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A Surprising Way to Improve Your SAT Reading Score

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.

About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.

Learning Styles vs. Universal Principles

The concept of learning styles has been around for decades, and there are many variations of it, but the most popular version was created in the early 1990’s by Neil Fleming.1 His VARK questionnaire sorts people into four different learning styles: “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic.”1 Perhaps you identify as one of these types. Personally, I self-identified as an auditory learner when I was taught about learning styles in middle school.

The idea is really popular. As recently as 2014, “more than 90 percent of teachers in various countries believed it.”1 And it’s understandable why people like the idea of learning styles. It appeals to our sense of individuality, and it offers a clear way to improve education: teach to students’ learning styles and they’ll do better. Unfortunately, the ideas we like don’t always turn out to be true.

When a team of eminent researchers surveyed all the existing literature on learning styles in 2009, they found that most of the studies had terribly flawed study design, and the few that were well designed failed to show that learning styles mattered.2 More recent studies have also refuted the supposed power of learning styles. For example, one gave students the VARK questionnaire and then provided them with study strategies that matched their learning style.1 The results? Most didn’t change their study habits, and those who did didn’t show any improvement.1

Another recent study seemed to refute the very idea that learning styles exist at all. It “found that students who preferred learning visually thought they would remember pictures better, and those who preferred learning verbally thought they’d remember words better. But those preferences had no correlation to which they actually remembered better later on—words or pictures. Essentially, all the ‘learning style’ meant, in this case, was that the subjects liked words or pictures better, not that words or pictures worked better for their memories.”1

So if teaching to students learning styles doesn’t help, and studying in ways that match your learning style doesn’t help, what does work?

One answer is matching the teaching style to the content itself. For example, even if you’re the most visual person in the world, you can’t learn to hear and speak Spanish correctly just by looking at it. Likewise, it’s pretty tough to make reading literature kinesthetic, and it’s impossible to learn tennis aurally. Some of the things we want to learn have to be presented in a particular way, regardless of the audience’s preferences.

Another answer is to do all the things – to teach and study via as many avenues as possible. We do have research that supports the idea that stronger memories are formed when you involve as many of your senses as possible.3 If you can see it, hear it, read it, say it, and do something with it, you’ll form a stronger memory.3 Touch, smell, and taste are harder to come by in the classroom (and downright dangerous in Chemistry class), but these can be included on occasion. And of all the senses, vision is the most powerful; we remember far more when images are included in teaching.3 It’s not too surprising, then, that one of the recent studies found that people who claim to be visual learners tend to do better on all types of tests.1 So even if you don’t think of yourself as a visual learner, you’d probably benefit from acting like one: Seek out images, draw diagrams, and picture things in your mind because it will help you form strong memories.

And that last bit gets to what I think is the best answer to our question: Apply universal principles. There are study techniques that we know work, like spaced repetition, self-testing, teaching it to someone else, and making written product.4 We know that classroom instruction needs to be engaging to hold kids’ attention.3 And homework needs to involve a better mix of massed practice and interleaving.

But while you’re waiting for the science of learning to make its way into the classroom, remember that you can proactively take learning into your own hands. If you find the lectures to be boring, you can ask questions to stay engaged or treat them as an opportunity to grow your focus muscle. If you’re not finding the instruction and the homework sufficient to understand and remember what you’re learning, you can choose to do whatever it takes to convince your brain to care. And if school isn’t forcing you to master the skills you need, you can choose to walk the mastery path yourself.

About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.

Works Cited

1 Khazan, Olga. “The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’.” The Atlantic. April 11, 2018.

2 “Learning Styles Debunked: There is No Evidence Supporting Auditory and Visual Learning, Psychologists Say.” Association for Psychological Science. December 16, 2009.

3 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

4 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

Why Don’t Teenagers Listen to Grown-Ups?

Teenagers seem programmed to doubt, question, reject, and disobey what adults say. As I’ve explained before, a teenager is like a Chinese finger-trap: doing the intuitive thing and just telling them what to do is the equivalent of pulling to try and release your fingers – it only makes them resist more. But why is this? Why don’t teenagers listen to grown-ups?

One answer is human nature. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors explored new lands and invented new tools in part because each generation did not fully accept the status quo. But like most things genetic, the tendency for teenagers to do things their own way is not set in stone. Culture and individual choices can influence the degree to which this propensity is expressed.

Parents tend to focus on the irrational aspects of teenage disobedience. You tell your middle schooler to use a planner and start her homework early, but she ignores your advice. You tell your high schooler to drive slowly, stay away from drugs, and be home before midnight, but he disobeys you. If only they would just listen to you, things would be so much better.

But teenagers today actually have a good reason not to listen to grown-ups. And if you understand that reason, you’ll be in a much better position to influence them.

Why Teenagers Are (at least partly) Right to Reject What Adults Say

Many young Americans see that they are inheriting a dysfunctional political system that seems incapable of compromise and pragmatic action. They see major issues with healthcare, the national debt, immigration, and gun violence go unaddressed year after year. They see homelessness on the rise and bigotry persisting. Many teenagers look at these failings and conclude that the adults around them are either complacent or complicit.

We want kids to communicate openly with us, share, take responsibility, and get along with others. But are we modeling that? Consider the growing disconnect between red states and blue states. Consider how we increasingly struggle to find common ground with our fellow Americans. Consider how rare it is to see adults of different political affiliations engage in civil discussion.

Many of today’s youth also understand that they are inheriting a world that previous generations have literally trashed. We’re living through a slowly-unfolding environmental catastrophe of our own creation, and we’re doing almost nothing to stop it. Many teenagers look at this failing and come to the conclusion the adults of this world are foolish and irresponsible.

We adults are constantly asking kids to work hard today in order to create a better future for themselves. But this message sounds profoundly hypocritical when teens observe the adults of this world failing to sacrifice today in order to protect the future of our planet.

In short, many teenagers today don’t listen to adults because they think adults have failed to prove themselves worthy of being listened to and because they believe adults have misplaced priorities.

When teens are told to study hard and finish their homework, they sometimes feel like they’re being asked to polish brass on the Titanic. Sure, but shouldn’t you slow down and steer away from that iceberg?

Are grown-ups wrong about everything? Of course not.

And are many teenagers foolish and irresponsible as well? Of course they are.

Are some adults working hard to make the world a better place? Of course they are.

But we have to remember that kids can smell hypocrisy a mile away.

If we give them any reason to question the legitimacy of our authority or the authenticity of our messages, they will latch onto it. And recent generations of adults have given kids plenty of reasons to doubt them.

And just to be clear, I include myself in this. I have not done enough. I have been complacent. I have been selfish. So I’m not judging you. But I am saying that your kids might be judging you, and they might have legitimate reasons to do so.

So what can we do about it?

A good clue would be to look at the kinds of adults teenagers do listen to. These adults will tend to do two things:

  1. They will try to be an ally, not an adversary.
  2. They will buck the status quo.

Think Obi-Wan Kenobi or Albus Dumbledore, although you don’t need to take things to Hollywood extremes. I had several teachers growing up who had an outsized influence on their students because they were clear on their values and not afraid to be weird. Think Mrs. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus or Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society.

In order to connect with a student, I have to try hard to not be like all the other adults in their life. Most of the adults in a student’s life are quick to judge and give commands. They don’t ask permission before giving a comment or offering advice. They aren’t open and honest about their own failings. And the relationship is adversarial; the student and the adult are not on the same team.

If you want to have a positive relationship with your teenager – you know, the kind where they might actually listen to you – you’ll need to work on shifting from the role of adversary to the role of ally. The dynamic won’t transform overnight because trust takes time, but you can start to move things in the right direction today.

And if you really want your teenager to listen to you, you’re going to need to lead by example on the big things. Live your values, even (especially) when that means making some kind of sacrifice and even (especially) when that means bucking the status quo. The more that we, as adults, can be seen as part of the solution rather than part of the problem, the more kids will see us as credible.

But Chris, I’m completely overwhelmed by the world’s problems. I don’t even know where to start.

Fair enough, but we need to remember that’s exactly how many students feel about their big projects, their executive function struggles, or falling behind in math. And just as downward spirals of avoidance can be overcome in those arenas, they can be overcome for national and global issues as well.

So here are just a few ideas you might consider as starting places:

  • Participate in making our political system functional by listening to people who disagree with you, treating them as human beings, and striving to at least understand where they’re coming from.
  • My partner and I recently signed up for renewable energy with Puget Sound Energy. In Seattle, you have this easy option. If you’re with another provider, visit their website and see if they have a green energy program.
  • We also recently switched to 100% recycled, unbleached toilet paper because we want to reduce deforestation and we think that the water and energy that goes into bleaching is wasted.
  • Try to avoid buying yourself new things. Buy used and give the savings to charity.
  • Donate to Partners in Health, an organization devoted to creating lasting, high-quality healthcare systems in the world’s poorest regions.

These are just a few examples, obviously colored by my personal values. The point here is not that you need to believe what I believe or agree with your teen’s perspective on issues like these. The point is that, if you want your children to listen to you, you need to be seen as someone who is willing to be different in order to make the world a better place.

Remember that there are many small opportunities to contribute, and every step in the right direction is worthwhile. And remember that the more often you take those steps, the more credibility you will have in the eyes of your children.  

About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.