Announcement: updated editions of the SAT reading & grammar books, and the ACT English book, are coming in September

Announcement: updated editions of the SAT reading & grammar books, and the ACT English book, are coming in September

Announcement: I realize this is coming on the late side (long story involving proofreaders, How to Write for Class, and the Random House permissions office), but I am planning to release updated editions of my SAT reading and grammar books, as well as my ACT English book. 

Now, before you get your knickers all in twist over which editions to buy, here’s what you need to know:  (more…)

A suggestion for advanced Critical Reading practice

A suggestion for advanced Critical Reading practice

After I posted a support/undermine question as my question of the day last week, I got a message from a student asking me if I could put up more reading questions that require more extended reasoning (usually corresponding to Level 4 and 5 Critical Reading questions on the pre-March 2016 SAT). As I explained to the student, these questions are unfortunately extremely time-consuming to produce; I sometimes need to tinker with them for a few days to get them into shape.

Given that, I started thinking about what students could do in order to get more practice on these question types, which normally show up no more than once or twice per test. Even if someone uses both the Blue Book and the College Board online program, there still aren’t a whole lot of them. The problem, of course, is that these are the exact questions that a lot of people stuck in the high 600s/low 700s need to focus on.

It finally occurred to me that the reading portions of the GRE (Master’s and Ph.D. admissions), GMAT (MBA admissions), and LSAT (law school admissions) are chock full of these types of questions.

The GRE in particular is a great source of practice material because it’s written by ETS; the “flavor” and style of the tests are the same. And you can sit and do support/undermine questions to your heart’s content.

Now, to be clear: this is not a recommendation I would make to anyone not aiming for an 800, or at least a 750+. These tests are considerably harder than the SAT; if you’re not comfortable reading at a college level, trying to work with prep material geared toward graduate-level exams is likely to be an exercise in frustration. Unlike SAT passages, which are taken from mainstream “serious” non-fiction, graduate exam passages tend to be taken from academic articles — the work is written for subject specialists, not a general audience.

I would also not recommend this option unless you’ve already exhausted all the authentic SAT practice material at your disposal.

But if you do happen to fall into that category and are chomping at the bit for more material, you might want to consider the official guides for these tests as supplemental options. If you spend some time working with them, you’ll probably be surprised at how easy the SAT ends up seeming by comparison.

Using the introduction to get the big picture (cont’d from previous post)

A couple of days ago, I posted about how reading the blurb before the passage can in some cases allow you to quickly eliminate multiple answer choices to a question — even before you’ve read the passage(s). (If you haven’t read that post, you should consider doing so before you going any further).

To refresh you, this blurb establishes that the Cold War is the topic of this Passage 1/Passage 2 pair:

The term “Cold War” refers to a period of confrontation from about 1945 to 1990 between the two global superpowers of that era, the United States and the Soviet Union (a collection of republics led by Russia). These passages are adapted from a book published in 1998.

Because the topic must almost certainly appear in the correct answer choice to the question below, you can start by eliminating (C) – (E), even in the absence of any additional information.

Both passages are concerned chiefly with

(A) the causes of the Cold War
(B) the aftermath of the Cold War
(C) European political ideologies
(D) Soviet leaders and policies
(E) the devastation of World War II

Since (A) and (B) mention the Cold War, they can stay.

Now, however, I want to talk about how to go about choosing between those two answers by reading only the beginning of Passage 1.

The blurb states that the book was from 1998, which was 18 years after the end of the Cold War. So the book could talk about the aftermath of the Cold War (post 1990) as well as its origins (1940s), although it’s worth keeping in mind that the SAT usually doesn’t like to get into history that’s too recent — there’s just too much potential for controversy.

So now we need to develop a slightly more nuanced (more specific) understanding of the topic.

At this point, you might think, “I can’t possibly answer that question now. I need to read both passages. By the time I finish reading them, I should have a pretty good idea what they’re about. Then I can go back and answer it.”

You could of course save the question until the end, reading though both passages first, but that would leave you an awful lot of room for confusion. If you have a tendency to get caught up in the details, you could mistake “mentions” for “is about.”

This reasoning also overlooks one important fact. Critical Reading questions are listed in chronological order of the passages. If a question appears first, you can probably answer it by reading the beginning of the first passage. Yes, the first passage only, even though the question appears to ask about both passage.

Here’s why: the question is telling you that both passages have the same focus. By definition, then, the focus of the first passage must be the focus of the second passage. Therefore, all you need to determine is the focus of the first passage.

Here again, you might think, “Ok, now I have to read the whole first passage. By the time I’m done, I should have a pretty good idea of what it’s talking about.” In which case you might again be right, but you’re also likely to make things a lot harder than necessary.

Remember: the point of an introduction is to tell you what the passage is going to be about, i.e. the topic. In most cases, including this one, you can determine the topic of the first passage just by reading the first few sentences.

The traditionalist school of historians dominated the American scholarly discussion of the Cold War during the late 1940s and the 1950s. Traditionalist scholars generally supported the basic thrust of American policy toward Russia, which was known as containment. These scholars blamed the Cold War on Soviet expansionism in Europe, which they saw as motivated by either communist ideology, traditional Russian great-power foreign policy goals, or, most often, a combination of the two.

There are two major things to notice here: first, it talks about the 1940s and ’50s. This is when the Cold War began, not when it ended. Second, the statement that scholars blamed the Cold War on Soviet Expansion directly implies that he is talking about its causes. That in turn points to (A), which is in fact correct.

If you want to check it out, you can scan — not read — both passages for dates. It just so happens that the only dates that appear in the passage involve the 1940s and ’50s, effectively eliminating (B). The Cold War ended in 1990, and any discussion of its aftermath would include dates from 1990 and after.

This is, incidentally, where the knowledge component comes into play: much as contemporary educational theory might malign the importance of “mere facts,” they are really quite useful in a case like this. If you have no actual idea of when the Cold War began or ended, it probably won’t occur to you to use dates in this way. Sure they’re staring you in the face, but they won’t really mean anything to you. It’s the equivalent of staring at a math formula while simultaneously trying to figure out when and how to apply it. It’s profoundly irrelevant that the information is given to you if you don’t have the tools to use it. The same is true here: a person who knows the basic chronology of the Cold War can glance over the passages and instantaneously comprehend that they’re focusing on its origins.

It’s also not a bad idea to know when some of the most important events of the 20th century occurred — events whose repercussions continue to exert an enormous influence on events today.

It’s called, you know, like, being educated.

Why it is actually worth your time to read the blurb before the passage

If you’ve looked at any SAT prep books or taken a class, you’ve probably been advised to always read the blurb before the passage. As I was discussing with Debbie Stier yesterday, however, those couple of lines can seem like a throwaway. People keep on reading them because they know they should, but they don’t really know how to use the information they provide. Truth be told, I never thought all that hard about those little blurbs until recently, when I was explaining to someone to how incredibly important it is for students to be be able to identify passage topics. Forget main point, tone, and all those, uh, “higher order thinking skills” like inferences. If a student cannot figure out what the topic of a passage is… well, they’re not necessarily screwed, but let’s just say that things won’t be easy.

As I was saying this, I started thinking about the fact that students have difficulty identifying topics because they get so caught up in worrying about unfamiliar vocabulary and trying to puzzle out confusing syntax that they can’t figure out the basics. Then it occurred to me that there’s one place where the topic is likely to be stated clearly and with minimal room for misinterpretation: the italicized blurb.

Think of it this way:

The point of the italicized blurb is to tell you what the passage is about. In other words, it tells you the topic.

Many correct answers to Critical Reading questions mention the topic, either by name or rephrased in more general form.

In contrast, incorrect answers to Critical Reading questions are often wrong because they are off-topic.

In order to recognize when an answer is off-topic, you must know what the topic is. If you do not know what the topic is, you will not be able to recognize when answers are off-topic. That does not mean you sorta kinda have a general idea what the passage is talking about. It means you must be able to state the topic clearly, precisely, and accurately in no more than a couple of words. (I don’t take that last one as a given; I have had students who could state topics clearly and precisely, but also totally inaccurately.)

Since the italicized blurb often identifies the topic clearly and precisely in no more than a couple of words, it is therefore logical to read the blurb carefully.

To be sure, the blurb will not always provide this information, but it will do so often enough that it is worth spending a few seconds reading. This is especially true for Passage 1/Passage 2. The point of the blurb is to tell you what both passages are about — information that can allow you to answer seemingly complicated questions in no more than a few seconds.

Let’s look at an example:


The term “Cold War” refers to a period of confrontation from about 1945 to 1990 between the two global superpowers of that era, the United States and the Soviet Union (a collection of republics led by Russia). These passages are adapted from a book published in 1998.

What does the blurb tell us? That the passages will be about the Cold War, defined as the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union between 1945-1990. That is the topic.

The topic is not “the United States” or “the Soviet Union” or “Russia” or “global superpowers” or “the period between 1945-1990.” Those things are only mentioned in order to explain the topic. Any answer choice that implies that one of those things is the main focus of the passage will be incorrect.

Now consider this question:

Both passages are concerned chiefly with

(A) the causes of the Cold War
(B) the aftermath of the Cold War
(C) European political ideologies
(D) Soviet leaders and policies
(E) the devastation of World War II

This question is really asking us what the topic of both passages is. According to the blurb, the topic is the Cold War. Only (A) and (B) specifically mention the Cold War.

“European political ideologies,” “Soviet leaders and policies,” and “the devastation of World War II” make no mention of the Cold War, so (C), (D), and (E) can be eliminated for being off-topic.

So just by reading the blurb, you can eliminate three answers without even reading the passage.

But how to decide between the remaining two? Stay tuned…

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.

General vs. specific in Critical Reading answer choices

If you’re someone who consistently gets down to two answers but doesn’t know how to choose between them, this post is for you. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of you out there; the test is designed to force you into making subtle distinctions between answer choices, so what you’re struggling with is precisely what the test is designed to do. If nothing else, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone.

When I watch students in this category work through a question on their own however, I almost invariably witness the following sequence of events:

-Student reads question.

-Student quickly rereads the necessary section of the passage.

-Student looks at answer choices.

-Student quickly and decisively crosses off three answers that are clearly wrong.

-Student stares at the remaining two answer choices.

-Student stares at the remaining two answer choices some more.

-Student’s eyes begin to take on a “deer in the headlights” cast.

-Student turns to me and croaks, “Help…?”

The reaction is entirely understandable. To be sure, there are plenty of answer choices that do seem very similar — so similar, in fact, that the difference(s) between them might not be obvious immediately, or even after you’ve read each answer through a few times. The danger, however, is to mistake perception for reality — that is, to assume that because you don’t happen to see any differences between the answers, such differences do not exist.

In reality, the more effective procedure is to turn the problem back on yourself and ask what distinction you personally have not yet noticed. SAT questions jump through a lot of hoops to make it onto the test — every couple of years, a question or two that’s a bit more ambiguous than usual might make it on, but that usually doesn’t happen. When dealing with a standardized test, it’s best to work from general rules and only consider the exceptions if the rules clearly don’t apply. So your assumption should be that the College Board probably didn’t mess up, and that there’s a good — if subtle — reason that the right answer is right and the wrong answer is wrong. In short, it’s not the test, it’s you.

If you can approach pairs of similar-seeming answers by looking for specific types of differences, however, your job becomes much simpler. Instead of having to worry about every word of each option, you only have to worry about a single aspect. And one common difference is that of scope — that is, how general or specific an answer choice is. Remember that correct answers tend to be relatively limited in scope, even if they’re phrased vaguely. They frequently restate the topic of the passage, either by name or in a more general way, e.g. Shakespeare becomes “a playwright”. That is only logical because SAT passages themselves tend to be relatively limited in scope: they are about specific topics, events, ideas, and individuals, not about all of human history or the meaning of life.

One very simple “trick” when you are deciding between two answer choices is to momentarily ignore the answers and simply restate the topic of the passage. (Granted, this strategy only works if you can correctly identify it, but let’s assume you can handle that part.) If one answer choice restates that topic — either explicitly or more generally — and the other goes “out of bounds,” the former will be correct.

For example, consider this pair of answers from a Passage 1/Passage 2 question. It’s fairly easy to determine from the passages that the correct answer must indicate a positive relationship, but that still leaves two possibilities.

How would the “many scholars” (line 70, passage 2) most likely react to the search or the “grand theory” (line 1, Passage 1)?

(A) With sympathy, because these scholars too are attempting to understand the overarching meaning of Paleolithic art

(D) With delight, because these scholars are convinced that Paleolithic art provides the key to comprehending natural history

They seem pretty similar, right?

Now consider the first sentence of the blurb above the passages:

The passages below discuss a type of Paleolithic art, cave paintings created between approximately 33,000 and 9000 B.C.E.

In this case, the test tells you what the topic of the passages is; don’t have to figure anything out. And since (A) refers only to “Paleolithic art” (specific), while (D) mentions “natural history” (way too broad), the former is correct. (As a side note, the extreme word “convinced” in (D) is also a hint that it’s probably wrong.) Out of two passages and 84 lines, that’s the only information you actually need.