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Question

Dear Mitch,

Can you please give some more pointers about the reading comprehension section of the SAT exam, and do you think you could do it before the PSAT in October?

Appreciatively,

Father of a Bright student who is just not a great test-taker

Albany, New York

Answer

Dear Father of Bright Student who is not YET a great test-taker,

Here goes:

As many parents know, just a generation ago many textbooks relied upon a fairly standard format for their arrangement of paragraphs within a given chapter and for the sentences within each paragraph. Basically, the nonfiction materials students were required to read could be counted on to have a 'topic sentence' at the beginning of each paragraph; that sentence gave the overview of what was to follow in the next few sentences, and then those sentences were, indeed, detail supporting the main idea at the top.

In some ways, it worked for many students. In other ways, it not only became boring but was found not to prepare students for the wider range of styles they would encounter as they moved beyond standard textbooks and out into the 'real world'. And finally, students who caught on to the formula would often read the first sentence of each paragraph and felt they'd gleaned enough to call it a night.

Now, and for many years, there has been a (welcome) backlash. As the textbook field has broadened and students are more respected for their different learning styles, writers and editors and publishers have found themselves having to make their materials more interesting to compete in the marketplace. And so, as in most forms of writing, to keep the material engaging, old rules have given way to various styles that are more likely to hook readers.

Which brings us to today's SAT READING COMPREHENSION TIP:

When asked the main idea of a particular paragraph, not only can't the paragraph's first sentence be assumed to be carrying that burden, but it is currently less than a 50% chance of being it. AND, EVEN MORE REMARKABLY, the test-taker cannot rely on the message given by a long sequence of sentences in a particular paragraph, EVEN if they comprise the majority of that paragraph. **AND THE WAY TO SPOT SUCH A SITUATION IS TO CATCH CERTAIN TRANSITION WORDS AND CIRCLE THEM WHEN YOU SEE THEM.

EXAMPLE PARAGRAPH:

John Whitten always brought food to his neighbor's house when he thought there might be a hungry person there. He went out of his way to obtain the food, wrapped it as best he could, and carried it the two miles despite the hostile weather along the path. John Whitten did other things that are still discussed among the community, such as contribute money each month to the elderly woman down the street who had barely enough to pay for fuel to heat her home. However, when one looks at the full range of activities that comprised John Whitten's days and the main thoughts that filled his mind, one cannot help but get a sense of the evil intent that guided his actions.

Now: The first sentence? John Whitten is described doing what would seem to be a good deed. So far, he's my kind of guy.

Second sentence: Oh!, such detail about how hard he worked to be wonderful, and, at this point, if you're like me, I'm wondering why he can't move into my neighborhood. Or why I can't be more like him...

And so the paragraph continues...

He's a SAINT. Right?

Well, actually, if you circle the transition word 'HOWEVER' which begins the last sentence, you come across the twist. ALL of the preceding sentences of the paragraph were intended to give the main point, John's basically evil nature, the impact of surprise that in real life such a realization often has. A lot of people do wonderful things, and John Whitten was one such person. HOWEVER, look out! He is not good. The paragraphs to follow would probably go into what he does in his 'full range' of activities and thought -- murder? deception? Intentional ruination of the planet? One can hardly guess. Possibly, he is getting a few people in the area to think well of him so they might come to his defense when the giant box is dug up from his backyard... WHO KNOWS?

The SAT reading comprehension point is this: Look for transition words and phrases and circle them. In particular, look for ones that mean 'but'. There is no end to the way these can be written, but some of the most common red flags include:

However

although

still

yet

ironically,

in spite of

despite

surprisingly

even so

does not outweigh

is of no consequence

is minimal when compared to

pales next to...

 

And so, when a transition phrase like that is in the reading passage, it is a pivot, or a balance point on a teeter-totter.

And read carefully to see which way the weight is being tipped.

Hope this helps,

Mitch