To raise your ACT Reading score, answer fewer questions

To raise your ACT Reading score, answer fewer questions

Broadly speaking, time-based ACT Reading problems tend to fall into two categories.

The first category involves students who cannot even come close to finishing ACT Reading in time. At 35 minutes, they might still be only halfway through the third passage, and often their scores are stuck somewhere in the low 20s. Even if they’re solid readers, they need to radically change their approach in order to see significant improvement.

The second category typically involves students who are scoring in the mid-high 20s. Their overall comprehension is strong, and they could likely answer nearly all of the questions right given just 10 more minutes, but they can’t quite seem to get there in the allotted time.

If you fall into the second category, this post is for you. (more…)

Inference questions: the answer is closer than you think

Inference questions: the answer is closer than you think

When it comes to Reading questions on the SAT and ACT, nothing induces fear — or at least groans — like inference questions. Some of this reaction is undoubtedly due to the fact that they often seem so fuzzy. Part of the problem, I suspect,  stems from the fact that when people talk about inferences, they’re not always talking about the same thing.

One type of inference is more based on formal logic — that is, it involves the types of conclusions that can be drawn from various premises, and whether those conclusions can be considered valid. (more…)

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!

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.