The SAT Reading section presents you with challenging tasks. Not only will you have to sustain your focus over a long 65-minute section, but you’ll also have to search actively for evidence in each passage to back up your answers.
The test may be time intensive and full of tricky “distractor” answers, but you can learn to avoid the common pitfalls with the right approach. This guide will discuss the best strategies for reading the passages effectively and achieving a high score on the new SAT Reading. To start, let’s go over what the redesigned passages are going to look like on your test.
Types of Reading Passages On the SAT
Since the 2016 SAT (out of 1600 points) was rolled out, every SAT reading test features four individual passages and one pair of passages. One of these passages comes from US and World Literature, two come from History and Social Studies, and two deal with Science. In total, each passage (or set of paired passages combined) will contain about 500 to 750 words. One or more of them will feature a graph, table, or chart.
You’ll be tasked with answering a total of 52 Reading questions. You’ll complete the Reading section all at one time in one 65-minute section—the first section you'll do on the SAT.
There are a few strategies you can use when reading the passages. Before delving into these reading strategies, let’s review the types of Reading questions you’ll encounter.
Types of Reading Questions On the SAT
The new SAT asks reading comprehension questions about main points, details, inferences, vocabulary in context, function, author technique, evidence support, and data analysis from a graph, table, or chart.
The new SAT is primarily concerned with how you connect evidence to your answers and deconstruct logic and arguments. By keeping this emphasis in mind, you can keep an eye out for relevant details and meaning as you read through the passages. These are the main ways that College Board will test your reading comprehension skills:
- Big Picture / Main Point: What is the overall purpose of the passage? Is it describing an issue or event? Is it trying to review, prove, contradict, or hypothesize?
- Little Picture / Detail: Detail questions will usually refer you to a specific line within the passage. They might ask what a sentence means or how it functions within the overall passage.
- Inference: These questions ask you to interpret the meaning of a line or two in the passage. Don't worry, they won't be too vague or open to interpretation, as there can only be one absolutely correct answer.
- Vocabulary in Context: These questions usually also refer you to a specific line and ask how a word functions within a sentence. These words are often not too advanced; instead, they're often common words that may have an unusual meaning based on context.
- Function: These questions often ask what a phrase, sentence, or paragraph is accomplishing within the context of the whole passage. This links to your understanding of the big picture / main point.
- Author Technique: What's the author's tone, style, or other technique in this passage? Paired passage questions often ask you to compare and contrast author techniques or opinions.
- Evidence Support: These questions ask you to choose a line or series of lines that provide the best evidence to your answer to a previous question. Therefore, an evidence question could refer back to any of the question types mentioned above, with the exception of vocab-in-context. These evidence support questions often take the form, “Which choice provides the best evidence to the previous question?” While these questions can help you check your thinking, they may also contain a trap; if you answered wrong to the previous question, you'll probably find that the mistake in your thinking has a corresponding answer in the evidence question.
- Data Analysis: These questions are entirely new and refer to graphs and charts. They may ask something like, “Which claim about traffic congestion is supported by the graph?” The hardest ones may combine with an inference question, like, “"The author is least likely to support which interpretation of the data in this figure?”
Understanding the types of passages and questions will begin to improve your understanding of the Reading section and how you approach each passage. As you take SAT practice tests, keep a critical eye on how each question fits into one or more of the above categories. Now let's look specifically at what steps you should take when reading through the passages to maximize your comprehension and take control of your time management.
One step at a time...
How to Read the Passages
Some students jump into reading, others read the questions first, and still others swear by a “back and forth” method. In our view, the five steps described below represent a tried and true approach that works for most students. It uses effective methods to understand the important points of the passage before you even read it, and it helps you save time digesting the passage.
With five passages to read and 52 questions to answer in only 65 minutes, time is of the essence. Read over these steps, give this approach a try, and see if it helps you preserve your focus and work efficiently as you prep for the SAT Reading.
A good standard approach is to glance over the corresponding questions before you begin to read the first passage. This way, you'll have a sense of what you're looking for and where to focus your attention.
Even though the passage may be a fascinating description of space mining or Japanese marriage customs, deep reading is not your goal here—answering the questions correctly and efficiently is. You can always learn more about a topic after the SAT. For now, you want to laser your focus onto the tasks at hand.
As you read the questions, you can circle the Big Picture / Main Point questions right off the bat. You can leave these for the end, as in this example from College Board's SAT Practice Test 1:
Here, the main purpose question comes first. You can choose to answer it last, though, once you have a strong understanding of the passage.
As for the specific line questions, you can make a mark on the lines referenced and pay special attention to them when reading.
All of this marking and prioritizing is not to suggest that you won't be quickly reading the whole passage; instead, it's a way to know what you're looking for before you start. Again, this is an approach that saves time for most students, but you should also feel free to use the method that works best for you.
Quickly read the information blurb that comes at the very beginning of the passage. This should help you situate the passage in context. When is the author writing, for instance? Is she an author of fiction, a scientist, or a historian?
Having this context at the beginning may help you begin to have an understanding of the tone, style, and purpose of the passage.
This passage is from the dads of DNA themselves! Things are about to get science-y!
Now, go ahead and read the passage. You should read quickly, even skimming for important features. These include the last line of the introduction (usually the thesis of the passage), opening sentences of paragraphs, and the conclusion.
Also, look out for transitional words and phrases, like however, additionally, and despite, that might mark a shift in or continuation of ideas. This approach will be much more helpful and time-saving than trying to understand each and every word.
Another consideration as you read is your own mindset. You probably know that being interested in a subject helps you pick it up faster. You may think you can't help what you're interested in, but actually, you have a great deal of control over your mindset. If you try to approach the passages being really interested in, even fascinated by, the topic at hand, then you'll be able to speed up your reading and improve your retention.
You might be skeptical, but the SAT actually can have some pretty intriguing, random information, and they have such a great range you're likely to be interested in some, if not all, of the passages.
On to answering the questions. Leave the ones you circled for the end. It can be helpful to predict your own answer before actually looking at the answer choices. They are designed and worded so that they all sound plausible, so they could distract you from your original understanding of the question.
If your passage includes a chart or graph, then you'll have one or two data interpretation questions. You may be able to answer these even before skimming the passage, but in most cases it will be helpful to have context.
Many of these questions don't ask for data analysis alone, but instead ask if the data supports a claim made in the text or if the author incorporated a data point to prove or refute an argument. These kinds of questions will call on you to find evidence in numbers as well as in prose, as in this table and question based on the above mentioned passage by Watson and Crick:
Notice how this question isn't straightforward data analysis. It goes one step further by asking a "little picture/detail" question about the authors' proposed pairing of bases in DNA. You'll have to locate info in both the passage and the table.
As you work through the various passage and data-based questions, it can be distracting to go back and forth between the test booklet and bubble sheet. It can be useful and save time to answer the entire set of questions in your test booklet and then transfer all your answers to the bubble sheet in one chunk. But make sure you don't run out of time doing this, and be careful that your answers line up corrently on the bubble sheet!
The detail questions should go in chronological order with the passages, so the first detail question might refer to a line near the beginning of the passage and continue in order after that. They're not all mixed up in random order, but rather coincide with the flow of the passage.
Once you've answered the other questions, you can go back to the general purpose questions you circled. You should have your best sense of the passage at this point, after you've read it and answered other questions about it.
Finally, you can go ahead and carefully transfer your answers to the bubble sheet.
These 5 steps are an effective approach for most students reading and answering questions on the Critical Reading passages. If you've never tried this kind of reading strategy before, definitely try it out on your next practice test and see if your score improves. This is especially effective if you find that you keep running out of time!
Let's discuss some other tips and strategies that are helpful to keep in mind.
Be on the lookout for SAT "red herrings"!
Tips and Strategies for Critical Reading
Beyond practicing your reading efficiency, you can use some other strategies as you answer the questions and prep for this section. The age-old trick of process of elimination is alwayse useful. An unexpected preparation strategy is to practice answering ACT Science questions. Read on for a few more useful strategies that will help you do your best on SAT Reading.
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Look to Eliminate Wrong Answers
None of the answers will be glaringly wrong. In fact, they're worded in such a way that they'll often all seem plausible!
This means you'll have to play interception on your own brain. It may be easily distracted by answers that seem sort of right, but you have to halt your distracted thought process in its steps. If you find yourself overly rationalizing or justifying an answer, it's probably not the correct one.
There is only one 100% correct answer, and it won't cause you too much overthinking.
Generally, wrong answers are too specific, too broad, describe a relationship in reverse order, or just present a totally unrelated concept. This article goes into further detail about how to eliminate wrong answers in order to land on the one 100% correct one.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid extremes. Words like "never" or "always" are not usually present in the correct answer. But to follow my own advice, I should never say never!
Another essential mindset, and one that the new SAT will ask to use explicitly, is one that looks for evidence.
Back Up Your Answers With Evidence
Don't just choose an answer that "feels" right—instead, make sure you can back up all your answers with evidence direct from the text.
None of these questions require you to have any pre-existing knowledge of the topic. Instead, they're testing your reading comprehension. All your answers should be proven and supported by the passage. Even if the answer were to be factually inaccurate (don't worry, it won't be), the questions are still completely about the passage, not about knowledge you already have.
This is an important point to remember for the SAT, which will use texts with which you may be familiar or that are especially relevant to history or contemporary life. To answer questions correctly, it's crucial that you turn off your personal biases or opinions and base your understanding completely on the text at hand. Luckily, the new evidence support questions will be a good reminder to keep referring back to the text for your responses.
You’ll likely get two to three evidence support questions per passage that explicitly ask you to choose one or a few lines that prove your answer to a previous question. These help you check your thinking and ensure that you have proof for an answer.
Even if a question is not followed by an evidence support question, though, you should try to use this mindset of backing up your responses with evidence directly from the text. That way you know you’re basing your answer on the words on the page, rather than on your own assumptions.
Practice Data Analysis with ACT Science Questions
Those who consider themselves English buffs may not love the addition of charts, tables, and graphs in their SAT Reading questions. What's this data doing in a reading comprehension section, anyway? According to College Board, the inclusion of data analysis is part of its attempt to connect the new SAT with what students are learning in the classroom and with real-world skills.
You can actually sharpen your data interpretation skills by practicing with ACT Science questions. The ACT questions may call for more specialized scientific knowledge, but they still demand the same skills of interpretation as will the SAT Reading questions.
By referring to charts and graphs for your answer and looking for evidence in data, you'll be better prepared for the data and evidence-based Reading questions on the SAT.
Know Your Literary Terms and Techniques
SAT Reading is primarily concerned with understanding function (of words, sentences, paragraphs) and argument. Therefore, most of your SAT reading practice should focus on deciphering the logic and structure of a piece.
However, it's still useful to review the most common literary terms, like theme, style, tone, foreshadowing, and imagery, as well as some of the most common words to describe them. In addition to reviewing definitions, you should learn how to apply and find them in something you read. It's one thing to know that a tone can be somber, hopeful, or suspicious; it's another to determine the tone of a given passage.
Test prep will help you get better and better at this, along with reading and analyzing as much as you can in and out of the classroom.
As mentioned above, the vocabulary questions based on passages will not test your understanding of little-used big words. Instead of obscure vocab, Reading questions might ask about relatively common words that are used in an unusual way within the context of the passage. This means you should practice interpreting meaning in context, along with understanding the denotations (definitions) and connotations (what words imply or suggest) of words.
To give a simplistic example, note how the phrase, "Nice job," can have two very different connotations in these two contexts.
- "Nice job," Kathy snickered to her friends, after tripping you in the cafeteria.
- "Nice job!" Kathy said admiringly, as you showed her the bowl you made in ceramics.
Understanding multiple-meaning words, as well as tone, is all about context. Given these steps and strategies, how can you strengthen your Reading skills?
Practice, Practice, Practice
The Reading section on the SAT is not always so closely aligned with your high school English classes, although the redesigned version is more connected than ever before with its emphasis on evidence-based reading. While your English classes may encourage you to be creative and support all kinds of interpretations, your SAT Reading questions will only have one absolutely correct answer, and that answer must be derived from and supported by the text itself.
You can strengthen your ability to read and answer questions quickly with serious test prep, which will not only help your reading comprehension skills, but also your time management and pacing. Reading sources outside of class, like news articles from the New York Times, will also help you hone your skills of analyzing logic, deconstructing arguments, and determining author opinion and tone.
If you're applying as a humanities or social sciences major, you especially want to make sure you score highly on the Reading section of the SAT. Take practice tests, identify your weaknesses, understand your mistakes, and practice often and effectively so you can score highly on Reading. With the right approach and sufficient test prep, you could even achieve a perfect Reading score.
Now that you know about the changes to the Reading section, check out our Complete Guide to the New SAT to learn about the rest of the redesigned test!
Are you deciding between the new SAT and the ACT? You can read all about how the two tests compare to each other here, as well as learn about the changes taking place to the Writing section of the ACT.
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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.