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SAT Critical Reading -PrepScholar 2016 Students' Encyclopedia


 The Critical Reading section of the SAT tests students' literacy skills, in particular their reading comprehension and understanding of vocabulary. It is meant to measure students' ability to understand written English on the level needed for success in college courses. Top scorers on this section tend to use methods of speed reading and skimming for important details to their advantage, as Critical Reading questions simultaneously require close reading and efficiency. Studies have also shown that maintaining a mindset of interest in the passages aids a reader's retention of facts and details.

Note: this article is a series in the PrepScholar 2016 Students' Encyclopedia, a free students' and parents' SAT / ACT guide that provides encyclopedic knowledge.  Read all the articles here!

While students may be accustomed to debating various points of view within their English classrooms, they will not find room for subjective opinion on the SAT Critical Reading. Instead, each question has only one, unambiguously correct answer, even questions that ask for inference or interpretation. Preparation with SAT materials can help students apply their skills of reading comprehension to SAT Critical Reading questions that may differ from traditional classroom approaches.

Critical Reading sections are interspersed throughout the test with Mathematics and Writing sections. There are two 25 minute sections and one 20 minute section for a total of 70 minutes. The Critical Reading section asks a total of 67 questions, all of which are multiple choice.

If students encounter three 25 minute Critical Reading sections on the SAT, then one of them is experimental and will not be scored. On recently administered tests, students have reported encountering unexpected Critical Reading questions that involved a "base question," followed by several "evidence questions" that referred back to it. For instance, an evidence question might take the form of, "Which of the following provides the best evidence for the previous question?"

Since this format is not characteristic of questions on the Critical Reading section, it is likely that these questions appeared on the experimental, or variable, section in order to test out new material for the redesigned SAT starting in March of 2016. Apart from these unconfirmed clues, students have no way of knowing exactly which SAT section is experimental and benefit from treating all sections as important for their overall score.

There are two main types of questions within Critical Reading: passage-based questions and sentence completions. Passage-based questions test students' reading comprehension and analysis, while sentence completions ask students to choose one or two vocabulary words that best fit the meaning of a given sentence. Across all Critical Reading sections, there are 19 sentence completions and 48 passage-based questions.

Passage-based questions ask about a short passage of 100 to 200 words, a long passage of 400 to 800 words, or paired passages of 250 to 600 words. Paired passages usually address the same topic or theme, and students are asked to compare and contrast the excerpts or the perspectives of the authors. Passages always consist of prose and may be taken from longer works in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, literary fiction, or personal narrative. At the beginning of each passage is a blurb stating its source and author, which may help deepen students' comprehension by grounding the passage in its historical context. 

Many SAT experts agree that passage-based questions fall into five general types. SAT teachers and tutors instruct students to use these soft categorizations in order to understand each question's intent and to focus their attention on the relevant information within the passage(s). These question types may be identified as big picture, little picture, inference, vocabulary in context, and author's perspective.

The first Critical Reading question type asks for the "big picture," or main purpose, of a passage. Big picture questions tend to ask for a passage's theme or its overall purpose, including whether it is meant to inform, review, contradict, persuade, parody, or hypothesize. For instance, this official sample SAT question falls into the big picture category.


Sample SAT Question



The second question type asks for "little picture," or refers the reader to a specific detail within a passage and cites its location, as lines are numbered by multiples of five. This type of Critical Reading question may ask how a line functions within a paragraph, or what a paragraph accomplishes within the entire passage. While it is taken out of context, this SAT sample question is an example of a little picture passage-based question.


Sample SAT Question



The third passage-based question type asks for an inference based on a line, paragraph, or passage in its entirety. These questions may differ from the inference skills students apply within their English classrooms, as they are not subjective and will only have one unambiguously correct answer choice. This sample question, while taken out of context, falls into this category of inference Critical Reading questions.


Sample SAT Question



Fourth, some questions ask about vocabulary in context. Unlike sentence completions, these questions generally refer to easy or medium-range vocabulary words that are being used in an unusual way within the context of the passage. Students must use context clues to glean the meaning or function of the word as it is being used. Often, the answer choices will contain higher level vocabulary words than the one under question.


Sample SAT Question



Finally, the fifth categorization refers to the author's technique, tone, or style. To prepare themselves for these kinds of questions, students are likely to benefit from studying common tone classifications like somber, ambivalent, vindictive, sarcastic, earnest, and pragmatic.


Sample SAT Question



While Critical Reading questions may not all fall neatly within these domains, as they are based on analysis rather than on official College Board policy, most SAT tutors and teachers agree that the majority can be thus described. Taken together, passage-based questions test students' reading skills, including their ability to make inferences, to understand words and phrases in context, to apply literary terms like tone, theme, and symbol, and to evaluate an author's logic, argument, techniques, and purpose.

While these question types may appear in any order, they are arranged chronologically to coincide with the relevant passage(s). A question about the first paragraph in a passage, for instance, will appear near the beginning of a group of questions, while a question about the passage's conclusion will be asked near the end of that group.

The remaining 19 questions in the Critical Reading section are sentence completions that test vocabulary. All of these questions are independent from one another. They have one or two blanks and ask students to choose the word(s) that "best fits the meaning of the sentence as a whole."

These questions test knowledge of the meaning of high level words. Commonly tested SAT vocabulary words include acrimonious, anachronistic, draconian, ephemeral, laconic, and ostracize. Students may prepare for these questions with the use of SAT vocabulary lists and flash cards.

Along with an understanding of vocabulary, these sentences also test an awareness of how a sentence fits together logically. Students benefit from seeing the relationships among words in a sentence. For instance, a conjunctive adverb like "however" may indicate that part of the sentence contrasts with another part, like in the following SAT sample question.


Sample SAT Question


Answer: B


Each Critical Reading section starts out with 5 to 8 sentence completions, with the remainder of the questions being passage-based. Students who perform best on the Critical Reading section of the SAT have a strong working knowledge of SAT vocabulary words, as well as an ability to comprehend and analyze prose with efficiency. Students also benefit from taking a strategic approach to time management, some choosing to read the pertinent passage-based questions before reading the passage, along with using skimming and speed-reading techniques.


Redesign Alert

The new SAT, starting in March of 2016, eliminates sentence completion questions. Vocabulary questions will focus on medium-level, multiple-meaning words within the context of longer passages.

Read more from the SAT Encyclopedia!

Further Reading

The Best Way to Read the Passage in SAT Reading

The Best SAT Vocabulary Lists on the Web

How to Get an 800 on SAT Reading


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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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