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.

Busy Pencil

Here’s a story problem from a practice SAT that’s designed to overwhelm your working memory:

Jake has identical drinking glasses each in the shape of a right circular cylinder with internal diameter of 2.5 inches. He pours orange juice from a gallon jug into each glass until it is full. If the height of juice in each glass is about 5 inches, what is the largest number of full glasses that he can pour from one gallon of juice? (Note: There are 231 cubic inches in 1 gallon.)

If you approach this problem without a “busy pencil,” you’re almost certainly going to be confused. Having a busy pencil means attacking the problem with circling, underlining, and annotating as you read. It means pausing to take notes on the problem as you go. It means drawing diagrams, writing equations, and noting questions you have. If you do those things, you stand a pretty good chance of solving the problem. But if you don’t use your pencil to manage cognitive load, you’ll probably be unable to solve it.

In most sports, there is a “ready position” you adopt in order to be as well set-up as possible to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Typically, this means having your weight on the balls of your feet with knees bent and your hands up. Trying to solve a difficult story problem without a pencil already in hand and ready to write is like being a basketball player standing on the court with their weight on their heels, their knees locked, and their hands in their pockets – you’re not in the ready position.

The idea of approaching problems with a busy pencil applies to much more than story problems. It makes you a more powerful reader, it sets you up to take good notes during a lecture or a video, and it’s critical for all sections of all standardized tests. Many students say they don’t need to underline parts of the question, take notes as they read, or do process of elimination on paper because they can do it all in their head. And they’re right. It is possible to do it all in your head, just as it is possible to ride a mountain bike down a bumpy trail with no hands. It’s just risky. And if you don’t like the outcome of not writing, then the solution is clear. If you’re confused by anything complicated, and your pencil isn’t busy, start there.

Furthermore, if you’re studying without a busy pencil, you’re probably not studying effectively. Remember: looking isn’t studying. Writing convinces your brain to care precisely because you don’t like writing. So if you want to remember what you’re trying to learn, use your busy pencil to make written product.

Lastly, in this strange time of remote learning, it might seem like, since everything is online, pencils are obsolete. But they’re not. In fact, having a busy pencil might be more important than ever because remote learning is more challenging than in-person learning. If we’re going to make it work, we’ll need all of our best tools – the high-tech as well as the low-tech.

Designed to Differentiate

Today, I want to offer a message of realism regarding the standardized tests that are used for private school and college entrance: the ISEE, SSAT, HSPT, SAT, and ACT. This message will probably sound a little harsh at first, but if you really let it sink in, my hope is that you’ll actually feel better about these exams.

These tests are designed to differentiate. That’s their purpose.

And because they’re designed to show differences among all students – including among high-end students – they’re not designed so that everyone can “ace” them. They’re made to be hard, very hard. And it’s not unfair that they’re hard. That’s their whole reason for existing. An easy test wouldn’t differentiate because most people would do very well. And the purpose of these tests is to differentiate.

Let’s just use math as an example. All these tests have math on them. They pull content from several years of schooling, from all units covered in those years, and they randomize the problems. They don’t tell what the problem types are, so you have to figure out for yourself what techniques to use and what bits of knowledge to apply – if you remember them. If, like most students, you’ve acquired knowledge gaps in your upside-down pyramid of math, there will be plenty of problems you won’t know how to solve. And if, like most students, you don’t have all the content you do know deeply mastered, you’ll struggle with questions that are presented in a strange or unfamiliar way. Oh, and the pace is ridiculously fast. Not only do you need to know how to solve the problems, but you also have to access and apply that knowledge much faster than you ever would on a homework assignment or most in-school tests. On exams like these, only a tiny percentage of students get most of the questions right. That’s the norm; that’s how the tests are designed.

But I want to reframe this as good news. It means that when you’re preparing for these exams, you can put away unhealthy, unrealistic goals and set reasonable targets for yourself. If you’re accustomed to getting C’s and B’s in your math courses, you should not set the goal of getting a perfect score on the SAT math sections. The likelihood of that happening is about as high as the likelihood of a decent high school basketball player becoming an NBA star. Instead, you should set the goal of making incremental improvement from wherever you are. Improvement is possible, but you’re probably not going to leap from an 1100 on the SAT to a 1500. Realistic optimism would have you aiming for 1200 or maybe 1300 if you’re willing to put in the work.

The idea here is that, while anyone can improve, not everyone can be the next Lebron James. If you’re a mediocre basketball player, you can get better. Of course you can – anyone can improve. And yes, coaching and practice help. If you eat tests, you’ll improve. If you adopt the technique of having a busy pencil, you’ll improve. If you learn strategies and master content, you’ll improve. But you’ll improve incrementally from where you started. And the process will be difficult and time consuming. If you’re an average student, you’re not going to get a perfect score on the SAT, no more than an average basketball player is going to become Lebron James. The growth mindset says that growth is possible. It doesn’t say that miracles are possible.

But what if you are a very high-end student? What if you got a 1450 on the PSAT and you’re pushing for as close to 1600 as you can get? Well, you should know that the end of the line is very hard. It’s generally easier to go from 1000 to 1100 than it is to go from 1450 to 1500. The closer you get to perfect, the slower and more hard-earned your gains will be. The other people at the top are working very hard, and the test is designed to differentiate among you in spite of this.

In any case, our recommendation is to simultaneously work hard and relax about the scores. All you can do is keep your eyes on the process of improving, and let the results come as they may.