The reading sections on the ACT and SAT have long been sections of dread for students. Some students are not fond of reading in general, but most students (and myself) are not fond of reading topics they do not care about. The ACT and SAT, however, seem to love topics that students do not care about as evidenced by dull passages appearing on almost every test.
There’s an important catch, though. Although many students have expressed to me how the reading passages must be written by people who want to bore the life out of students, this isn’t true! It’s important to note it’s not true, too, because that idea can affect the way a student processes a passage. When I work with a student, I point out to them that on top of each passage is a copyright notice (this sometimes comes along with a sentence or two of context — so make sure to read it!). This reveals the passage was published for a mass audience before it appeared on a test. I have seen passages come from such well known publications as The New York Times, The Economist, The Washington Post, and countless science magazines. On occasion, I’ve even come across a passage from a book I’ve read.
“Okay, that’s nice trivia,” you might be saying, “but how can it help me on the test?”
Knowing that the passages are taken from real publications can change the way you interpret them. A lot of times, I meet with students who tell me that they look for the main idea when they read a passage on a standardized test — this is good, but I think they should go further. I tell them to look for the purpose it was written. Someone sat down and typed up the passage with intent to publish it, which means they had an audience in mind. Once a student knows this, they can then tailor new questions to ask themselves as they read. I usually suggest some form of the following, depending on a particular student’s strengths and weaknesses:
-What was the author trying to communicate?
-How did they go about trying to communicate their purpose to the reader?
-Did they try to influence the reader with their own bias or keep it neutral?
Asking those questions can help put students in the mind of the writer, as opposed to viewing the passage as something a test maker put together, which allows for better understanding of the passage.
This mindset change is key, but it is not necessarily easy. When students write, they do not write with a purpose in the same way the writers of a passage do. They write for a good grade, but they are not usually writing with a wide audience in mind; they are writing only for an English or History teacher. The writer of an ACT or SAT passage, by comparison, is writing to appeal to a large audience and trying to convince or inform that audience on a topic. This affects the way the author writes and, in turn, should also affect the way students read.
Changing one’s expectations while reading is difficult and cannot be an overnight adjustment. With practice, though, students can start to analyze passages’ purpose through a new lens that better reflects the passages’ original intentions and better prepares them to conquer the questions.
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