooking key information. You might come across the answer a lot faster than you’re expecting.

The Sparknotes problem

When I start working with a new student, there are a few questions I normally ask: What foreign language do you take and what have you covered? What are you currently reading in English class, and what have you read in the past year or two? Do you read books/newspapers on a regular basis?

You see, my mistake has been to assume that even if students don’t read on their own, they’ve actually been doing the reading that they’re assigned in English class.

Increasingly, however, I realize that my question should really be this: how often do you actually do the assigned reading for English class, and how often do you just go on Sparknotes.com and read the summaries?

Or perhaps more cynically: do you ever do the assigned reading for English class, or do you just go on Sparknotes and read the summaries?

The first time a student told me she’d gotten an A- in English class without ever reading any of the books (at a fairly rigorous $40K+/year Manhattan private school, incidentally), I was mildly taken aback. The second time it happened, a bit less so. Now, I’ve (sadly) come to expect it, even from straight-A students.

A friend of mine who teaches AP French now spends most of her prep time trying to find readings that can’t be looked up in translation online. I think that pretty much says it all.

Aside from the obvious question of what on earth could actually be going on in English class that would allow students to get perfect grades without doing any of the reading (lots of extra credit???), this is starting to pose some real problems for standardized testing.

Now to be fair, I actually think that Sparknotes is a pretty good resource. I find the summaries and analyses to be quite accurate and thorough, and they offer very solid guidance for someone who needs to understand basic themes, characters, etc.

It is not, however, a substitute for reading actual books.

In terms of school, that might not be apparent. If students can glance through Sparknotes, ace the quiz the next day, and bullshit a few comments to ensure that all-important participation grade, there’s no apparent drawback to that method. The fact that they’re not actually learning anything would seem to be irrelevant.

The problem only shows up when they hit the SAT or the ACT. Suddenly, they’re being asked to read texts much more challenging than, well Sparknotes, and there’s no way to whip out an ipad look up the answer. Having minimal experience with unfamiliar vocabulary, for example, they don’t know how to use context clues to figure out what they don’t know. The experience of struggling with a text is entirely foreign to them, and the feeling of winning its meaning even more so. (Why bother if it isn’t easy, right? And who would, like, write in that weird way anyhow?)

What concerns me, however, are the truly head-spinning conversations I’ve had with parents who in one sentence openly admit that their child goes on Sparknotes for every English assignment, and in the next express their utter bewilderment over why that child (a straight-A student) just cannot seem to raise his score, no matter how many practice tests he takes.

Sometimes, I’m really at a loss for words.

If it’s not true in the real world, it’s not true on the test

Established fact: a statement can be true in the real world but still be an incorrect answer on the SAT or ACT.

Pretty much every test-prep book you’ll ever read will tell you this. So, for example, you see an answer that says that Shakespeare is one of the greatest dramatists in the English language, you shouldn’t automatically assume it’s true because that statement might not actually be supported by the passage. I’m not about to disagree with that.

What no one talks about, however, is the fact that statements are NOT true in the real world are, for all intents and purposes, NOT correct answers to SAT questions.

So, for example, an answer choice that reads “scientists have made no progress in solving problems,” or “scientific and artistic achievement are fundamentally incompatible” is more or less guaranteed not to be correct. Those answers aren’t just extreme — they’re blatantly at odds with reality. And it’s fair to say that the SAT is biased in favor of reality.

Now, theoretically there could be an exception, but the chances of one occurring are pretty darn slim. (Maybe on a “which of the following would most undermine the assertion in lines 25-37?” question. But otherwise, it’s a very big stretch).

Yet I consistently see students — even high-scoring one — pick answers like these. When I point out that these answers have no basis in the real world, they’re surprised; it never even occurred to them to look at the test that way. I suspect that at some level they’ve been so brainwashed by the whole “the SAT is trying to trick you” and “the only thing that the SAT tests is how well you take the SAT” mentality that they don’t quite realize just what the test will and will not do. This is part of why I hate the whole “tricky” thing so much — it tends to make people jettison their common sense, and much of doing well on the SAT is simply about pushing common sense to its absolute extreme.

As a side note, that’s the other thing I keep telling my students: the test is set up so that you can figure things out, even if you don’t know 100% what you’re doing. Your job is to focus on what you do know and use that to get to what you don’t.

But back to the issue at hand — why couldn’t the test just be trying to trick you by making the correct answer some bizarre thing has nothing to do with reality?

Here’s why:

One of the things no one ever seems to mention about the SAT and ACT is that they are designed to mimic the kind of academic and journalist “conversation” that happens in the real, adult world beyond high school. You know, the sorts of things you’ll tend to encounter in college (if you bother to do your reading, that is). On the reading side, at least, it’s partly a test of how familiar you are with the sort of language and ideas you find in publications like, say, The New York Times. So if you know who Angela Merkel is and what her economic policies are doing to Greece, chances are you won’t get weirded out if a sentence completion requires you to know what “fiscal austerity” is.

Standardized-test reading might feel very fake, and in many ways it is very inauthentic, but given the unavoidable limits of the standardized-testing format, it actually does a pretty good job of doing what it’s intended to do. (Passage 1/Passage 2 is based on the same principle as NYT’s “Room for Debate” series — and interestingly, commenters often exhibit the same comprehension errors that many test-takers fall prey to, most often ascribing much more extreme positions to writers than those that they actually espouse.)

It’s important to keep that real-world framework in mind in terms of “reading the test,” and it’s something I now go way out of my way to remind my students about. So as you’re reading through those answers tomorrow, trying to figure out which ones you can truly eliminate, ask yourself whether they make sense… like, for real.

Be careful with “date” questions

ACT Reading questions that ask about dates or time periods often appear deceptively easy. It’s easy to assume that all you have to do is go back to the passage and pick out the appropriate date. Even in a reading that includes a number of dates or years, that’s pretty straightforward once you find the correct spot in the passage, right?

Wrong.

These kinds of questions are actually inference questions in disguise, and answering them often requires you to take information from various parts of the passage and perform some very basic calculations.

For instance, one ACT passage asks about the time period when a particular kind of glass structure was least likely to be built in the United States.

Nowhere in the passage does the author actually come out and state the answer; (s)he only tells us that in the post-World War II period, many glass structures were built in the US, but that since 1973, most glass structures have been built in Europe.

We can therefore infer that after 1973, most glass structure were LESS likely to be built in the US than they were before. The answer, however, is 1975-1985 — only an approximation of what’s stated in the passage. A lot of people get confused because they can’t find a spot in the passage that states the year directly, and often they end up trying to justify a response that’s way off base.

I don’t want to suggest that the correct answer will never be directly stated in the passage; sometimes it will. But before you pick an answer just because you remember seeing it in the passage, make sure that it really does fit.