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What Is SAT Reading Comprehension? How to Practice


If you're reading this guide, you may have heard the term SAT Reading Comprehension. It's an older term to describe a specific type of SAT Critical Reading question. While the term is outdated, SAT Reading Comprehension is still very important today.

The questions from Reading Comprehension are used as a part of the new 2016 SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section. If you hadn’t heard about the new 2016 SAT, read all about the changes to the SAT here before continuing to read this article. Reading Comprehension is a big part of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section. You need to understand what it is, what types of skills it tests, and how to practice it in order to succeed on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section.


What Is SAT Reading Comprehension?

SAT Reading Comprehension refers to a specific type of SAT question that was in the SAT Critical Reading section on the old SAT and will be in the new 2016 SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section. This type of question is more commonly referred to as passage-based reading because that's the term the College Board uses on SAT score reports. You can see an example from a 2015 score report below:




If you’re familiar with the old SAT, you know that the SAT Critical Reading section asked two types of questions: sentence-completion and passage-based reading questions. On the new SAT, the SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section will no longer have sentence-completion questions but will still have passage-based reading questions.

The new passage-based reading will be slightly different. The new passage-based reading will test all of the same skills covered on the old SAT plus two new skills. I’ll cover the exact skills below.


What Skills Are Tested

The new SAT’s passage-based reading questions will ask you questions related to five passages:

  • One passage dealing with US and World Literature
  • Two passages dealing with History and Social Studies
  • Two passages dealing with Science

When answering questions about these passages, you’ll be asked 8 types of questions (each utilizing a different skill). The first 6 were also skills required for the old SAT. Skills 7 and 8 are new for the new SAT:


#1: Identifying the Meaning of Vocabulary in Context

This kind of reading comprehension SAT question asks you about what a specific word means in the context of the passage. Often, the word is relatively common (not like the old sentence completion words such as “aberration”). However, these common words are usually being used in an uncommon way. Sometimes they have multiple meanings, and the less common meaning is being tested.


In line 23, "ran" most nearly means

  1. fled
  2. gathered
  3. traversed
  4. betrayed


#2: Identifying the Big Picture / Main Point of the Passage

For these questions, you’ll be asked what the overall purpose of the passage is. Is it meant to inform, review, contradict, prove, parody, or hypothesize?


The primary purpose of Passage 1 is to

  1. make a comparison
  2. argue a hypothesis
  3. justify a clarification
  4. highlight a concern


#3: Identifying the Purpose of Small Details in the Passage

These questions typically refer to a specific line or two and ask you about a specific detail. It might also ask what a phrase or paragraph is accomplishing in the context of the whole passage.


Which best describes the function of the statement in lines 10-13 ("")?

  1. It summarizes the points made in the first paragraph.
  2. It provides support for the argument made in the preceding statement.
  3. It introduces a contrasting opinion.
  4. It challenges recent scientific findings.




#4: Interpreting the Meaning of a Line, Paragraph, or Whole Passage / Making an Inference

For these questions, you need to interpret the meaning of a line, paragraph, or the whole passage. These won't be asking for subjective interpretations. There will always be only one correct answer.


The author of the passage would probably agree with which of the following statements about the "Kafka" referred to in line 37?

  1. His books were too long.
  2. He was ahead of his time.
  3. He should be more widely taught.
  4. He was crazy.


#5: Identifying the Function of a Phrase or Sentence in the Passage

To answer these questions, you need to figure out what effect a phrase or sentence has in the passage.


In lines 4-5, the author refers to her “flighty nature” primarily in order to

  1. imply that Ophelia has only a superficial feelings for Gerald.
  2. suggest that Ophelia is excessively concerned about appearances.
  3. illustrate some of the exaggerated claims made Ophelia’s uncle.
  4. emphasize Ophelia’s unpredictability.


#6: Identifying the Author’s Tone, Style, Voice, Attitude, or Perspective

Author Technique questions ask what the author's tone, style, voice, attitude, or perspective is.


The author discusses Ethiopian culture from the perspective of

  1. a concerned spectator
  2. a shocked visitor
  3. a knowledgeable insider
  4. a well-read outsider


#7: Interpreting Data

This is one of the new skills. For these questions, you have to interpret graphs or charts and say which fact they best support or least support. You don't need to be a science or data expert to get these questions right, but you need to be able to read and interpret graphs and charts.


#8: Providing Evidence Support

This is the other new skill for the new SAT. These questions come in sets of two. The first asks a question about the passage, and the second question asks you where in the passage you got your evidence for the first question.






Via College Board's Test Specifications for the Redesigned SAT


How to Practice

First and foremost, you need to know the test format and strategies, so there are no surprises the day of the test. Learn more about each type of passage-based reading question, the best passage-based reading strategies, and the best way to study SAT vocabulary for the new SAT. This knowledge will help you shape your study plan.

After learning this material, you need to incorporate SAT practice tests into your study routine. Check out the best SAT reading comprehension practice tests and questions.


What’s Next?

If you're taking the SAT, you should learn about the format of the new SAT, and also, check out some general tips on how to prepare for the SAT.

Before you start studying for the SAT, figure out what’s a good score for your target college.



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Dora Seigel
About the Author

As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.

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