After nearly two decades as a test prep teacher and tutor, I’ve heard a lot of conflicting advice for the SAT and ACT reading comprehension sections. Here’s a selection of my favorites:
- Look over the questions before you start to read.
- Just skim the passage.
- Read the first paragraph and the first sentence of every other paragraph.
- You don’t have time for deep reading.
- You don’t actually have to read the passage.
But these myths don’t hold up when you consider the nature of the SAT and ACT tests. Love them or hate them, these tests are based on decades of research and recognized by most of our colleges and universities as valid measures on which to base important decisions. A reading test is used specifically because many college classes require volumes of material that students will have to both read and retain, so colleges rightly want to know if their applicants are up to the task. Why would they accept a test where cheap tricks like the ones listed above can be easily substituted for the skill of reading?
I know teenagers well enough to understand they’re not lazy. Tricks appeal to them because they are optimists. Teens also trust the adults in their lives, and if a teacher or coach offers the suggestions listed above, good sense just doesn’t stand a chance. So, let me be the coach who offers solid advice on this one.
Start by reading the passage, without looking at the questions first. There are 10-12 questions after each passage, and that is more than your short term memory is able to hold. Reading the questions first is not a good use of your time.
Read the whole passage – every word – no skimming. According to the College Board, you’ll “need to understand what the author’s words imply. In other words, you have to read between the lines.” Skimming or skipping around just won’t give you the depth of understanding you’ll need to accurately answer questions like this. The wrong answers are designed to dupe students who only partially read the passage and then fill in the gaps with their own assumptions. (I call these “out of scope” wrong answer choices.)
Take brief notes as you read. This strategy will improve your focus and retention as you work through the passage. When you finish each paragraph, give your brain five seconds to transfer the information from your short term (10 second) memory to your long term (10 minute) memory. Without this pause, the next paragraph will wipe out the previous one, and when you get to the end of the passage you might only remember the last few sentences. I tell my SAT students to write about 4 words per paragraph and ACT students to write just one word or even circle the most important one. The point is that after every paragraph you should stop and think. Writing something down will accomplish that for you.
Work on accuracy first, then speed. It simply doesn’t matter how quickly you can circle the wrong answers. Practice one passage at a time, reading at your natural speed, and keep track of how many answers you get correct and how much time it takes you. (Seriously, make a spreadsheet.) Your top priority should be for the number of correct answers to increase. Once you have some experience in reading for understanding, finding the evidence needed for each question, and spotting the wrong answers, then you can try to do it all a little faster, if necessary. You should aim for 13 minutes per SAT passage and 9 minutes per ACT passage.
When you’re taking the actual test, you have a very limited amount of time to show your favorite colleges what you’re made of. This is not the time to cut corners or try out dubious tactics. If you prepare in advance and keep track of your progress, you’ll know for yourself exactly what works and what doesn’t.
One more thing – don’t forget what you learned about active reading when you get to college. My advice here is based on the psychological understanding of memory and metacognition, and they will work for college reading, too. When your professor tells you to read chapters 1, 2, and 3 for Wednesday’s class, attack that material with a pencil in hand and take a brief note for every paragraph. Not only will you remember it when you get to the bottom of the page, you’ll be more likely to remember it for the final exam as well!
Heather Krey, M.Ed. is the director of Test Prep for Success, located in Allentown, PA. She teaches test prep classes on site and offers private tutoring both locally and over Skype. Get in touch with her at