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Dear Mitch,

I was following your post about the tips and hints for the reading comprehension section on the SAT and similar tests, and according to the schedule you said you'd be keeping, I think you accidentally skipped a day.  I hope you will continue soon, as the teachers in our department and the guidance counselors have been following along and have been printing them out and putting them up on our bulletin board in the hall for students to read.  So, whenever you're ready to return to the column, since this is the season to start the students thinking about these things, I know we will be relieved.

Educationally yours,

Mr. C. Franklin


Dear Mr. C. Franklin,

Regarding the slight modification of the schedule, you are correct; rather than waste precious air-time and virtual space here, all you need to know to figure out the rest is that I am now working from a BRAND-NEW computer.

Continuing from where we left off, which was the transitional cliffhanger in which I completed a brief description of the "4 1/2"  different categories of questions they ask, and was moving on to the complicating point that not only are there different categories of questions, but there are also different categories of passages.

And as I finished up the previous post by expressing that by merely knowing what category of passage you are encountering, you will be working from a stronger cognitive place, as different categories of passages are best attacked with different approaches.  In other words, by immmediately recognizing the type of writing you have to read in a given section, you will have a greater chance of reading the passage quickly, and an increased chance of getting each of the questions that follow it correct.

Okay.  The most famous and obvious such case is the approach typically recommended for what is called the 'Double Passage". For this you will notice there are two passages printed consecutively, undivided by questions in the usual way.  Following the second of the two passages is a relatively lengthy collection of questions.  If you read the instructions in the test booklet, you will discover that they feel you should read both passages, one after the other, just as they are printed, and then begin the questions.  THIS IS ALMOST ALWAYS A VERY POOR STRATEGY to use on any 'double passage" section.  Instead, you would find, if you study hundreds of previous exams, as I have, the questions are typically ordered so that the first few apply exclusively to the first passage, and the second batch of questions apply to the second passage, with the third and final group of questions requiring you to somehow synthesize a chart in your head telling you which author said what.  In other words, why would you voluntarily read the second passage, which typicaly conflicts with the first, or in some way complicates your understanding of the first by agreeing with the first author's basic ideas, but is written in a totally different tone.  One of the passages, for example, might be quite didactic and dogmatic, leaving the reader with the impression that he/she has just read a carefully researched essay by someone whose opinion is either so well-founded in fact or the work of a respected and serious historical writer.  The second piece may be satirical, raising the possibility of new ways of looking at a long-accepted (but dubious, or at least questionable) view of the subject at hand, and the questions for either piece are questions you are most likely to answer correctly before having each one mired in doubts from the opposing piece surrounding key points.  The last few questions, of course, require you to use your understanding of each piece and your ability to raise your cognitive efforts to the next level, which is your ability to analyze two different writers' 'take' on the same basic subject.  Only when you get to that final part of the collection of questions do you need to know BOTH pieces well enough to recall their differences, overlaps, contradictions, etc.  (NOTE: There have been a few times in recent years in which the test-writers exert great effort to undermine the applicability of this method.  For example, on a very recent exam they scrambled the order of the questions, and on one occasion they took great effort to make EACH AND EVERY question following the 'double passage' contingent upon the test-taker's already having processed the two writings and, therefore, ready to answer with such developed understanding.  My personal belief is that these two cases were aberrations, experiments to help the makers of the test decide on the best way to design the section for future use, and less likely to show up in the future than the more standard style.

Before leaving the subject of the 'double passage' reading comprehension section, it is important to know that there is a third way the section is often put together.  That style contains two passages printed consecutively, but they are written about two completely different subjects -- or so it seems upon first impression.  BUT the two 'different' subjects have homologous elements, and these are what the questions will focus on.  For example, one piece may be on the human heart or the human brain's relationship to other body's parts, including such extremities as fingers and toes, while the other essay may be about a city and its relationship to the surrounding towns and communities, and how they require that centerpoint to survive...

Okay, that's where we are going to stop for now.  Next time we will discuss various techniques to do your best on the fictional piece (if there is one, which there usually is), the shorter pieces, the poem, the 'science' piece, and the excerpt from a famous classic novel.

However, as a little reward for making your way through all of the above, here is one of the most easily applied tips which will never fail you:  NO MATTER WHAT YOU MAY THINK A PASSAGE SAYS, NO answer that is blatantly 'politically incorrect' and/or offensive to most reasonable people will ever be the correct answer.  EXAMPLE:  "From the above passages we can conclude that the native people of that country never contributed anything important to the culture, so it is not a substantial tragedy that the new settlers decimated the native tribes...." WILL NEVER BE THE CORRECT ANSWER.  IT'S SIMPLY TOO STUPID AND CONTROVERSIAL TO BE THE CORRECT ANSWER TO ANY INTELECTUAL INQUIRY.

To be continued, so stay tuned...

Until next time, I hope this helped,