The SAT Reading Comprehension: Basic Principles
In This Article:
You'd think SAT passages could have hundreds of possible openings. Amazingly, however, you can count on one of three variations for the first sentence of any SAT passage. In order of likelihood, here are the three possibilities for the first sentence of every SAT passage:
Opening Variation #1: The first sentence will set out the conventional wisdom. You already know that if this is the case, the main idea will almost certainly appear in the last sentence of the first paragraph or the first sentence of the second paragraph.
Opening Variation #2: The first sentence will be an introductory statement providing background for the topic. The main idea will occur anywhere in the first paragraph, probably in the last sentence. If a question is asked in the first paragraph, the main idea will be the answer to that question.
Opening Variation #3: The first sentence will articulate the author's main idea. The rest of the first paragraph will go on to elaborate on that idea. Sometimes the author then contrasts his main idea with the conventional wisdom before returning to develop his idea with details and examples.
Once you've "gotten a fix" on the opening paragraph and the author's main idea, you'll have a much easier time following the rest of the passage as it unfolds.
If You're Confused by the End of the First ParagraphStop!
Sometimes you'll come across a passage so difficultor poorly writtenthat you're confused way before you even reach the second paragraph. You may think that if you continue reading, sooner or later the passage will begin to make sense. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that you become even more confused.
It's absolutely crucial that you come to grips with the main idea of the passage. Until you do, the details won't make much, if any, sense. Since the author frequently sums up his or her point in the last sentence or two of the passage, go directly to the last paragraph. By reading the last few lines carefully, you should get a much better grasp of the author's main idea.
If you don't understand the first paragraph, immediately skip down to the final paragraph and read the last sentence carefully. Once you've gotten a handle on the main idea, return to the first paragraph and proceed with the rest of the passage. Now the text should make a lot more sense.
Step 2: Once You've Identified the Main Idea, Speed Up and Force Yourself to Ignore the Details
No question about it, skimming a passage under time pressure is uncomfortable and sometimes quite scary. (Like many other things about taking the SAT, the best way is often the scariest if it weren't scary, many more students would be achieving outstanding scores, as we discussed in Knowing What to Do on the SATand Being Able to Do It).
So you have to train yourself not to pay attention to the details, because your natural inclination will be to try to absorb as much as possible, and probably underline the material you can't absorb.
Big mistake. As we've discussed at length, your short-term memory can handle only so much before it gets overwhelmed and short-circuits your ability to think. What's more, a typical passage on the SAT contains dozens if not hundreds of factsand yet the number of factual questions on a passage will be at most eight. In other words, most of the facts in an SAT passage are completely unrelated to any questions you have to answer. Remember, too, that when you get to the questions, you can always look back to the passage to find any fact or detail you need to verify.
A helpful mindset to adopt is to think of reading an SAT passage in the same way you would listen to a long-winded friend who blathers on and on until you want to scream out in exasperation, "Could you please get to the point?!"
Important facts and secondary ideas are often found in sentences that contain direction reversal words. By far the most common such word on the SAT is but. Other words include although, despite, except, however, though, and yet. Whenever you see one of these words in a passage, circle the wordthe sentence may come in handy when you reach the questions.
Underline as You Read Sparingly Only, If at All
You know you're getting lost in the details if you find yourself underlining every other phrase or sentence. These are precisely the things that clog up your short-term memory and clog your brain. If underlining helps you focus while you read, finebut try to keep it to a minimum. And whatever you do, don't waste time wondering whether you should underline something or not. The clock's ticking. Underline it or not, but keep moving.
Take a Long Breath NowI'm Throwing You into the Deep End
We'll examine our basic approach in more detail shortly. Before we do, I want you to complete the next drill. The following passage is typical of the subject matter and of the kinds of questions you can expect on the SAT. You'll have 12 minutes to read the passage and answer the questions. The passage is long, and of medium-to-hard difficulty. Longer passages on the SAT contain more details than do the shorter passages, but they rarely contain more ideas.
The longer SAT passages may be preceded by a brief italicized introduction. This two- or three-sentence preface contains background information about the author or the passage to place the excerpt in a context for you.
You may be tempted to skip a passage's introduction "to save time." Don't. No questions will be asked about the introduction, but you can scan it in a few seconds and the background it provides may offer you a useful insight.
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From The RocketReview Revolution: The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT and the PSAT by Adam Robinson. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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