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The Right Way to Read


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Students often find that their SAT/ACT Reading score is the most challenging one to increase. Math and grammar are based on rules and formulas, but what is the secret to the Reading section?

More often than not, the high school students I work with face up against one of the following challenges: 

  1. They can’t finish their Reading sections in time because it takes them too long to read.
  2. They struggle with main idea or function questions.
  3. They don’t know how to make inferences based on the text. 

These challenges are daunting because they can’t be fixed the way math or grammar issues can. There may not be a formula or a rule to commit to memory that guarantees the correct answer the next time around. To make matters more complex, Reading sections hinge on the ability to differentiate between key points and ancillary information, but what is key and what is ancillary depends in part on one’s perspective. 

Imagine a passage about a young boy speaking disrespectfully to his grandmother after getting ditched by his friends at the beach. Should we pay closer attention to the reason for his disrespect or his grandmother’s surprising patience? What we pay attention to depends on the perspective and experience we bring to the passage, and in those regards, none of us are quite equal, so we pay attention to different things. Yet each multiple-choice question on these tests has only one correct answer. Some things are worth paying more attention to than others, and figuring out what’s important can be difficult.

For students who run into reading roadblocks, I recommend something they don’t expect. 

Read for yourself, I tell them. 

Find something that doesn’t feel like reading for school. I don’t care if it’s a novel, a newspaper, or a scientific journal. Whatever it is, you need to find something that doesn’t make you ask, “How many pages do I have left before I’m done?” You need to find something that you get lost in. It should have a kind of gravity that pulls you toward it. If you find something meaningful, it will return to your thoughts when you’re bored in class or stuck in traffic.

Once you find meaningful reading, you will surprise yourself with how many pages you turn, and if you sustain a period of intensive reading, the Reading section will feel different when you later return to it. Detecting literary techniques and identifying reasoning structure will no longer seem daunting and unfamiliar. They will be a simple matter of pattern recognition.

How to find meaningful reading

Because “meaningful reading” can’t be prescribed, figuring out what to read can take time. It has to be discovered by the individual seeking it. The first novel I remember meaning a lot to me was Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and that is probably because I was the same gender and about the same age as the novel’s protagonist. Identifying with characters is crucial to the enjoyment of a novel, so I encourage students to choose their books accordingly.

Meanwhile the first newspaper I read regularly was The Guardian because I was living in the UK at the time and I liked the way the website looked—both arbitrary reasons but good enough to get me started. Guardian articles made me conversant in matters of culture and politics. I liked the sense I got from reading that I understood the world better. I no longer needed my parents or my teachers to water it down for me. Little did I know, I was exposing myself to reasoning structures just beneath the surface of the prose, painstakingly crafted by some of the UK’s best journalists. It was excellent preparation for all non-literary passages on the SAT I later took. Moreover, my reading made me a citizen of the world, someone engaged in civic and cultural affairs.

Ender’s Game and The Guardian were at one point what meaningful reading looked like for me. I share that with students as a reference point, not a prescription. Students who want to do better on Reading sections should go to the library, the bookstore, or an online newspaper and look for the story that draws them in. Once they find it and follow its trail, their scores improve as if by magic.