A tip for students using “The Critical Reader”

I recently came across an inquiry from someone using the The Critical Reader to study for the SAT. The student in question had been getting all the exercise questions right in the book itself, but when he took full practice tests, he started making mistakes. How should he proceed?

While I don’t know exactly what was happening when the student took those tests, I can wager a pretty good guess.

Because The Critical Reader is organized by question type, each set of exercises focuses on a particular concept and follows a chapter focusing on that same concept. Not only is the strategy information is still pretty fresh for most people when they look at the questions, but they already know what concept every question will be testing.

When they go to take a practice test, however, that scaffolding is suddenly taken away. All the question types are mixed up together, and there’s no predicting what will come next. In addition, it is necessary to recall many different strategies and nuances of the test in rapid sequence, without any prompting about which ones are necessary. That’s a big strain on working memory. Most likely, the student was simply reading the questions and choosing answers without really considering what category each question fell into and what sort of approach would be required to answer it most effectively.

So if you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s my advice: You essentially have to create a bridge between the book and the test. Choose a couple of Reading sections and don’t worry about time. Go through each question and label it with its category (function, tone, inference, etc.).

Now, before you do each question, stop and review the strategy you need for it, e.g. remind yourself to read before and after the line reference for function questions, play positive/negative, and remember to mark off all the “supporting evidence” pairs.

Work this way for a couple of sections, or even a full test —  however long it takes for the process to become more automatic. The goal is to practice identifying which strategies are necessary and get used to applying them when no one (me) is holding up a sign telling you what to look for.

When the process feels more automatic, take a timed test and see what holds. Then repeat as necessary.