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.

How to answer “supporting evidence” questions

If you’ve looked at the redesigned PSAT or SATs, you’ve probably noticed that the reading section now includes a number of “supporting evidence” sets — that is, pairs of questions in which the second question asks which lines provide the best “evidence” for the answer to the previous question.

The first thing to understand about these questions is that they are not really about “evidence” in the usual sense. Rather they are comprehension questions asked two different ways. The answer to the second question simply indicates where in the passage the answer the first question appears.

So although paired questions may look very complicated, that appearance is deceiving. The correct answer to the first question must appear in one of the four sets of lines in the second question. As a result, the easiest way to approach these questions is usually to plug the line references from the second question into the first question.

Thus a question set that looks like this:

The author of Passage 1 indicates that space mining could have which positive effect?

A) It could yield materials important to Earth’s economy.
B) It could raise the value of some precious metals on Earth.
C) It could create unanticipated technological innovations.
D) It could change scientists’ understanding of space resources.

Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?

A) Lines 18-22 (“Within . . . lanthanum”)
B) Lines 24-28 (“They . . . projects”)
C) Lines 29-30 (“In this . . . commodity”)
D) Lines 41-44 (“Companies . . . machinery”)

Can be rewritten like this:

The author of Passage 1 indicates that space mining could have which positive effect?

A) Lines 18-22 (“Within . . . lanthanum”)
B) Lines 24-28 (“They . . . projects”)
C) Lines 29-30 (“In this . . . commodity”)
D) Lines 41-44 (“Companies . . . machinery”)

Then plug in each of the answers (making sure to read a little before/after for context as necessary) to see which set of lines provides the answer to the first question. When you find the lines that meet this criterion, you have the answers to both questions.

Note that in order to apply this strategy effectively, you must know that “supporting evidence” questions are coming. I would strongly suggest that you look through all the questions before you start working through them and simply bracket all of the “evidence” pairs so that you don’t get caught off guard.

To be clear, this is unlikely to be the best approach for every single paired question set; there will probably be situations (especially those involving paired passages) in which it is faster/easier to answer the questions in order. If you are a strong reader, you will need to decide for yourself on a case-by-case basis.

If you struggle with these questions and/or find them confusing, however, there’s a good chance that working this way will help keep yourself on track.

2015 SAT reading and writing scores tank

2015 SAT reading and writing scores tank

From Bloomberg: 

Students in the high school class of 2015 turned in the lowest critical reading score on the SAT college entrance exam in more than 40 years, with all three sections declining from the previous year. Meanwhile, ACT Inc. reported that nearly 60 percent of all 2015 high school graduates took the ACT, up from 49 percent in 2011. (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-03/students-bombed-the-sat-this-year-in-four-charts)

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Oh well, good thing the new SAT is right around the corner. Without all those obscure words and irrelevant passages, scores should start to artificially increase stabilize.