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Improve Reading Performance (ACT/SAT)


Standardized Test Prep High School & Up Strategy

Improve Reading Performance (ACT/SAT)

All students who are preparing for the ACT or SAT

Prioritize The Order Of Reading Passages

  1. Many students find the Reading section the most challenging because of the time constraints. However, remind yourself that all the answers must be justified by the passage. The goal is to find the most efficient way to pinpoint the supporting evidence that provides the only right answer.
  2. First, set a realistic goal for the number of passages you think you can complete to the best of your ability. Either take a practice test and self-evaluate or use your Mindprint Test Prep report to set your goal.
  3. Create a set order or plan in which you will complete the passages. Some students prefer to start with their area of highest interest. Others prefer to start with the passage that they think will be more challenging so they can get it over with. Consider if you are the type of person who needs time to ramp up or if you can work at a consistent pace throughout.
  4. Given your target number of passages, calculate the average time to spend per passage, allowing for a few minutes at the end to randomly guess on any remaining questions.
  5. Based on your time allocation above, calculate an average time for reading the passage and an average time per question. Sticking to a schedule and not spending too much time reading or trying to find a key detail is critical to success on the Reading section. If you cannot locate an answer you need, it is important that you allow yourself to guess and move on. Most students have no time to spare on the Reading.
  6. If you will not be tackling the passages in the order provided, have a strategy for marking your answer sheet to ensure you are filling in the answers correctly for the problems you are answering. For example, you might clearly cross off the question number that you have already filled in so you know it is done.

Identify Problems By Type

  1. Become familiar with the key categories of Reading questions: Main Idea/Purpose, Theme, Details, Inference/Opinion, Function, and Vocabulary in context.
  2. Make flashcards with the key words in questions that will signal the question category (e.g. Why is the author..., Which statement supports..., According to the passage, which is true..., Why does..., What is the purpose of..., As it is used, the word means...
  3. When practicing, mark up the questions as you read them. Circle the key phrase you memorized to alert you to the category. Underline what you specifically need to answer. Now you can accurately label each question before you tackle it.
  4. Have an approach you will use for each category. Begin to recognize the general ease or difficulty you have with each category of problem. (It might differ by the type of passage, so you might find Details easier in Science than in Prose). Determine an order for tackling the problems for the passage by category.
  5. Evaluate the trade-offs of labeling to decide if this is an effective strategy for you. Labeling is intended to improve your accuracy by helping you know which is the best way to approach the problem. However, if you are the type of student that might spend excessive time deciding on a label and lose valuable time answering, or already know which strategy without needing to label, this approach might not be efficient.

The Different Types Of Reading Questions

  1. Main Idea/Purpose. This is why the author is writing the passage. For the most part, in non-fiction the main idea will be relatively straight-forward and in the beginning of the passage. For literature, it could be more complex and, if so, might not be in the beginning. Regardless, all of the other sentences and paragraphs should support the main idea. If a sentence doesn't support the main idea you might have the wrong main idea. When in doubt, the more specific, detailed answer is usually the better choice.
  2. Theme. This is the message or lesson that the author wants to convey and is more nuanced than the main idea. Unlike the main idea, you might not be able to show how every sentence or detail backs up the theme. Similar to main idea questions, the more specific, detailed answer is usually the better choice when you cannot decide.
  3. Detail. These tend to be the most straight-forward where you will find specific evidence in the passage. The best way to attack these questions is to eliminate obviously wrong answers from your recollection of the reading. Then find the detail in the passage and confirm you have the correct answer. If you are not certain, try to eliminate answers that cannot be correct based on the passage.
  4. Inference/Opinion. These questions are most similar to Tone questions on the English section. Start by asking if the author is conveying a positive or negative point of view, which you can expect to be consistent throughout the passage. That alone should enable you to eliminate one or two answers. While not as easy to locate evidence as with Detail questions, you should be able to point to several adjectives or nouns to support the correct answer. As with Main Idea and Theme questions, when in doubt, the more detailed answer is usually the better one because the more specific, the harder to offer a contradictory example.
  5. Function. These questions ask why the author included a paragraph, phrase or detail. Start with your knowledge of the Main Idea or Theme. Decide how the element supports the Main Idea or Theme and you will likely have the right answer.
  6. Vocabulary in Context: Most of the vocabulary-related questions will be familiar words used in unfamiliar ways. Rather than memorizing words, you need to practice using the text to interpret the correct meaning in context. In other words, you need to go beyond the most common meaning of the word to understanding the meaning in the specific context of the passage. Even if you think you know the meaning of the word, always assume there might be an alternate definition of the word you might not be considering.Read the sentence and try to come up with your own word to replace the vocabulary word. Be careful to consider all the possible meanings of the sentence. Try to put away all your thoughts of what you have previously known the word to mean, as this could be a completely new definition to you.Look at the answer options and decide which of the answer choices is closest to your own word.Substitute your answer into the sentence to double check that it makes sense.
  7. When you come across these words while prepping, add this to your flash cards of words to memorize. If you memorize, be sure you memorize the definition along with the context so you can apply the word when you see it on the test.

Skim Questions First

  1. Note that this strategy does not work well for all students. Try it on a few passages to decide if it is a good fit for you before deciding to adopt this approach.
  2. Start with a quick preview of the questions. Remember your only goal is to answer the questions correctly, not to have a deep reading or understanding of the passage. Having an idea of what you will answer will help you focus while reading.
  3. Remind yourself that all of the answers MUST HAVE evidence in the passage. This is not what you think the author could be feeling, but what the author has provided you evidence that he is feeling. If you cannot prove an answer, it could be right but likely it is not the best answer.
  4. If questions refer to a series of lines or a particular phrase, mark those specific lines in the text.
  5. Read the passage at a relatively fast pace. Over time you should have a plan for maximum reading time per passage. Based on the questions, underline the important lines and make notes on the side that connect to questions. Generally you should look for the thesis in the last sentence of the introduction. Pay attention to opening sentences of paragraphs and the conclusion. If you are taking the SAT, read the preview sentence for the passage which can give you the main idea.
  6. If you reach a part of the passage you do not understand, do not get stuck. Keep reading and only go back if the questions relates to this part.
  7. Some students who read very slowly choose not to read the full passage and just read the lines necessary to answer the questions. If you take this approach, be sure to carefully read the sentence before and after the sentence with the answer so you are not fooled by a trick question. This approach can work but it will take a lot of practice.

Track Your Place Or Annotate

  1. If you have difficulty focusing your eyes or mind when reading, cover part of the page with your answer booklet as you are reading. Limiting the amount of words you are seeing at once can help focus. Alternatively, you can use your finger or pencil to track while you read.
  2. Jotting notes and/or underlining and circling key words and phrases in the passage as you read can also help you more efficiently answer the questions, so you do not have to sift through and pinpoint what you need when you refer back to the passage.
  3. Your annotations should include the main idea of each paragraph as well as the overall main idea of the passage. You know you will need to answer main idea questions. Jotting down the main idea of each paragraph will help you identify you have a main idea that encompasses the full passage. Also, it will make it easier to know which paragraph to find details.
  4. Create your own clear annotation scheme to use repeatedly. For example, box the thesis or main idea. Underline key phrases and words that are key supporting details. Circle adjectives that support the tone. Write notes in the margins if you make an inference. Your note should be just enough words to remind yourself why you want to remember the line.
  5. If a word or phrase seems out of place to you while reading, jot a note. Chances are this will be the key to a tricky question, and you will know where to re-read. Do not try to figure it out right away, but expect that you will need to understand it better when you start answering questions.

Act-specific Strategies

  1. Passages will always be in the following order: Prose Fiction, Social Sciences, Humanities, Natural Sciences.
  2. The Fiction passage usually has the most words and you might find it most challenging if verbal reasoning is not a relative strength.
  3. The Humanities or Prose Fiction passage might be two shorter comparison passages. While these questions are not necessarily more difficult, many students find that the comparison passage takes them longer.

Sat-specific Strategies

  1. Passages are not given in a pre-set order, but there will always be World Literature (1), Science (2), Social Studies (2). One of the five will be two shorter comparison passages.
  2. The short descriptive blurb that precedes the passage provides good background information to help you get started. It gives context about the passage's main idea, and what type of writing it is. Reading this will help.
  3. The questions are usually in sequential order, except that the main idea question might be first. You should save the main idea question for last, after you have been more thoroughly considering the passage by answering other questions.
  4. The science passages tend to be relatively straight-forward but you will likely need to use the graph to answer. Be sure to circle the data point on the graph so use the right number to answer the question.
  5. The paired passage questions will always be related. Try to use the answers provided in the second question to help you narrow your answers for the first question. Draw lines between the related answers between two questions. You only will need to evaluate pairs of answers.