SAT Critical Reading
The Critical reading section on the SAT has always proved difficult for students to improve on. Besides building the requisite minimum vocabulary base, the section has no hard rules, and instead demands constant critical thinking from the student, with questions that have no easily discernible pattern. It’s the hardest section of the test, in my opinion, with Math a close second and Writing a distant third.
I did not take the same Critical Reading portion as a high school student. In 2001 the SAT consisted of a Math and Verbal section, on which I scored 800 and 680 respectively. The Verbal section was more vocabulary-based back then, while the Reading section is more reading-based now. Eight years later, at the age of 25, I sat for the new SAT. This was after having 2 years of SAT teaching experience. I scored an 800 on the Reading, and high 700’s on the Math and Writing (~770). It’s impossible to state definitively what I would have scored in high school, so I’ll leave that question aside. Instead, I will focus on what allowed me to score 800 that time around, and 800 or close to it in all subsequent retakes.
Also note that I only address reading questions, not vocabulary questions, in this writeup.
First, I will examine my method, or lack thereof, of taking the SAT Reading. I start by reading the entire passage, including the several italicized sentences at the beginning which establish context. I do not look at the questions beforehand and I generally do not underline as I read. I read at a brisk, but not rushed, pace, trying to get a 90-95% level of understanding of what I’ve read (for practical purposes as far as answering questions is concerned, 90-95% understanding is enough). Sometimes my mind wanders, and I’ll read a paragraph but have no idea what I’ve just read, and I’ll go back and read it again until I’ve understood it.
Upon finishing, I hold the ideas, theme, logic, and narrator color of emotion in my head, which tends to the general rather than the specific. For details, I can always return to the passage and read more carefully, but for the main idea, theme, or narrator’s tone, I refer to this general impression I have of the passage, which as I stated, contains ideas, theme, logic, emotion, etc.
I move on to the questions immediately, and answer them in order. For most of the easier to medium questions, I rely on the general impression of the passage or the context of the line, which is enough to get the answer fairly quickly (anywhere from 10-20 seconds). Heavy thinking logic is not generally needed at this level. For questions about specific meanings of words or author’s intent of writing a particular sentence or phrase, it’s enough to refer to the lines before and after to get the answer. For questions about overall tone or idea, I may skim the passage again to refresh my general impression.
All during the portion of the Reading section, for 20-25 minutes, I am completely focused. I am able to concentrate during tests in this manner, without much mind wandering or my brain simply shutting down. The ability to focus is quite critical because just a few seconds of mind wandering can allow the student to miss a crucial word or sentence that affects his impression of the passage. By ‘affect’ I mean, render the passage incomplete or inaccurate or unfull, in some way. Focus also helps with the level 5 (hardest) difficulty questions, which generally ask you to hold several ideas in your brain and compare the logic or meanings between them. These require serious brain processing power, and loss of focus generally does not turn out well. Some of the 5 difficulty questions could require a minute or more of reading and thinking: comparing idea to idea, questioning logic, examining ideas, etc.
When it comes to eliminating or selecting answer choices, I use a combination of strategies. Most are probably well-known to experienced test-takers but an elucidation is still in order. Generally, when I read a question, I do not have the answer already in mind. My brain does not hold the answers at the moment. All it holds is the impression I have of the passage, without details. After reading the question, I refer back to the passage, and find the context of the question, read it again, and then hold what I’ve just read in my head. Now I read the answer choices, comparing each one to what I’m holding in my head. Now, at this level, my intuition or ‘fuzzy thinking” is very much predominant. Using logic to eliminate obvious answer choices requires too much effort. Obviously wrong answers which have no relevance to the question can be eliminated without examination of the logic involved or any explanation to oneself.
After eliminating the wrong answers based on intuition, or, a ‘fuzzy’ sense of incorrectness, I narrow the answer down to either one or two choices. If there is only one choice left, I engage my hard-thinking center, and check it for consistency. This usually doesn’t require more than a few seconds. If there are two answer choices left, here I must also engage my hard-thinking center. I refer back to my general impression of the reading, or to what I have just re-read, and use a combination of intuition and hard-thinking logic to arrive at the “better” answer. What constitutes “better” is subjective, obviously, but why an answer is more correct or incorrect than another can usually be explained.
A method I use for comparing two answers is to imagine what the passage would look like if each answer was the correct one. Let’s say that the question asks you to describe the general tone of the passage, and you have eliminated all but several answer choices:
A, affectionate nostalgia;
B, analytical detachment;
and C, personal regret.
This tool of imagination is useful because it allows me to envision what the passage should look like if an answer is correct. In order to use this method, you must know the meaning of the answer. Affection means showing kindness or care towards someone; nostalgia means looking back on the past wistfully (these definitions don’t have to be 100% accurate, only in the ballpark). So a passage with a tone of “affectionate nostalgia” would involve both showing kindness towards someone and remembering the past. I imagine that A is the correct answer, and envision the passage with many instances of happy remembrance, perhaps involving a certain special person. This passage would be extremely personal, as the nature of nostalgia demands, and also must be written in a wistful tone (nostalgia), with positive emotions expressed towards someone (affectionate).
If the actual passage looks nothing like what I’ve envisioned, then I can safely eliminate answer choice A.
Let’s imagine B. Analytical means analyzing; detachment means from an objective viewpoint, or at least from a viewpoint not closely attached or emotionally tied. This seems to be a pretty standard approach to lots of writing. At least by Western academic philosophy, analyzing and detachment from the subject tend to be related, and quite common in newspapers, academic essays, and the like.
So, I imagine the reading passage to examine the ideas within from an impersonal view, without much author interjection of his personal opinion or feelings. Facts, dates, figures are stated with precision, from a 3rd person point of view, without much or no uses of “I think” or “I believe” or “I feel”.
If I imagine C, the passage is similar to answer choice A: personal and looking back on the past. But regret is different from nostalgia, as the former implies remembering the past and lamenting actions taken or not taken, while the latter means remembering with fondness. The distinction is slight but marked. Perhaps this passage will have many memories and the author’s sadness in remembering them. He will probably express feelings of remorse or of “what could have been” if only he had made a different decision.
All three of these passages are quite different from each other, and if I fully utilize my imagination I can compare what I’ve envisioned to the actual passage itself. Crucial to utilizing this method is a solid understanding of the meaning of the words in the answer choices, just as that understanding is required to solve most reading questions.
I believe most students with high SAT reading scores use a similar method to mine. What separates an 800 from a 700 score is a student’s ability to use the method.
What goes through a student’s mind when he takes the SAT Reading? It’s important to analyze this process because the area in which the student makes any misstep is an area that needs to be focused on, with special emphasis to the student to be made aware of it.
I define “misstep” as any area or way of thinking that lowers the chance of answering all questions perfectly.
The first area where students can get derailed is in the initial reading phase. All of us read the same passage, but the better-performing readers receive a richer impression than the lower-performing. “Richer” is a vague term so I’ll attempt to clarify what it entails. Every word or phrase brings images to our mind. These images are based on what we associate the word with. More experienced readers generally have more concrete, vivid, and accurate images than inexperienced readers do. Experienced readers have seen the word in more contexts, and used in more ways, or perhaps used in one way more often, and so the images the word brings to mind are sharper and crisper, and often more accurate than the images the inexperienced reader can conjure.
This is why many ESL students find the reading section so difficult. Their impression of the reading is generally quite poor because of the low quality of the images they’ve associated with words, even if they know their dictionary meaning.
So, the inexperienced reader does not gain as complete a picture as is possible. That is the first step off course – an imprecise understanding of the logic, the arguments, the ideas, the ‘color’ or tone, and the context of the reading.
Also, note that receiving an incomplete picture of the passage is not limited to ESL students or inexperienced readers. If an experienced reader is tired or unfocused, he will receive an incomplete picture as well.
Next come the questions, which a reader with a rich impression of the reading will answer more accurately. It is as if people are asked to pinpoint major neighborhoods and streets in Manhattan, and everyone is given the same tourist city map. If one person is a long-time Manhattan resident, he will have a more complete map than everyone else, and his answers will be more accurate. He is better able to pinpoint where streets and neighborhoods are located. He is using the same information (the map, or in our case, the reading passage), but is able to build a clearer, more accurate picture, allowing him to pinpoint exact locations more precisely. This exercise – pinpointing exact meanings or tones or arguments – is precisely what the SAT reading consists of.
However, going along with our map analogy, people who have not lived in Manhattan should still be able to complete the exercise without error, assuming the map is accurate and detailed enough, and they are competent in reading maps. All the information is on the page, and if they can process the information accurately, they are still able to answer all the questions correctly. This is the situation most often found in SAT students, who may not have much background knowledge on the topic but should still be able to answer the questions.
As for answering the questions, that requires a different set of skills, quite different from building the impression. This set of skills is more logic related, and actually does not have much to do with reading in the strictest sense.
One common path towards mistake is for the student to be intellectually lazy. Some students have not mastered, or have little to no practice, in thinking. They are like calculators. They have learned to take in information and spit out “correct” answers, or at least what they believe the teacher wants to hear. This is a consequence of our educational system which, despite some educators’ best efforts, still places misguided emphasis on test-taking and grades, rather than teaching students to think critically and independently.
This lazy logic leads the student to select superficially correct answers without cross-examining them first. I’ve said before that eliminating answer choices is part intuition and fuzzy sense, part hard thinking. Most students can utilize their intuition to eliminate obviously wrong answers, but they stumble at the second, and harder, step: choosing the better answer of the two. This requires hard thinking.
Eliminating wrong answer choices is a crucial step in the SAT reading. When the brain is lazy, or tired, it will default to the superficial answer choice without critically examining it, as the examination requires effort which the brain is unwilling to make. Superficial, incorrect answer choices then seem as reasonable as the correct one.
The book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman has a solid explanation of this and has given me words to describe many of my initial ideas. We all have two systems of thinking, Systems 1 and 2. System 1 engages in intuitive thinking, allowing us to make intellectual shortcuts and quick decisions. System 2 is our more rational, skeptical, hard logic center. It is trained through education and is our method of controlling our instinctive, intuitive System 1. When the student is tired, he will default to System 1 thinking, which is biased to believe, and not engage System 2 thinking, which is in charge of doubting and unbelieving. This is why students will select answers that others can see are clearly wrong – the students’ system 2 is busy or simply turned off, and they are not checking the incorrect answer for logical inconsistencies.
Also, please note that system 1 is engaged in the first reading of the passage and the building of the impression the student has. System 1 excels at constructing the best possible story of what it sees, but it cannot and does not allow for information it does not have. Thus, if a student lacks background context of the subject or doesn’t understand the meaning of words or phrases in the passage, the map/picture impression he has of the passage will be incomplete.
Thus, both Systems 1 and Systems 2 thinking are necessary in the SAT reading section. Systems 1 is utilized in building overall picture and impression of the passage as well as eliminating obviously wrong answer choices which do not fit in this picture. Systems 2 is involved in elimination of ‘fuzzy’ answer choices which Systems 1 intuition can not eliminate. Only the hard logic and doubting of System 2 can accurately process the answers – that is, arrive at the correct one.
In the words of Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow,
“The process involves both System 1 and System 2. In the first phase, a tentative plan comes to mind by an automatic function of associative memory – System 1. The next phase is a deliberate process in which the plan is mentally simulated to check if it will work – an operation of System 2.”
So, to summarize the problem-solving process for SAT Reading questions, but this time in terms from Thinking, Fast and Slow:
When students read, they form an intuitive, quick answer through their System 1 memory. The more accurate their memory or understanding of the reading, the more accurate, or closer to the answer, their answer guess will be. Then, they check the answer, either using the imagination method I previously described or some other logical checklist.
What does this mean for the student who wishes to improve?
The student must work on improving both his Systems 1 and Systems 2 thinking. In other words, he must improve his ability to build his map/picture impression (System 1) of the reading as well as his ability to critically analyze logic in questions (System 2).
Systems 1 building
Systems 1 building of map/picture impression can be improved in two ways: vocabulary building and background knowledge.
Vocabulary building does not, as many students and tutors mistakenly believe, consist solely of memorizing one-word definition synonyms of common SAT words. That strategy is helpful, especially for the vocabulary portion, but is insufficient in building long-term reading mastery. It is simply an initial step, one that gives the students a push towards that all-important process of bringing images to the mind when they see a word. The subsequent and more time-consuming steps involve building a rich word image bank (a collection of images associated with that word). This collection consists of all the situations and contexts one has seen the word used in, as well as the contexts oneself has (correctly) used the word.
Most heavy readers have rich word image banks from the many instances of seeing a word used in different contexts. It is time-consuming, perhaps too much so, to duplicate this process for SAT students. If the student has time, then the strategy should be to read widely, and read closely, looking up definitions all the while. If time is an issue, the student should prepare by first learning the definition of the word, then finding 10 instances of the word and attempting to understand the word as it is used in that particular context. In effect it is an accelerated strategy to mimic the more organic production of rich word image banks produced by heavy reading.
The second way to improve Systems 1 building of map/picture impression is to give the reader background knowledge of the reading. This is a long, and mostly organic, process, by which the reader reads for personal interest or for school and gains knowledge about any number of subject areas: natural sciences, art, philosophy, society, politics, journalism, etc. Background knowledge can be extremely helpful because the reader has a greater chance of having encountered the logic and arguments presented in the passage, and consequently can form a stronger map/picture impression upon reading. The reader can follow the arguments and logic easier, and can focus perhaps more on certain details, such as examples or specific vocabulary words.
Again, because time is an issue for many students, the accelerated process is to find the most common subjects and themes of SAT reading passages, and expose the student to them. I estimate 50 of these should suffice, presented in segments of 30 minutes.
Systems 2 improvement, or, improving the ability to think
Improving students’ ability to think is a task usually reserved for schools. Instruction in how to analyze and deconstruct arguments, in using logic to solve problems and arrive at conclusions, all require time and practice, and much patience from the teacher.
Sadly, SAT reading scores are at their lowest in 40 years (496 as of 2012), though really we only have the years from 2005 onwards with which to make a fair comparison of, as the years preceding 2005 a different test altogether was administered. It’s prudent to not draw conclusions from this statistic, as there could be many factors for the lower reading scores, but the fact remains that the SAT Reading is difficult for many students, and inadequate school instruction may be in part to blame.
So what can be done? What are the most time-efficient, effective strategies in teaching a student this “hard-thinking”, as I call it, in time for the SATs?
The answer isn’t simple, and many students may find it too hard: the student needs to want to learn how to think, and then take the subsequent step of actually learning how to think. Frankly, many students don’t have the requisite motivation to learn. They are fixated on high SAT scores or grades without any consideration to their education, which is wholly independent of externally-given scores. Without motivation to learn how to think, students will take shortcuts in arriving at answers, and never develop the logic required to think at deeper levels. So, correcting this short-sighted, grade-focused attitude is the first challenge.
First, I tell my students that I’m actually not here to teach them how to crack the SAT reading, or whatever marketing nonsense Princeton Review believes will sell more books. I’m not here to teach tricks or shortcuts. I’m here to teach them the hard, but right, way of thinking logically and precisely. I’m here to stamp out sloppy thinking, a plague in our educational system and nation. Some Test Prep teachers actually care about more than test scores. We can harness the time used in preparation for the test to instruct students in how to think at a higher, more accurate level, whether that involves solving math problems, deconstructing the grammar of a sentence, or correctly determining an author’s tone.
If the student takes to this argument, and identifies with it, the process is easier, as we can expend more effort on analyzing the why and the how in the reading rather than moving at a breakneck pace in an attempt to improve scores only (ironically, focusing on scores may be the worst way to improve on the Reading section, as the student may focus on techniques and problem-solving gimmicks rather than taking the time to improve more abstract, general thinking skills). I tell my students to turn their brain on, to think clearly, not sloppily or lazily. Some students need to be reminded to do this, for either they are too brain-dead from the amount of homework they receive or they simply have not exercised that part of their brain. Then, we analyze SAT Reading problem logic slowly and thoroughly. I make the student explain his thought process behind what he feels are incorrect and correct answers. I allow intuitive thinking to an extent. Remember that this ‘fuzzy’ logic is useful in that it allows us to eliminate incorrect answers quickly and accurately up to a point. I have my students attempt to narrow down the answers to the two best, at which point I remind them this is the time to engage in hard-thinking. Now they must engage Systems 2 thinking and use their doubt and unbelieving logic to eliminate the wrong answer. Many students still engage in lazy thinking at this juncture, and simply choose one of the two answers without a clear reason why. They are engaged in Systems 1 Intuitive thinking and are simply making a 50/50 guess in hopes they’ll get it correct. Sadly, they either don’t care about improving their thinking skills or have no faith in their ability to do so, and simply want to not appear stupid or as if they don’t know something. The latter is in part the fault of the teacher, who must make the student comfortable in recognizing and admitting when he doesn’t know something.
If the student does engage in Systems 2 thinking, we can use several methods to eliminate wrong answers. Imagining what the answer choices would make the reading passage look like is one. Examining the passage for evidence for or against an answer is another. Now, please note that part of answering correctly is the ability to map an answer to the image in a reader’s head, an image formed by System 1. If a student has an inaccurate image of passage, whether formed through poor word image banks or loss of focus in certain areas, Systems 2 thinking may not be enough to solve the question, or worse, may lead the answer to the incorrect answer. Remember that Systems 1 cannot know what it does not know. So in some cases, the reader will answer incorrectly NOT through imprecise logic or lack of thinking, but because his image of the passage is incomplete or flawed in some way. The best solution for this problem is be honest with yourself and recognize when you are unsure of the answer even after having used hard thinking. If hard thinking alone does not make the answer apparent then most likely the student’s image of the passage or paragraph or word is incomplete. At this point the student should NOT haphazardly choose an answer, but instead re-read the passage or section closely, attempting to fill in gaps of understanding. Once the student has re-read and formed a more accurate understanding, a correct or incorrect answer should be obvious or at least, clearer.
For students who start with weaker foundations, the process will take time and effort. A student with an average foundation (most American public school students), with an initial score of 600, would require 1 year. A student with an above-average foundation (700+) could require from 3 to 6 months. But not only are the higher SAT Reading scores very impressive in this period of the lowest average SAT Reading scores in the SAT’s history…
Developing better thinking skills improves all aspects of a students’ life, because the mind is the greatest tool a person can have. Better thinkers make better decisions, which lead to better outcomes, which generally lead to happier, more successful, and more fulfilled lives, however you wish to define each.

SAT Reading Guide – quick notes
Common Errors
We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing – what we see is all there is.
Student doesn’t have a rich representation of images that words bring.
Engages in level 1 intuitive thinking too much. Ie. Doesn’t check or think about answers. Might be ego depleted in class.
Even a nonsensical statement will provoke initial belief – an automatic operation of System 1.
Unbelieving is an operation of System 2.
System 1 is gullible and biased to believe. System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but Systems 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy.
When system 2 is otherwise engaged, we will believe almost anything.
Understanding a statement must begin with an attempt to believe it: you must first know what the idea would mean if it were true. Only then can you decide whether or not to unbelieve it.
System 1 excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have.

My vocab list:

I do not consider any student fully prepared for the SAT Reading section until he/she has gone through the list several times and learned every word.