How to Ace the SAT Reading Section

How do you get through the entire SAT reading section in just 65 minutes, let alone ace it? With a few strategies and a bit of knowledge about how you read, you can conquer the tricky SAT reading section and boost your overall score.

Cristina, our resident SAT guru here at The Olive Book, has put together 5 strategies for the 5 types of passages you’ll encounter on the SAT reading section, as well as 3 tips on answering the accompanying questions. These strategies and tips for the SAT reading section should help you focus your study efforts on what is KEY to acing this section.

But before that, we’re going to learn a little bit about how your brain reads.

Listen to The Voice in Your Head

In order to be successful in the reading comprehension section, you must do two things well:

  1. You must read the passage effectively, so that you understand its content and can efficiently return to the passage when you need to find answers to questions.  
  2. You must answer the questions correctly. Sometimes you can completely understand a passage, yet not do well when it comes to answering the questions – simply because of how the questions are phrased or even how the answers are worded.  

In order to do these two things well, you need to stay engaged in the passage you’re reading. Sometimes the passage is interesting, so this is really easy. Other times, you’ll get a passage that makes your eyes cross and your head nod.

So how do you stay engaged, no matter the reading material? You stay engaged by creating mental tasks to complete as you read. If your brain has something to do while you read, you’ve transitioned from passive reading to active reading – and that’s where the good stuff happens.

So what is active reading? To answer this question, we’re going to get really specific about how your brain reads – or as we like to call it, your brain voice.

Do you hear the words you read as you read them? If you do, that’s your brain voice! Your brain voice is the voice you hear as you read that pauses at commas or reflects the tone of a phrase. These changes to your internal brain voice offer hints to help you understand what the author is really saying.

You can also use your brain voice to skim passages, which is sometimes necessary for denser material. Skim the passage by “hearing” with your brain voice only the important words or topic sentences. The rest of the time, you allow your brain voice to mumble (literally) through the details.  

By staying alert to your brain voice, you stay engaged in the reading passage and are far more likely to retain what you are reading. This is super important, because it can save you from spending time returning to the passage later when you’re answering questions!

So, how does paying attention to the voice in your head help you read at the right pace and pay attention to the right stuff? It depends on the type of passage.

Your mind is going to participate and engage with the different passages in different ways. Listen up: the KEY to reading comprehension is understanding the specific ways that you actively read a given passage. So what are our strategies for conquering each of these passages?

5 Reading Strategies for the 5 SAT Reading Passage Types

First, there are five main types of passages that you will encounter: narrative or prose passages, natural science, social science, humanities, and paired passages, which usually fall under the social science or natural science designation.

On the test, you’ll have 65 minutes total to read four single passages and one pair of passages. Each passage is 500 to 750 words and there are 10 or 11 questions per passage. That averages out to about a minute per question. That’s not a lot of time – you need to have some type of strategy as to how you’ll cover all this ground.

Additionally, some of the passages contain graphics, like pie charts, bar graphs, line graphs, or tables. These graphics are not complicated, but it’s important to know that they may appear. The questions that accompanying them are usually fairly easy to answer as well.

You can apply different strategies to each section to make the most of your time when completing the SAT reading section:

Prose Strategy: Forget the plot

Forget the plot (except for conflicts between characters or big decisions made by characters) and instead get a feel for the tone/emotions. Hear all the words in your head using your brain voice, and use your intonation to help understand the subtext, or meaning behind the words.  Read at a pace that allows you to digest the story. You should only need to return to the passage for a few questions.

Natural Science Strategy: Ignore the details and focus on the main idea and passage structure.  

Ignore the details in this passage (there are way too many!) and focus on the main idea and the structure of the passage. You do not need to understand the passage completely, but you do need to understand the main idea, the argument, the structure of the passage, and if the author presents additional or conflicting viewpoints. You will need to read at a quicker pace that allows you to skim the passage by hearing with your brain voice only the important words or topic sentences. The rest of the time, you allow your brain voice to mumble (literally) through the details.  

Social Science: Skim the passage and rephrase it

Your strategy for the social science passage is a combination of strategies for the first two passage types. “Hear” your voice as you read until you hit a dense, rambling sentence, then skim (mumble) through it. Once you have reached the end of the sentence, you take a second (literally about one second) and “say” in your head as simply as possible what exactly that sentence meant.

What you’re doing is skimming the passage by hearing only the important words and constantly checking your understanding by rephrasing the passage in your own words. Focus on the main idea and passage structure while also looking for why the author wrote this. Is there a bias? Is it informative or persuasive?

Humanities: Hear the words in your head

For the humanities passage, use your brain voice to hear the words in your head, and use your intonation to help understand the subtext of each sentence. When necessary, check for understanding by rephrasing the passage in your own words. Focus on the main idea and passage structure. Your job is to determine the purpose of the passage. Why did the author write this?

Paired: Focus on how the passages relate

The paired passages are usually two natural science or social science passages, so you can use some techniques from those passages when reading. However, your goal when reading these passages is to figure out how they relate. When considering how the passages relate to one another, think about these options:

Do the passages express different opinions or perspectives on the same issue?

Does one passage present a problem while the other passage offers a solution?

Does one passage present a theory while the other passage offers evidence to support the theory?

Or maybe each passage presents the same evidence but comes to differing conclusions?

Basically, the passages will agree on some points and disagree on others. To help you clarify what you’ve read, after you read the first passage write or think of one sentence to summarize the passage. Then after you read the second passage try to come up with one sentence that doesn’t just summarize the passage but relates it back to the first. The simpler the sentence the better!

Ok, so now that you know how to read the passages…what’s your strategy for answering the questions?

3 Tips for Answering the SAT Reading Section Questions

There are three basic approaches to answering the reading section questions.

The first approach is to read the question and before reading the choices, decide on an answer in your head, and then answer the question. Or, decide on an answer in your head and return to the passage to confirm your answer. Or, before reading the answer choices, decide that you know exactly where in the passage to find the answer, return to that spot in the passage, then say the answer in your own words.

The key here is to know the answer in your head before reading the answer choices. Once you’ve decided on an answer, then you can review the answer choices and find the one that matches what you decided. This is the fastest way to answer the questions – but not all questions can be answered this way.

The second approach is to read the question and look through answer choices for the answer. This is an approach you would use if you don’t immediately know the answer to the question upon reading it, but you feel like you’d know the answer if you saw it. If you need to confirm your choice, look back in the passage with purpose. Never go back to the passage unsure about what you’re looking for. Once you confirm your answer choice, circle it and move on.

The third approach comes as a result of striking out on approaches one and two. Maybe you’ve attempted option one or two, but you’re not seeing satisfactory answers. In our third approach, you have to decide what answers are wrong.

This is where process of elimination comes in. Move through each answer choice and decide if it is correct or incorrect. Remember, some of these questions can be tricky, and could appear to have two correct answers. Focus in on what the question is really asking. You should be left with only one best answer.

Be comfortable with the fact that these questions happen, and the process that you follow when they come up. If you’re really stumped, just pick an answer and move on – these things happen.

One final tip – the SAT loves the “evidence based questions” that ask you to select the passage excerpt that best supports your answer. There are usually 2 per passage. If you tend to struggle with these questions, make sure to study them well.

The Key to the SAT Reading Section

Remember, the KEY to reading comprehension is understanding the specific ways that you actively read a given passage and becoming comfortable with changing how and what you focus on when reading different types of passages.

If you have lots of time before the test, the best thing you can do to prepare is read more. Read a variety of material: read newspapers, read magazine articles, read books or letters from before the year 1900. You want to get comfortable with all types of passages you could encounter on the test.

But it’s ok if you don’t have that much time, because remember, the KEY is breaking down what your brain is doing similarly and differently when you read these different passages. By having tasks or things for your mind to focus on while you read, you have guaranteed that you are less likely to space out while reading, even if the passage does not interest you.

And the more engaged you are in the passage, the better you will comprehend it and the more likely you are to ACE the SAT reading section.

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