Here at Northwest Educational Services, we spend a lot of time teaching conventional strategies to improve your SAT reading score: previewing the questions, annotating, using evidence, process of elimination, and doing lots of practice. These are excellent, broadly applicable strategies, but today I want to focus on an unconventional way to do better on a particular type of reading passage.
Both the SAT and ACT reading sections begin with a passage from a story. For many students, this is the most difficult of all the reading passages. At first glance, this is surprising because most of the reading assigned in language arts classes is fiction. And most students who read for pleasure at home read novels. They have more experience reading stories than nonfiction, so it might seem odd that they do better on the SAT’s nonfiction passages than they do on the literature passage.
Sure, some of the stories are from the 1800s, so the language is difficult to comprehend, but even those written in modern prose are challenging. The reason is that they are a form of story that most students have very little experience with. An SAT fiction passage is brief – only a page or so in length – and it’s from the middle of a novel. It’s a struggle to sort out what’s happening because you have very little context to base your understanding on. Much is implied and very little is actually explained. You have to pick up on subtle clues that, if missed, will ruin your interpretation of the passage. And then, it just … ends. No climax, no resolution, no explanation.
When I first started engaging SAT fiction passages six years ago, I struggled. Actually, I continued to struggle for several years after that. But lately, I’ve noticed they’re much easier than they used to be. And instead of dreading them, I actually love them now. And I think I know why.
You see, for the last few years, I’ve been listening to short story podcasts. Prior to this, I’d had almost no experience reading short fiction. Now, I can’t get enough. And the nature of short stories is training my brain to better handle SAT fiction passages.
Short stories are a unique artform, and they have more in common with SAT reading passages than novels do. A short story doesn’t give you much time to sort out what’s going on: the setting, the characters, the plot. It’s rich in detail, but doesn’t offer much direct explanation. Instead of being explicitly told what’s going on, you have to notice and interpret little clues that the author drops here and there.
And the story will likely end right at or immediately after the climax, leaving the resolution unsaid. It might even end before the climax. You don’t get to know how the story ends; you have to imagine it. You’re often left wondering about the resolution, wishing the story would continue, as though the author had left you with a cliffhanger. But it’s not really a cliffhanger because there’s never a follow-up. There’s no next episode, no next chapter. You have to decide for yourself, based on clues from the text, what the author wants you to think happens after the ending.
Although SAT readings aren’t exactly short stories, they share many of their key features. So practicing reading or listening to short stories should improve your mental muscles for understanding this type of reading. It has certainly helped me.
The very best option for listening is, in my opinion, Levar Burton Reads. Many of you will know Levar Burton from his role in Star Trek: The Next Generation or his PBS show Reading Rainbow. The latter was all about reading stories for children. His podcast caters to an adult audience, though most of the stories are appropriate for high schoolers. Both his delivery and his selection of stories are consistently excellent, and there is musical accompaniment. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
If podcasts aren’t your thing, or if you just want to add actual reading to your short story training, search your library or Amazon for “short fiction collection” and you’ll find numerous options. The more short stories you read, the more easily you will understand them.
So, if you struggle as I did with the literature passages on the SAT, ACT, or AP Language Arts exams, here’s a new technique to add to your test-prep arsenal.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.