It's not a surprise that the College Board calls the Reading section of the SAT "Critical Reading." It's funny how the Math and Writing sections don't get an exciting adjective like "critical." The ACT section is just called "Reading' but rest assured, you also need to read critically on the ACT. What does it mean to read critically? Well, I'll tell you what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean skim the passage, fail to underline key words and ideas, or daydream about your future college. It doesn't mean ignore names, key facts, and dates. So how do you read with purpose? It's easier than you think.
To read critically requires attention, skill and most of all, confidence. You need to be confident that you know what the important ideas are. Where are the important ideas? Almost always in the beginning and toward the end of each paragraph and the passage as a whole. Remember, the SAT or ACT is predictable and the main idea is not going to be buried in a footnote or supporting detail. And when you find those ideas, don't forget to underline, circle or mark the passage to remind yourself why it’s important! I like to create little notes for myself next to each paragraph. By the time you get to the questions you're going to forget a lot of what you read, that's why it's important to underline and take some minor notes. You are in charge of the text--don't let the words bully you.
Whatever you do, don't leave the passage in the same state that you found it in: blank. Take control of the text and summarize with words that make sense to you. Believe it or not, some of the passages are poorly written or haphazardly organized. It's up to you to make sense of these passages and to understand the author's purpose, the tone, and why the author mentions certain key dates or individuals. At the end of the passage you should have a clear idea of what the main idea is. If you don't, you probably could have read more carefully and actively. Always jot down what the main idea is, even if it's just a couple of words. You will need to know what the main idea is to answer almost half, if not more, of the Critical Reading passage questions.
Luckily the SAT gives readers line cites for the questions but don't rely on these line cites alone to guide you to the answer. Make sure you read the questions carefully and answer what they are asking for! It sounds obvious but it's a lot harder to apply because sometimes the questions contain negating-type words like "NOT, BUT, EXCEPT." For these types of questions, use process of elimination.
There are four reading passages on the Reading portion of the ACT. Unlike the SAT,
there are no helpful (or distracting) line cites, so it's even more important to pay attention
to key ideas and names. Here's where jotting down notes next to the paragraphs for
each passage really comes in handy. Don't believe me? Try practicing one passage
without taking any notes or underlining and then try another one using your active
reading tools of underlining, circling, and margin notes. See a difference?
If you read with purpose, with attention, and attack the passage with confidence, you will be able to answer the questions not just quickly but also correctly. Try using these tips when you practice and see how it improves your score.
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