They say/I say (or: the point of Critical Reading)

If you look in the Official College Board Guide, 2nd edition (aka the Blue Book), you’ll see that the sample essays in the front of the book are written in response to a prompt that asks whether there is always a “however” (i.e. are there always two sides to every argument?)

It recently occurred to me that the College Board’s choice of that particular prompt for inclusion in the Official Guide was not an accident; on the contrary, it’s a sort of “clue” to the test, an inside joke if you will. And in classic College Board style, it’s laid bare, in plain sight, for everyone to see, thereby virtually guaranteeing that almost everyone will overlook it completely.

Let me back up a bit. When I took the SAT in high school, one of the Critical Reading strategies I devised for myself was, whenever necessary, to write a quick summary of the argument of that the author of a passage was both for and against. So if, for example, a question asked how a particular author would be likely to view the “advocates” of a particular idea (let’s say string theory, just for grins), I would write something like this:

Author: ST = AMAZING! (string theory is amazing)

Advocates: ST = WRONG! (string theory is wrong)

Therefore, author disagrees w/advocates, answer = smthg bad

It never struck as anything but utterly logical to keep track of the various arguments that way. As a matter of fact, I took the process of identifying and summarizing various points of view so much for granted that it never really occurred to me that keeping track of all those different points of view was actually was more of less the point of the test. Of course I knew it at some level, but not in a way that led me to address it quite so explicitly as a tutor. I assumed that it was sufficient to tell my students that they needed to keep track of the various points of view; not until about a year ago did it truly dawn on me that my students couldn’t keep track of those points of view. They were having trouble with things like main point because they couldn’t distinguish between authors’ opinion and “other people’s” opinions, and therefore I needed to explain some very basic things upfront:

1) Many SAT passages contain more than one point of view.

2) The fact that an author discusses an idea does not necessarily mean that the author agrees with that idea.

3) Passages contain more than one point of view because authors who write for adults often spend a lot of time “conversing” with people — sometimes imaginary people — who hold opposing opinions. Authors are essentially writing in response to those “other people.”

4) There are specific words and phrases that a reader can use to identify when an author is talking about his or her own ideas vs. someone else’s ideas.

5) The fact that authors discuss other people’s ideas does not make them “ambivalent” or mean that they do not have ideas of their own.

6) It is also possible for authors to agree with part of someone else’s idea and disagree with other parts. Again, this does not mean that the author is ambivalent.

In other words, there’s always a “however,” and if the author of Passage 1 doesn’t give it to you, the author of Passage 2 almost certainly will.

Not surprisingly, I have Catherine Johnson to thank for this realization. A while back, she posted an excerpt from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book, They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing on her blog, and reading it was a revelation for me. I’d already touched on “they say/I say” model in a very old post (SAT Passages and “Deep Structure”), but Graff and Birkenstein’s book explained the concept in a far more direct, detailed, and explicit manner. It also took absolutely nothing about students’ knowledge for granted.

I’d already written a first draft of The Critical Reader at that point, but when I read that excerpt, something clicked and I thought, “that’s it — that’s actually the point of Critical Reading. THAT’S what the College Board is trying to get at.” To be sure, Critical Reading tests a number of other things, but I think that this is one of the most — if not the most — important. If you understand the strategies that authors use to suggest agreement and disagreement with arguments, you can sometimes understand almost everything about a passage — it’s content, its structure, its themes — just from reading a few key lines. “They Say/I Say” provided me with the thread that bound the book together. It also provided the very important link between reading on the SAT and reading in the real world (or at least in college) — a link that some critics of the SAT (!) insist rather stridently does not exist.

Then, in a colossal “duh” moment a couple of days ago, it occurred to me that the point of the quote before the essay prompt is to provide students with the option of using the “they say/I say” format in their essays (if they so wish) — it’s just that the students have so little experience with that format (if they even know it exists) that it never even occurs to them to use it!

Just how little experience students have with it became clear, incidentally, when I was working with students on the synthesis essay for the AP French exam. As is the case for AP Comp, students are given three sources and expected to compose a thesis-driven essay, integrating the sources into their writing. There’s no way to earn a high score without using all of the sources, and since the sources cover all sides of the argument (pro, contra, neutral), at least one source will contradict the student’s position. So basically, the point of the exercise is to force them to integrate opposing viewpoints into their writing.

As I discussed the essay with my students, however, I made two intriguing discoveries:

1) They did not really understand that the essay was thesis-driven and that it was ok for them to express their own opinions.

They equated having to include multiple side of an argument with not having an opinion. They were stunned — and relieved — to discover that it was ok for them to actually write what they thought instead of simply summarizing what all the various sources said. Incidentally, their teacher had told them that more than once, but I think the concept was too foreign for them to fully grasp.

2) They did not know how to integrate other people’s words and ideas into their own arguments in anything resembling a fluid manner.

Instead of writing things like “As Sorbonne Professor Jean-Pierre Fourrier convincingly argued in a May 2009 article that appeared in Le Monde, the encroachment of English into the French language is nothing new,” they would write something like this: “Jean-Pierre Fourrier, a professor at the Sorbonne, says ‘the encroachment of English into the French language is nothing new’ (Source 1).”

When I showed one of students (a very smart girl and a strong writer) how to do the former, she was thrown off guard. “Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know that.” “Of course you didn’t know that,” I said matter-of-factly. “No one taught you how to do it. So I’m teaching you now.”

That was another lightbulb moment for me. The thought had drifted across my consciousness before, but it hadn’t quite pushed its way to the surface. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. Students who haven’t been taught how to make use of certain strategies explicitly in their own writing are therefore unlikely to recognize those strategies in other people’s writing. Ergo, when an author interweaves his or her opinions with someone else’s opinions in the same passage or paragraph, sometimes even in the same sentence, students have limited means of distinguishing between the two points of view.

I think that this is something that should be covered very explicitly and thoroughly in AP Comp class, but something tells me that it isn’t. I certainly didn’t learn it in high school; instead, I picked it up in college by reading lots of academic articles and simply copying what professional scholars did.

So what’s the solution? It is in part, I think, They Say/I Say — or something like it (note the very subtle plug for The Critical Reder here;). I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it again: the only way to prepare for a college-level test is to read things meant for college students, which They Say/I Say certainly is. So if you’re taking the SAT next Saturday and are reading this in the hopes of picking up some last-minute miracle tips for Critical Reading, here’s my advice: read Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff’s introduction to They Say/I Say. It won’t give you any SAT-specific “tricks,” but it will explain to you clearly and bluntly, just what it is that most of the writing you’ll encounter on the SAT is trying to accomplish. Even if it doesn’t solve all your problems, but it might demystify the test a bit and make Critical Reading seem a little less weird.

Making the “big picture” leap

A while back, I was discussing Critical Reading strategies with Catherine Johnson, and she told me that even when she wasn’t familiar with the topic of a passage (e.g. modern art), she just looked for the argument and figured out what the author was for and against. More recently, I was complaining to someone that my students didn’t know how to identify arguments, and he asked me — in perfect innocence — why they didn’t just look for transitions like “however” and “therefore?”

To both of these statements, I burst out laughing. Both people were approaching the test like the adults with graduate degrees they were — they took for granted that a reader would not only know that they were supposed be looking for an argument and its key places, but also that the reader would know that there even was an argument to be looked out for in the first place! From what I’ve seen, neither of those considerations can be taken for granted.

For example, it recently emerged one of my students scoring around 700 did not know that authors usually put main ideas before the supporting evidence — he thought they put them after. A couple of years ago, I would have been stunned by that level of misconception in such a high-scoring student, but now I’m no longer even mildly surprised. (This is apparently what happens when schools decide that teaching students things explicitly is tantamount to destroying their creativity forever.)

To be clear: while there is also no single approach to Critical Reading that is guaranteed to result in a score increase, there are many approaches to Critical Reading that can result in a score increase. I’m ultimately a pragmatist, and in the end, I’ll encourage anyone to use the method that gets them results. The student is, after all, the one taking the test, and my job is to help them get the highest score they can — regardless of whether their approach is something I would personally go out of my way to advise.

There is, however, only one way to approach Critical Reading that directly addresses what Critical Reading is testing, which is something quite different. Critical Reading is fundamentally a test about arguments and how the various elements that go into making them (words, phrases, punctuation marks, rhetorical figures) contribute to those arguments’ meaning. Details have importance primarily insofar as they relate to the overall argument or point that the passage is making (and yes, there is pretty much always some sort of main idea). To read in a way that directly addresses what CR is testing, you have to be able to read for the big picture.

It is certainly possible to get a very high — even a perfect — score doing otherwise, but you’re reading in a way that fundamentally misses the point of the test. And you’re also reading in a way that has the potential to make things much, much more complicated.

More and more now, I’m getting students who are stalled somewhere in the 650-750 range, and lots of those students have done a fair amount of prep — either on their own or with another tutor — before coming with me. Unfortunately, a lot of those students have also used their current strategy to max out their skills. They’re getting pretty much everything they can right given what they know and how they read, but to get to the next level, there’s no strategy that can help them — they need to actually work on whatever skill(s) they’re missing. And very often, that skill is recognizing the big picture — or as one SAT passage put it, recognizing “the message through the static.”

A lot of time, they’re also reading in such a way that encourages them to view passages as random collections of details — that is, they’re focusing only on the areas around the line references and ignoring the big picture completely. From a high school reader’s perspective, this makes sense: if the question tells you to look at line 17, why on earth would you pay attention to line 12, especially if you’re pressed for time? Besides, the test is telling you to look at line 17, so that means the answer has to be right there. (Well… sometimes yes, sometimes no.) It simply doesn’t occur to them that other things could be more important than what the test is telling them to look at.

If these kids are generally strong readers, they tend to get to about 700-730 this way. And then they can’t get any further. Often that’s because when they hit a “big picture” question, they can’t take all the details they’ve read and form them into something coherent, so they stumble through by process of elimination and sometimes completely miss the mark. It never occurs to them to go back and read key places in the argument because they don’t know really know that those key places exist or how to identify them.

This is exactly the opposite of how most educated adults read: they figure out the argument, its basic structure, and its key points, and then consider everything in relation to those factors. It doesn’t matter if they’re familiar with the topic; they know how to recognize arguments, and they know how to work from the big picture down.

But why does it matter how someone reads a passage if they’re getting a high score anyway? 730, or even 700, is nothing to sneeze at, and no school would reject a student merely for having a score in the (gasp!) low 700s. Well, I would say that it matters because you simply cannot read in college using high school strategies. The SAT is the only place in high school that lots of kids will encounter college-level reading, and if they’re never exposed to the idea of reading for big-picture arguments, they’ll be in for a rude shock once they get to college and have to get through hundreds of pages per week. Studying for the SAT is a way to practice those skills on a small, manageable scale. If you enter college only knowing how to read for details, you’ll waste a whole lot of time sweating over things you don’t need to worry about, and your classes will be a whole lot harder.

My job, as I’m increasingly coming to see it, is to help people make that leap from high school to college reading, and to better do so, I’m trying to understand *how* someone moves from reading texts as a series of random details to reading texts as arguments structured around a central claim or idea. How on earth does that leap occur? What factors have to be in place? What prior knowledge has to exist?

It’s certainly not enough to simply tell someone to focus on key places in the introduction and conclusion because they sometimes can’t see the relationship between the points being made there and the information in the rest of the passage.

It’s not entirely a content issue, although familiarity with a topic certainly plays a role; readers like me and Catherine have no problem understanding arguments about topics we know next to nothing about.

Literal comprehension — the ability to understand complex syntax, diction, and sentence structure — also plays a role; if someone can’t understand what a text is actually saying, they’re pretty limited right there. But that’s not the whole story either because plenty of times kids can understand what discrete parts of the passage are saying but can’t turn those separate bits into a coherent picture.

I think that what it comes down to, in addition to the above factors, is the ability to understand the kinds of “cues” that indicate an author isn’t “just talking about” a subject but actually taking a stance. I’m becoming increasingly aware of this since I finally (finally!) got a copy of Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say,” which is basically a primer for recognizing those “cues” in academic writing. Phrases like “Many people say,” “Other people say,” and “It is commonly believed” are red flags that an author is introducing an idea that they do NOT agree with, and authors tend to present ideas that they don’t agree with *first.*

The purpose of a passage/section of a passage that starts off with those kinds of phrases is, by definition, to “dispute/refute an idea/claim/assertion,” but kid who skips the introduction because he “might get confused” if he reads places that aren’t in the line references and jumps to line 17 is probably going to miss that fact completely. A reader like me or Catherine, on the other hand, would quickly take note of what the author *didn’t* believe, jump down a paragraph or two to confirm what the author *did* believe, and then probably jump to the conclusion to reiterate. Based on that information alone, the answers to most of the questions would be immediately obvious.

It would also take us a lot less time, but the speed is beside the point: the point is that we would using the author’s textual cues to pinpoint the argument. And if you really understand the argument, everything else usually falls into place without too much difficulty. If you just see a mass of details, you’ll grope, and eliminate, and cross out, and second guess… and you might get to the right answer in the end, but you also might not fully understand why it’s the right answer. And then you’ll probably conclude that the whole thing is really pretty subjective and pointless, and that it doesn’t really have anything to do with anything beside the SAT. In which case you would be absolutely, completely, utterly mistaken.

The Jane Austen Myth

One of the most insidious myths about the SAT that has somehow gained an inordinate amount of traction is the idea that reading lots of nineteenth-century novels is the best way to study for Critical Reading. And among nineteenth-century novelists, Jane Austen’s name seems to come up a lot.

Now don’t get me wrong — reading lots of nineteenth-century novels is certainly not a bad way to study for the SAT. Authors like Austen and Bronte and Dickens (and Fielding and Trollope and Defoe and Eliot) use tons of SAT vocabulary. Tons. A single chapter of Great Expectations probably contains nearly as many SAT words as you’ll find in all of Direct Hits. Reading any major work of nineteenth-century literature and looking up every word you don’t know is a fantastic way to expand your vocabulary.

But it’s not necessarily the best way, and it’s certainly not the only way, to prepare effectively for Critical Reading.

As some very sane, rational adult pointed out on College Confidential a month or so back, this is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation.

Here’s the problem: a lot of people (ok, girls) who score well on Critical Reading also happen to be huge Jane Austen fans. (Confession: I’m not, nor was I ever a Jane Austen fan; I find her books incredibly tedious). Because reading Jane Austen helped them score well, they then make a classic SAT-logic mistake and conclude that if reading Jane Austen worked for them (sample size of one), it must therefore work for everyone.

Can you see the problem with this?

Maybe they have things backwards: they enjoy reading Jane Austen because they’re *already* strong readers; it’s only because of their extant knowledge base that they’re able to boostrap themselves in acquiring new skills, e.g. figuring out new vocabulary words from context.

Maybe other people aren’t terribly interested in Jane Austen, or in novels period, and if they try to read them, they 1) will have just as much trouble with them as they have with the SAT, 2) will not bother to look up unfamiliar words because there are too many of them and it’s too hard to understand anyway, and 3) will get so frustrated that they just quit.

So to set the record straight: it is not necessary to read Jane Austen to do well on the SAT!

The passages on the SAT are not, for the most part, taken from nineteenth-century novels. Yes, very occasionally, a fiction passage or one passage in a Passage 1/Passage 2 set will come from a nineteenth century text, but the vast majority of passages are excerpted from works written in the last few decades.

So if you don’t much like Jane Austen, don’t worry. If you’d much rather read about superstring theory or the ethics of eating meat, I highly encourage you to do so — it is, after all, one of the SAT’s favorite topics. And for a list of where SAT passages actually come from, click here.

One Critical Reading strategy is not enough

One of the questions I get asked most frequently about Critical Reading is, “What’s your strategy?” A couple of things tend to be assumed in this question:

1) I will provide a straightforward response such as, “always read the questions first so you don’t lose time reading the passage” or “bracket all the line references as you go through the passage so that you’ll know where to read carefully” (two things I would, incidentally, not ever advise).

2) There is such thing as a single strategy that is applicable to every question.

This second part is the really dangerous one. One of the things that makes obtaining a very high Critical Reading score so difficult is the fact that it demands a certain degree of flexibility — while there are plenty of strategies that will allow someone to answer many questions correctly, there is no strategy I know of that is both efficient and effective for trying to answer every question correctly. Students who insist on sticking to one strategy generally top out at about 700; the ones who score higher tend to be using multiple strategies, even if they’re not aware of it. (As a rule, people who obtain very high CR scores tend to take a whole lot of things for granted when explaining how to achieve a high CR score).

The more time I spend teaching Critical Reading, the more I become aware of this: a couple of times recently, I’ve given a student a lengthy explanation about why he or she *must* approach certain kinds of questions in a particular way, then promptly gone on to completely contradict myself because I happened to spot a shortcut that got me the answer in five seconds instead of forty-five. It’s not that the first way couldn’t have worked. It’s just that it would have been a lot more trouble and left some room for second-guessing.

I’ve also become aware of this because of a debate I’ve been having with Debbie Stier over the importance of focusing on the “implied author” of the SAT (i.e. the people at ETS who actually write the test) vs. the author of the passage. It’s probably true that I spend a bit less time focusing on the latter than do some SAT tutors. Yes, I spout the standard “the College Board is always politically correct, avoid the extreme answers, etc.,” and I’ve even been known to play that old favorite, “guess the answer without looking at the question” (I’m actually quite good at it), but that’s not the main focus of my tutoring. When I go over CR questions with my students, I tend to discuss both the long way AND the shortcut, but I always stress that picking the shortcut answer without checking it in the passage can get you into trouble.

I don’t argue that reading the test this way can be very effective — on *some* questions. But when tutors (i.e. grownups) use these tricks, they tend to assume that teenagers are generally capable of reading with the same level of nuance that they are, and that’s simply not true. Weak 16-year old readers do not always know what a politically correct answer — or, for that matter, an extreme answer, or a general answer — looks like: getting rid of answers that include words like “always” and “never” is one thing, but how many kids scoring around 500 (remember, the CR average is 501) know what “vitriolic” means?

For a somewhat stronger reader, using these kinds of tricks can in fact propel someone into the low 600s, but rarely beyond. They’re useful, but only to a point. And that’s why I tend not to insist on them excessively: they’re part of knowing how to take the SAT, and they can get you close to the answer — sometimes very, very fast — but they’re not the whole thing, and they won’t always get you to the point where you can pick an answer and know unhesitatingly that it’s correct. They might help you get it down to two answers, but usually when that happens, you need to be able to read closely in order to decide between them. They also might get you the right answer if you’re down to two and can’t choose, but then again, they might not.

The College Board isn’t stupid; they deviate from their own patterns from time to time just to throw people off. That’s why I spend so much time teaching people to answer the questions for real: the other way helps, but it’s not a guarantee. For someone trying to boost their CR score 100+ points, understanding that there really is a relationship between the question and the answer — and that it can be determined through a careful process of logical reasoning — is often the key to understanding the test.

So for someone attempting to score close to 800, it’s not a question of focusing on the author of the test OR the author of the passage. You have to do both, flipping back and forth between using the answer choices to make educated guesses about what’s *likely* to be correct and actually reading the text closely to make sure that it is in fact correct. In other words, you have to read on two levels at once.

Practically speaking, it means that sometimes you have to start by going back to the passage and putting the answer in your own words; sometimes you can skip the passage and just reiterate the main point/tone before looking at the answers; sometimes you can start by looking at the answers and making an educated guess about which one(s) are likely to be correct, then go back to the passage and check them out; and sometimes you might have no idea about the answer and have to go back and forth between the passage and the questions five or six or ten times, eliminating answers as you go. It’s up to you to be flexible enough to figure out what approach works best on any given question.

If you think this sounds hard, you’re right: it is. But that’s why a high CR score actually means something.

If you can manage it, though, looking at the test this way can allow you to pinpoint the likely answer very fast so you don’t waste time, then check it out for real so that you’re not tempted to second-guess yourself. That way, you’re far less likely to create a backlog of tiredness and frustration that accumulates until you can no longer focus properly.

Let me give you an example.

On one “attitude” question I went over with a student recently, the following five answer choices appeared:

(A) fascination (B) approval (C) ambivalence (D) skepticism (E) hostility

Now, I could have gone back to the passage first and come up with an answer on my own; however, answers to tone questions tend to be highly formulaic, so I made a decision to start by looking at the answers and trying to use the test against itself.

Knowing that (C) and is pretty much always wrong and that (A) and (E) were too extreme, I immediately narrowed it down to (B) and (D), which are frequently used as correct answers. That meant all I had to figure out was whether the author’s attitude in that portion of the passage was positive or negative, or whether there were any other textual clues that indicated one of those answers.

Sure enough, I looked at the passage, and not only was there a question mark, but the sentence preceding it started out “But how exactly…?” which is phrasing that pretty much screams skepticism, and the author was clearly talking about something he didn’t like, so the answer had to be (D). The answer choices told me what was likely to be right, but a close reading of the text gave me the answer for real.

The other reason that knowing how to read the test properly is that very occasionally, ETS screws up the wording of a question just very slightly and doesn’t ask precisely what it means to ask, OR it provides more than one answer that could be reasonably justified (before you get all excited, know that I’ve only seen maybe five questions period that fell into this category — ETS usually does a very good job, and oversights like this are exceedingly rare). In order to answer the question correctly, it is actually necessary to consider the answers independently of the question, and to understand 1) what ETS intended to ask rather than what it actually asked, and 2) which answer choice is most likely to be correct based on the kinds of answers that ETS usually deems correct.

If you know that the right answer will always go along with the main point rather than a supporting detail, for example, you can get still often get the right answer on imprecisely worded questions — but to do that, you have to read intention rather than what’s actually there. Is that fair? No, of course not. Should the College Board have stop these questions from appearing? Yes, of course. But sometimes things slip through. (No, for the record, I’m not trying to make excuses.)

The good news is that it’s possible to get an 800 CR without getting every single question right. But if you’re really serious about trying to ace that section, you need to approach it pragmatically: not every question requires the same approach, and while it is important to understand each passage, it’s just as important to understand how the exam is constructed. The SAT is, after all, a standardized test, and approaching each question as a unique creation is frankly unnecessary — knowing the patterns will make you a more effective test-taker, just as long as you treat them as an added benefit and not as a replacement for understanding what’s going on in the passage itself.

SAT Humor

No, that’s actually not an oxymoron.

There is, believe it or not, humor on quite a few Critical Reading passages. It’s not ha-ha, laugh-out-loud, in-your-face humor; it’s adult humor, subtle, wry, dry, irreverent, ironic, and facetious.

And I’ve started to notice recently that it’s the one thing that pretty much every single one of my students has trouble with, regardless of how far into the 700s they’re scoring.

I think there are a few reasons for this difficulty:

A lot of the strong readers, the ones who actually know what these things are and can recognize them under normal circumstances, get so incredibly freaked out by the test that it simply doesn’t occur to them that certain parts of passages are intended to be funny. When I prod them to think about what’s being said and to read it out loud (more about that later), they usually get it without too much trouble.

The weaker readers, and even some of the stronger ones, are usually not even sure what facetiousness, wry humor, and irreverence are. The concepts quite literally do not exist for them.

On one hand, this is not terribly surprising; all of these kinds of humor are, by definition, subtle. That’s why they’re hard, and that’s precisely why they’re tested on “hard” questions.

One of the things that makes these kinds of humorous tones so difficult to identify is the fact that recognizing them is largely based on understanding the relationship between written and spoken language.

Even more so than other kinds of tones, wry humor and irony are more reliant on the readers’ ability to hear the author’s voice internally, to “feel” where the stresses and emphases occur, where the pitch rises and falls. If someone is not a totally fluent reader — that is, if they have to devote their attention to puzzling out what the words actually 1) sound like, and 2) what they literally mean — there is simply no way they can hear those words as part of a naturally spoken phrase.

And hearing the author’s voice in turn often depends on the reader’s ability to understand how authors convey emphases through punctuation. In such cases, hearing tone becomes the result of seeing tone; aural becomes visual. It’s relatively easy to figure out that the tone is negative when the author is using words like “difficult,” “terrible,” or “impossible;” it’s much harder to hear the relationship between, say, a parentheses or dashes and the kind of dropped, drawn-out voice that indicates someone is making an ironic aside — especially if no one’s ever asked you to pay much attention to punctuation in the first place, or asked you to think about how to translate the natural cadences of your own speech into writing.

I actually think that is why so many test-takers also have trouble identifying when the author’s tone is conversational or informal. They simply can’t draw the connection between what’s on the page and how people actually speak.

Finally, this kind of humor is largely based on wordplay. Many relatively straightforward vocabulary questions test the ability to recognize when words are being used in their second or third meaning based, and “humor” questions add yet another layer of complication. Here the test does not explicitly inform the test-taker that words are being used in non-literal ways; rather, the reader is expected to deduce it from context and perceive the humor accordingly.

Tricky? Some (ok, many) might call it that, but understanding these kinds of subtleties is a big part of what adult-level reading involves, SAT or no SAT.

I think many of the difficulties that people have with these kinds of questions results from that fact that Americans are generally taught to be very suspicious of people who play with words. They’re seen as slippery, untrustworthy somehow. There’s an assumption that language is, or should be, transparent: being plain-spoken is seen as a sign of honesty and integrity. Wordplay, which destabilizes meaning, is urbane, highbrow, intellectual humor, and is seen as vaguely arrogant and decadent, I think it’s fair to say that mastering it — or even learning to recognize it — is not an integral part of English education in the United States. The result is that kids who are lucky enough to grow up surrounded by people who like to play with words tend to absorb this kind of humor naturally; kids who aren’t exposed to that kind of linguistic play, or who grow in homes where English isn’t spoken, tend to have an extremely hard time recognizing it and/or understanding why it’s funny.

Unfortunately, this is one type of question that there’s no easy way to master. The shortcut would be to simply pick “wry” when it appears as an option and none of the choices you do understand clearly seem to work — the odds are likely in your favor, but knowing the SAT, that’s probably not a foolproof solution. If you do have some familiarity with this type of humor and see “wry” or “facetious” or “irreverent” as an answer choice, go back to the passage carefully and see if the author has done anything to indicate that he or she is not being entirely serious (quotes, italics, exclamations marks, deliberately exaggerated language…) If that’s the case and you’re still not 100% sure, you can at least make a reasonably educated guess.

Neutral tone, definite opinion

Pretty much everyone agrees that SAT passages can be boring. Really boring. They’re like the literary equivalent of your physics teacher droning on…and on…and on while you try your hardest not to turn fifth period into an inadvertent nap time.

I don’t draw this science analogy by accident: of all the types of passages on the SAT, science passages tend to score the lowest in terms of their engagement factor. They also tend to be written in a tone that’s considerably more neutral (or “objective” or “analytical”) than that found in other types of passages.

But just because the author writes in an objective tone does not mean that he/she is entirely neutral. That is, an author can use language that does not contain any strong wording and still clearly indicate that they believe that one idea or theory is right and that another one is wrong.The fact that they do not say I think or I believe and avoid using words like absolutely or conclusively in no way detracts from the fact that they are still expressing a point of view rather than simply rattling off an objective set of facts — and it’s your job to figure out, based on the passage alone, what that point of view or opinion is and why the author holds it.

The ability to distinguish between tone and point of view is crucial on the SAT; sometimes it’s even tested directly. (As a matter of fact, this post was inspired by an exchange that involved me convincing a student that the correct answer to a tone question could still be “impartial” even though the author of the passage had a distinct opinion).

Incidentally, this is a point that most of the major commercial test-prep books stumble over: though sometimes dense, their passages tend to be overly straightforward and factual. SAT passages are, for all intents and purposes, not just straightforward and factual, even if they do sometimes contain lots of facts.

Think of it this way: most English teachers forbid their students from using “I” in their papers. They typically justify this prohibition by arguing that everything you write is by definition your opinion (at least under normal circumstances), and besides, having to read a two dozen sentences that start with “I think” or “I believe” or “In my opinion” in the space of three pages would drive anyone crazy. SAT passages are based on the same principle.

So the next time you’re faced with a passage about, say, string theory (actually one of the SAT’s preferred topics), forget the details of the theory itself and focus on what the author thinks is important — or not important — about it. If you get a question that asks about a detail about it, you can always go back and reread, but the details shouldn’t be your main focus. Because guess what: if you know what the author thinks, you can probably figure out a lot of the questions just based on that knowledge. But if you’ve gotten caught up in trying to understand the details, you’ll probably get, well…not very far.