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How to Answer the SAT® Passage-Based Reading Test Problems

The SAT Passage-based reading sections can produce time management challenges and difficulties for SAT-takers. Many students score poorly on these sections; however, using the IQ  KGS  PR CGS strategies and the general SAT test-taking strategies will help SAT-takers significantly increase their SAT scores on the passage-based critical reading section.

The publisher attempts to use unfamiliar subjects for its reading passages to compensate for outside knowledge and experience, but what you bring to the text in the way of experience and knowledge remains just as important as what they select for the readings.  So if you know the answer apart from the SAT reading, trust your own knowledge and answer accordingly.  The SAT reading cannot contradict facts. For medium-length, long, and paired SAT reading passages…

1. Read the short INTRODUCTION to the SAT reading passage first, reflecting on any prior knowledge or reading that relates to the subject. The introduction is printed in italics. Try to determine if the passage is expository or narrative from reading the introduction.

2. Read the QUESTION stems that follow the SAT reading passage twice. Previewing the question stems enhances comprehension and begins to access your outside knowledge before you begin to read. While reading the question stem the first time, circle the following KEY words:

  • “according to the author (passage)” Make sure to answer from this point of view.
  • “main idea” This is the most important thought of the passage.
  • “best” Another answer may be acceptable, but this one most closely fits.
  • “mainly” Not completely, but most importantly.
  • “chiefly” Compared to the others, this is above the rest.
  • “except” This identifies something that does not belong with the rest.
  • “some” Not all.
  • “implies (suggests)” The author has hinted at, but not directly stated.
  • “only” This means exclusively that one and no other.
  • “primarily” This means mainly or the chief one, before all others.
  • “most likely” A logical prediction or conclusion.
  • “similar” Asks for a comparison.
  • “differs” Asks for a contrast.
  • “most nearly means” Asks for the definition in context.
  • “assertions” Points to be made.
  • “most directly” Most specifically.
  • “imagery” A mental picture or image.
  • “tone” The manner in which something is said.
  • “organization” How the passage is structured.
  • “developed” How the thesis is proven throughout the passage.

3. Read the question stem a second time and mark each with a “G” if it is a GENERAL question and “S” if it is a SPECIFIC question. A general question stem is one that can be answered without looking back in the passage for specific details. “Best title,” or “the main idea,” or “the tone of the passage” are examples of general question stems on the SAT reading section. Sometimes they will have reading passage line numbers as reference; other times they will not. A specific question stem is one that cannot be answered unless you look back for the details in the passage. The specific question stem will always have a line number as reference.

If the passage is expository or persuasive:

4. PREVIEW the passage by reading the last sentence of the first paragraph. The thesis statement is found here in about 50% of all expository reading. Then read the first sentence in each body paragraph. The topic sentence is found her in about 80% of all expository reading.

5. READ the passage, carrying on a dialogue with the text. Focus on finding the sections that deal with the question stems that you have already read. Mark a CHECK by any answers to questions that you remember from reading the question stems.

If the passage is narrative:

4. PREVIEW the passage by reading the first and last sentence in the SAT reading sections. Frequently, the most important clues to the meaning of a short narrative passage are in these positions.

5. READ the passage, carrying on a dialogue with the text. Focus on finding the sections that deal with the question stems that you have already read. Mark a CHECK by any answers to questions that you remember from reading the question stems.

6. Answer the GENERAL question stems (those marked “G”) first. Guess on any general question stems of which you are not sure. Do not return to the general test problems for re-consideration. Then, go back and answer the SPECIFIC question stems. Take the time to hunt and peck throughout the passage, using the line number references, to find the right answers, if needed.

Some additional hints…

The Passage-based SAT reading test problems are a bit different than the Sentence Completion test problems. The Passage-based test problems are mixed up in terms of order of difficulty. They do not go from easy to hard. On the paired passages, some question stems relate to both passages.

The tone of an ethnically related passage is always positive, so the correct answer choices should reflect this focus.

The SAT reading sections always refers to doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, scientists, and educators with respect. Keep this in mind when selecting answer choices.

For paired passages, complete the test problems for the first passage before reading the second passage. Mark a “1” after the “G” or “S” after reading the question stem the second time.

The answer to a test problem that has a line reference number will often not be in the specific line cited. Many times the answer is found up or down a few lines from the line reference.

Find other reading strategies, including fluency assessments and multi-level fluency passages on seven CDs with corresponding comprehension worksheets, as well as complete diagnostic reading assessments on two CDs, blending and syllabication activities, phonemic awareness and phonics workshops,  390 flashcards, posters, games, and more to differentiate reading instruction in Teaching Reading Strategies. Also, check out the vocabulary strategies/actvities in Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary.

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