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 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?


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.

Do ACT Reading passages in order of most to least interesting

This is a nifty little strategy I learned about five years ago, when I first started tutoring the ACT. It requires a tiny bit of time upfront, but it can pay off quite a bit. It’s also fairly easy to adapt to your interests and strengths.

Here it is:

As soon as you start Reading Comprehension section, quickly leaf through all four passages, and start with the one that seems easiest/most interesting. Then do the next most interesting, then the next, and save the least interesting/most difficult for last.

Yes, you will have to spend maybe 30 or 45 seconds initially figuring this out, but you don’t have to read a lot — you can usually tell from a sentence or two whether the passage is going to be reasonably ok or utterly impossible.

Working this way has a couple of major advantages:

1) Time

Easier passages tend to go more quickly, meaning that you’re less likely get behind on time from the start. You also don’t waste time on questions you might not get right, then get easier questions wrong toward the end because you’re running out of time and panicking.

2) Confidence

If you start out with something interesting, your level of engagement will be higher. You don’t start thinking “this sections sucks, I hate this, I’m never going to finish on time, I wish it were just over already” two minutes into the test, then miss easier things later because you’re discouraged. You’ll be more focused and more likely to know you’re answering things correctly, which will boost your confidence and make the rest of the section seem more manageable. If you get stuck in the last passage, well… it’s the last passage. You’ve already answered lots of questions correctly, so it won’t ruin you. You might get a 28 rather than a 30, but you probably won’t get a 23.

Know your strengths and weaknesses:

I find that most people taking the ACT tend to have pronounced strengths and weaknesses on the reading passages — those who are more math/science-oriented tend to find the Science and Social Science passages easier and more enjoyable, whereas people who are more humanities-oriented tend to prefer Prose Fiction and Humanities. And when people have a least favorite passage, it’s almost always either Prose Fiction or Science.

If this applies to you, you’re in luck because your decision is basically made for you. If you know that one type of passage always gives you trouble, don’t even it look at it initially; just save it for last. If you always find one passage relatively easy, just start with it. When you’re done, just look at the two remaining passages, and do whichever one you like better first.

If you can’t find the answer in the lines you’re given, it must be somewhere else

As I’ve said before, I’m generally suspicious when people claim to have timing issues on Critical Reading. While I certainly appreciate that some people read much faster than others and do work on timing when necessary, the time itself is almost never the real root of the problem. Upon doing a bit of probing, I typically discover one of two things:

1) The student has genuine comprehension issues, weak vocabulary skills, and rereads portions of a passage three or four times just trying to understand what’s literally being said. Ditto for the answer choices.

2) The student has solid comprehension skills but an incomplete understanding of what they’re looking for when they read the passages. Like the students in the first category, they tend to waste a lot of time staring at answer choices and trying to distinguish between them without really understanding how to relate them back to the passage. Equipped with some tools for understanding just what to look out for, however, they tend to get rid of their timing issues very quickly.

If you fall into category #2, this post is for you.

Part of the problem for people in this category often comes from not fully understanding what line references mean: if a question refers to “the historians in line 18,” that only means that the word “historians” appears in line 18 — not that the answer to the question is in line 18. The answer could be anywhere.

Usually, this type of misunderstanding plays out in the following way:

You encounter a question that says something like, “In lines 25-37, the author’s description of photo albums serves primarily to,” and so of course you go and read lines 25-37 because those are the lines that the question gave you.

 But when you read lines 25-37 and then look at the answers, nothing seems to work. At that point, you start to wonder whether you were missing something.

There are a couple of answers that just totally don’t make sense, so you cross those off, but out of the two or three answers you have left, it seems any of them could work. So you go back and read lines 25-37 again, trying to match them to one of the answers. But it still seems terribly ambiguous.

At that point, you go back and start to read the lines again, only now you realize that you’re wasting an awful lot of time on the question and start to skim through without really knowing what you’re looking for.

Then you start to think, “well maybe if I interpret it this way, it could be (B).” The author must be trying to suggest it without really saying so directly. Yeah, that must be it. So you pick B and move on but still really aren’t sure. Your mind keeps going back to it as you work through the rest of the questions in for that passage, so your concentration is compromised, and you end up missing other things that you could have gotten right.

When this happens, there’s a really good chance that the answer was actually spelled out for you somewhere around line 23. Why? Because the question was asking you what purpose the lines served (i.e. what point did they support?), not what the lines themselves said, and usually the information necessary to determine that purpose is found before the lines themselves. In these cases, the lines are only important insofar as they relate to that point — for the purposes of answering the question, they’re virtually irrelevant.

Plenty of times, of course, it doesn’t work that way, and the answer can in fact be found in the given lines. The problems is that just as often they can’t, and you really have no way of knowing in advance which category a particular question will fall into before you actually look at the passage.

So if you’re a slow-ish reader and don’t want to waste time by always backing up and reading a sentence or two before, try this: read the lines you’re given, and see whether you can definitely answer the question from what you’ve read. Not, “well if I interpret it this way, (C) might kind of work,” but “the answer must be A because this passage says xyz.” If you can’t answer the question from those lines you’ve been given, there’s a good chance the answer isn’t there. And if it isn’t there, it has has to be located someplace else. Your job is to locate that someplace else: if it isn’t right before, it’s probably right after. It doesn’t matter if it takes a little more time to go back and read that extra bit; there’s essentially no other way to determine the answer, and you’ll be far worse served if you just keep looking at the lines given in the question. Just keep in mind that if your comprehension skills really are good, the problem is most likely not that you’ve overlooked something or didn’t interpret the lines in the way the SAT wanted you to. It’s just that the answer was probably never there in the first place.

The importance of transitions

In many ways, I think that the Verbal portion of the SAT is fundamentally about transitions. Or at least the Critical Reading and Essay portions of it. Let me explain what I mean by this: the SAT is essentially designed to test your ability to perceive relationships between ideas and arguments.

Do two piece of information discuss the same idea or different ideas? Does one idea build on or support the previous one, or does it contradict it and move the argument in a new direction? Does it emphasize a point? Refute a point? Explain a point?

Transitions are the signposts, so to speak, that make clear (or elucidate) these relationships. Without words such as “and,” “for example,” and “however,” it becomes much more difficult to tease out just what two words (or sentences or paragraphs or passages) have to do with one another. Transitions are thus where Critical Reading and Writing meet — just aspaying attention to transitions can help you follow an author’s argument in a reading passage, so can including transitions in your own writing help your reader follow your argument.

Remember: your reader should have to exert as little effort as possible to follow your argument. The harder your reader has to work, the lower your score is likely to be. You need to make the relationships among your ideas explicit, whether you’re talking about your championship soccer team from last season or War and Peace.

Here’s an experiment: below are two version of the same passage. I’ve rewritten the first version in order to remove all the transitions. Read it and try to get the gist.

No Transitions

The Panama Canal illustrates the principle that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand. People begin many enterprises. They don’t realize how difficult they are. They respond with ingenuity that lets them overcome the unexpected. The Apollo program’s engineers and astronauts did this. The testimony in [the documentary] Panama Canal shows the power of the heroic image of technology in the early twentieth century. It was felt by the exploited laborers, who shared the nineteenth century’s stoic approach to industrial risk. Three percent of white American workers died. Nearly 14 percent of West Indians died. There were improvements in sanitation. It was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares. He recalls the pride of his grandfather in participating in one of the world’s great wonders. Many returnees were inspired by their achievement to join movements for greater economic and political equality in the 1920s and 1930s, the roots of the decolonization movement.

You probably got the basic point, but you also probably noticed that that there were places where sentences sat side by side with no obvious logical connection to one another (“There were improvements in sanitation. It was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares.”)

While I’ve exaggerated here for effect, I do often see students omit transitions between their thoughts in their essays — particularly between paragraphs — thereby forcing the reader to scramble to re-situate him/herself in the argument. It’s subtler, but there’s always a moment of, “Wait, what is this person actually trying to say here?” Don’t make your reader go through the equivalent of what you just read.

Now try it with transitions:

The Panama Canal illustrates the principle that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand. People begin many enterprises becausethey don’t realize how difficult they actually are, yet respond with ingenuity that lets them overcome the unexpected, as the Apollo program’s engineers and astronauts were later to do. The testimony in [the documentary] Panama Canal also shows the power of the heroic image of technology in the early twentieth century. It was felt even by the exploited laborers, who still shared the nineteenth century’s stoic approach to industrial risk. Three percent of white American workers and nearly 14 percent of West Indians died. Despiteimprovements in sanitation, it was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares, but he also recalls the pride of his grandfather in participating in one of the world’s great wonders. In fact, many returnees were inspired by their achievement to join movements for greater economic and political equality in the 1920s and 1930s, the roots of the decolonization movement.

A lot easier to understand, right?