The knowledge deficit in action

Occasionally I’ll stumble across a passage that seems perfectly straightforward to me, but that I see students get confused about over and over again. One such passage begins in the following way:

Through a friend’s father, Elizabeth found a job at a publishing company.
Her parents were puzzled by this. The daughters of their friends were
announcing their engagements in the Times, and those who joined the Peace
Corps or had gone to graduate school were filed under the heading of
“Useful Service” as if they had entered convents or dedicated themselves to
the poor.

The passage continues for another couple of sentences, but that’s pretty much the gist of it.

That my students should have such difficulty with this of all passages was a mystery I had filed away in a mental drawer somewhere, to be trotted out an examined from time to time but never yielding sufficient clues for me to draw any real conclusions from.

Then I had a couple of illuminating moments.

First, I had a student miss a Writing question because she did not know what the Peace Corps was. This was a girl who liked to read and had already scored a 750 in CR — not the type of kid I’d expect to have that sort of gap.

Next, a friend of mine who teaches high school told me that her AP students did not understand what a mistress was — as in, they had never been exposed to the concept and couldn’t really grasp it.

She also told me the following anecdotes about her son, who had just finished his freshman year of high school: One, he had accidentally bubbled in, on a practice ACT, that he intended to pursue a two-year college degree because she’d recently explained to him that it took her two years to get her master’s, and he didn’t realize that people go to school for four years of undergraduate education before they go to graduate school. And two, while going over a newspaper article with him, she discovered that he did not know what pesticides were. This despite his having attended an über-progressive middle school with a community garden!

Incidentally, her son is a very smart boy (albeit not much of a reader), but no one had ever bothered to explain to him these very basic pieces of information that most adults take for granted. Everyone, his mother included, assumed he knew them and therefore never saw any reason to discuss them. His mother was absolutely gobsmacked when she discovered what he didn’t know. (If you’re a teenager reading this, don’t be so quick to laugh. I guarantee that there are some very important pieces of information about life in the real world that you don’t know either.)

The moral of the story? Every time I think I’ve stopped taking things for granted, I discover that I need to strip away yet more of my preconceptions about what pieces of knowledge I can and cannot assume students possess.

After all that, I started taking a look at the SAT from another angle: that of cultural reference points that most adults don’t give a second thought to but that plenty of kids taking the SAT haven’t picked up. I was inspired, of course, by E.D. Hirsch, but the reference points aren’t so much Great Events in Western Civilization as they are things you learn from reading a newspaper on a regular basis. Even a really bad newspaper.

Then today I happened to be going over the passage cited at the beginning of the post, and suddenly I had a lightbulb moment. It’s chock-full of references that wouldn’t give most adult readers pause, but that the average teenager wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of.

1. “Announcing engagements in the Times”

Assumed knowledge: The Times refers to a newspaper, e.g. The New York Times. When people get engaged, they sometimes post announcements in the local newspaper. Usually the people who do this are relatively well-off or socially prominent, especially in a newspaper like The New York Times. This piece of information suggests that Elizabeth’s family is probably at least upper-middle class, if not outright wealthy, which in turn suggests why her parents are surprised that she doesn’t want to take money from them.

2. The Peace Corps(!)

Assumed knowledge: The Peace Corps is a governmental organization that places American volunteers (usually college graduates) in various high-need areas in the developing world. Members may teach English, help preserve wildlife, or run recycling programs. In general, they have a reputation for being left-leaning tree huggers.

3. Graduate school

Assumed knowledge: “Graduate school” refers to any post-college academic program leading to a masters or doctoral degree. Most masters program last two years, and most doctoral programs 5-7. The doctorate is the highest academic degree one can receive. In order to apply to graduate school, you must first obtain a bachelors degree (four-year undergraduate degree).

4. Convent

Assumed knowledge: a convent is a place where nuns live apart from the world in order to devote themselves to prayer. For a good part of European history, unmarried women were expected to enter one. By equating joining a convent with “Useful Service,” the author is being ironic — that is, suggesting that Elizabeth’s parents would have considered it more useful for Elizabeth to renounce all worldly goods and lock herself away than to take a job at a publishing house.

Are you starting to get the picture?

Technically, it is not actually necessary to understand all of these references to answer either of the questions that accompanies the passage. But that is somewhat beside the point. The point is that if the reader does not have a pretty darn good idea of what these things refer to, the passage itself has the potential to read like sheer gobbledygook. At that point, it’s not even relevant whether the questions can be answered without that information because the reader is so thoroughly lost that he or she can barely even focus on the questions.

Knowledge deficit indeed.

Three levels of reading incomprehension

When I first started tutoring reading for the SAT and the ACT, I took a lot of things for granted. I assumed, for example, that my students would be able to identify things like the main point and tone of a passage; that they would be able to absorb the meaning of what they read while looking out for important textual elements like colons and italicized words; and that they, at bare minimum, would be able to read the words that appeared on the page and sound out unfamiliar ones.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve progressively shed all those assumptions. When I start to work with someone, I now take absolutely nothing for granted. Until a student clearly demonstrates that they’ve mastered a particular skill, I make no assumptions about whether they have it. And that includes reading the words as they appear on the page.

To be sure, many of the students I’ve worked with do have most of the basics down — I’ve only worked with a few who had striking difficulties sounding out words. But on the other end of the spectrum, I can also count on one hand the number of students I’ve worked with who truly read at an adult level. Unsurprisingly, most of them required no more than a handful of sessions to score in the 750-800 range. In between, of course, there’s a vast, uneven middle ground, usually corresponding to mid-500s to high 600s on the SAT, and 23-28 or so on the ACT.

Within that very large group, though, I’ve noticed that most students fall into one of three general subgroups. The division isn’t clear-cut, but still, I find it’s a helpful way to think about things. Sometimes a student missing some of the lower-level skills will simultaneously have some of the higher-level ones (I once worked with a whip-smart girl who had serious decoding problems but a stellar sense of logic), but very often, a lack of skills at one level translates into an inability to master skills at the next level.

1) Decoding

Students in this group typically learned to read through a whole-language approach and have had minimal exposure to phonics. Having never learned to match letters or combinations of letters to specific sounds, they recognize words by memory and are forced rely on guesswork when they encounter an unfamiliar ones. Often, they think by process of association. If an unfamiliar word starts the same way as a familiar one, they’ll simply plug in the one they know. For example, if they see an unknown word like prodigious, they might read productive, or they might read argument instead of augment. Interestingly, they tend not to notice whether the words they’re plugging in make grammatical sense in context.

Because they’re not reading the words that are actually on the page, these students can completely misinterpret what they’re reading. But in addition to that, it’s almost impossible for them to use roots, prefixes, suffixes, etc. to make logical assumptions about unfamiliar words because they can’t even recognize when roots are being used. Lack of knowledge about how words are put together feeds incomprehension.

2) Vocabulary

At a somewhat more advanced level are the students who can decode competently but lack the vocabulary knowledge to make sense out of what they’re reading. I’ve actually found that many students with learning disabilities fall into this category. Kids without any evident weaknesses can often slide by in school, whether they’ve learned to decode 100% reliably or not, and so their problems go undetected. In contrast, students with obvious reading difficulties are noticed and often given explicit instruction in phonics. The result is that they learn to sound out difficult words beautifully but have no idea what they mean!

For many of these students, direct instruction in vocabulary and roots can boost their comprehension considerably — if, that is, they’re willing to put in the time.

3) Context

These students are adept decoders and often have relatively strong vocabularies, but they have difficulty making the leap from comprehending the literal words to understanding their larger significance (which would in turn allow them to identify right answers quickly and securely). Typically, they lack the broader contextual knowledge that would allow them to connect the content of specific passages to larger debates, discussions, and themes in the real world.

While some of these students can learn to strategize well enough to pull themselves in the low 700s, others stay stuck in the mid-high 600s on the SAT and below 30 on the ACT because they can’t get to the big picture from the details. What looks like a timing or a strategy problem is actually indicative of something deeper. But these students only have a reading problem in the sense that they don’t have enough context to pull together all the pieces. What they really have is a knowledge problem. And in the short term, there’s no way to compensate for that.

When to read slowly and when to skim

In discussions about skimming, one question that often arises is how to know when various sections of passages should be read slowly vs. skimmed through.

What makes this question so important is that it cuts to the heart of what a lot of standardized-test reading targets — 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 of 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/crucial, 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 referenced. Go back to the very beginning of the sentence and read the whole thing carefully. If there is a major transition (e.g. however, therefore) 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 the passage, if there is one. In some cases, it may provide important contextual information, but you don’t need to linger over it.

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

-Lists of examples, as long as you know the point they’re supporting

-When a question provides a long line reference: skim looking for major transitions, explanations, etc. When you identify those spots, then read carefully.

Make sure you understand what the questions are actually asking

This post was inspired by Akil Bello’s Best SAT Prep Tip Ever on the Bellcurves blog. While I agree 100% that reading the full question (along with reading full answers) is indeed one of the most important things you can do on the SAT, I also think that advice takes a bit too much for granted because it assumes that most test-takers will understand what a question is asking, provided that they read it carefully enough. In my experience, however, that’s simply not the case.

I think there’s a tendency to forget that vocabulary issues can crop in passage-based questions themselves as well as in passages and answer choices. If you don’t understand precisely what a question is requiring you to do when it asks you which of the following would most undermine a given theory, it’s very hard to answer that question correctly!

Take inference questions. When a question asks you make an inference about what a particular person mentioned in a passage would believe, it is generally asking you to make a reasonable assumption about that person’s beliefs based on specific information that the author says about that person. It is not simply asking you to summarize what that person says or believes. It is asking you to form a general, often more abstract idea that will not be found word-for-word in the text. But if you don’t make that distinction, if you just try to summarize what the person says or thinks, you’ll be lost when you look at the answer choices.

Or, to give a slightly more concrete example, it will be very hard for you to answer a question that uses the word “analogous” if you don’t really know what that means.

So I’m going to suggest two things.

First, treat any unfamiliar vocabulary you find in the actual questions the exact same way you would treat any other SAT vocabulary — write it down and learn it.

Second, try rephrasing the questions in your own words to make sure you actually understand what you need to do. For example, if a question asks you what “transition is marked” in a particular line, you can rephrase it as “what change happens in the passage here?” Define, sum up, simplify. Whatever you have to do to make sure you understand.

Be careful with familiar subjects

Thanks to Mike from PWN the SAT for pointing this out to me after my post about why prep books aren’t enough if you want to kick butt on Reading. While it does come in handy to have a context for what you’re reading, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Even if you’ve heard this before, you can stand to hear it again: when it comes to Reading, the correct answer can always be determined based on the information in the passage and the passage alone.

Do not ever pick an answer unless it is directly supported by the passage itself; it doesn’t matter how much it appeals to you otherwise. If it’s not in the passage, it’s wrong, end of story.

That said, I’m also going to suggest something mildly heretical in the land of test-prep: if you do have prior knowledge of a topic and an answer happens to fit both with that knowledge and with the general point of the passage itself (that second one is really key), I’d suggest you check that answer first. In my experience, it often will be correct. The SAT and the ACT reward smart guessing, and making a logical conjecture often pays off. But I emphasize that this is just a strategy for potentially getting to the correct answer faster. You should never pick an answer based strictly on your knowledge of a subject.

The only time I would ever even maybe suggest you try this without going back to the passage would be if you had five seconds left to finish the section, thought the answer could work based on your knowledge of the passage, and felt like taking a walk on the wild side (relatively speaking). But even then, you might want to play it safe.

Save time-consuming questions for last

If you are not, under any circumstances, willing to jump around within sections, then please skip this article. If you are willing to do so, however, this is a strategy you might want to try. It’s based on the principle that since (1) you have a limited amount of time, and that (2) every question, easy or hard, is worth exactly the same number of points, your goal should be to obtain as many points as quickly as possible.

However: since reading questions are presented in no particular order of difficulty, you need to do a little bit of work upfront to identify questions likely to take you a while to answer before you get caught up in them and waste a couple of minutes better spent answering two or three other questions quickly.

While I do understand that different questions are hard for different people, the following types of questions generally tend to be more time-consuming than others because it is very difficult to answer them based on a general knowledge of the passage; you must almost always go back and read carefully.

-Which of the following? I, II, and III

These tend to take the most time, so they should be the last questions you do. Especially on the ACT, where you can go crazy trying to locate the necessary information.

-Paired passage relationship questions 

Usually these require multiple steps of logic. The good news is that they come after individual-passage questions, so you don’t have to hunt for them.

-ACT questions that ask about dates or years.

Although these questions may seem straightforward, the exact information rarely appears directly in the passage, and it is often necessary to perform some basic calculations in order to determine the answer.

-All of the following EXCEPT 

While you can often eliminate a couple of answers based on your memory of the passage, there’s often no way to be certain unless you go back and hunt for the others.

-Graphic/passage questions on the SAT

Particularly if you’re not ask comfortable with graph-based questions as you are with text-based questions, it’s a good idea to leave these questions until after you’ve answered all of the other questions in a set.