Here’s What Students Need to Know About the SAT Reading Section
By Peter, IvyWise Master Tutor
We’re almost a year removed from The College Board’s rollout of the 2016 SAT test redesign, so students and parents by now have a better sense of the test’s layout—that the reading section, for example, contains 52 questions and is timed to 65 minutes. There are however a couple of major conceptual changes in the SAT reading section that will be helpful for how students and parents approach preparing for the test.
Why the Change?
Recent changes to the SAT stem from two fundamental motivations: to borrow from the successes of the ACT test, and to more closely resemble the form and content of advanced school curriculum. The former motivation is the reason why, for example, each SAT reading section now includes three social science or natural science passages; the latter motivation is the reason why the SAT has specifically curated passages and question types to resemble those of the AP Language and AP Literature Tests. Consider, for example, the similarity in wording between the College Board’s description of what skills the SAT reading section tests—“information and ideas, rhetoric, and synthesis”—and what is tested in the AP Language and Composition Test—“Synthesis,” “Rhetorical Analysis,” and “Argument.” Both the ACT and the AP Language test requires, in the AP Language Test overview’s words, “Analyzing graphics and visual images both in relation to written texts and as alternative forms of texts themselves.” Now, so does the SAT.
Content vs. Skills
One very important consequence of the SAT Reading section’s particular evolution to resemble advanced school curriculum is that the test is no longer just about gauging a student’s general reading comprehension skills—it’s about whether a student is familiar with, and has been exposed to, what the SAT calls “founding documents” –canonical texts from writers early in America’s history such as Abraham Lincoln, Alexis deTocqueville, or Harriett Beecher Stowe. Every reading section will always include at least one “founding document.” The science passages also skew toward topics that are culturally specific to the United States; one social science passage from a released official SAT test, for example, is titled “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City.”
Close Reading vs. Speed Reading
A classic topic that perennially comes up during test prep is speed-reading (also a 90s fad!)—how do I read passages faster? The SAT, in trying to resemble advanced school curriculum, changes the conversation from speed-reading to close reading. “Reading Closely,” as Collegeboard calls it: “questions that deal with interpreting what an author has said explicitly or implicitly and applying that information to new contexts.” This is the SAT Reading’s biggest point of departure from that of the ACT: a student has around one minute and 15 seconds per question for SAT Reading; for the ACT reading, it’s about 52 seconds per question. More time than the ACT, but SAT passages are harder, denser, and older—the “founding documents” passages will always be from the 18th or 19th century.
The Venn Diagram below shows just how heavily the SAT reading passages are based in what we call “US Specific” texts—passages that are either “founding documents,” recognized texts taught in the US, or texts that are culturally specific to the US. The 35 passages listed in the diagram are from all seven previously proctored, official SAT tests recently released from The Collegeboard.
Prep and prep early.
The SAT reading section is one that responds best to a slow and steady approach, matching school curriculum to test-specific preparation as much as possible. Incorporating SAT style questions and assignments to reading that the student is doing concurrently in school is a classic two birds with one stone scenario, and is the most efficient and painless for the student. Take challenging humanities courses at school—the content will give you a decided edge for the SAT reading section. International students who do not take a U.S. History course or do not cover American literature and culture in their classes will be at a disadvantage.
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