Reading: Passage Tactics

The carefully selected and excerpted passages on the SAT and ACT reading tests present challenging material that calls for strong reading skills and tactics to earn the requisite understanding. Practice the following key tactics throughout your reading of each SAT/ACT reading passage. (Please click the triangular bullets (‣) to expand the collapsible outline for important detail.)

Read carefully and thoroughly
◦ This tactic seems obvious, but you might be surprised at how many points are lost on the SAT and ACT due to a rushed reading that misses or misinterprets a key detail.
◦ Read every part of the passage, including the introductory note and any footnotes.

Insist on understanding - clarify and reason as needed.
◦ Passing your eyes over each part of the text is not what's called for - any text that is difficult to understand or connect is most likely included intentionally and will be tested by the questions, so be sure to study and reason as necessary about any text that demands it, aiming for the fullest and clearest understanding possible.

Evaluate and identify each textual unit's function and connection
◦ Constantly ask:
• "Why is this here?" and
• "How does this connect to what comes before and after?"
◦ This is what you will be repeatedly asked by the test questions, rather than anything you could discern from reading a portion of the text in isolation.

Read for the content the SAT/ACT tests - The SAT and ACT test certain types of non-fiction and fiction content predictably and consistently. Read the passage for and be able to concisely articulate this content in your own words:
Non-fiction Passages
• What the passage's main message is about, whether broad or narrow; not always the first topic mentioned nor the one appearing most frequently in the passage.
Author's Purpose
• The author's primary reason for writing this text.
Main Idea
• The author's main message, which we can only know confidently after completing a thorough reading of the passage. Sometimes the main idea is articulated one or more times in the passage, but only by thoroughly reading the entire passage can we determine if/where the main idea is stated. Often, though, we must synthesize several key ideas from the passage to construct the main idea.
Passage Sections - The functional components of the passage's organization.
• Each non-fiction passage is organized into sections - each a single paragraph or a group of paragraphs - each of which has a function within the passage as a whole and relative to the preceding and following sections.
Key Ideas - Crucially important nodes in the passage structure.
◦ Accompanied before or after by:
• Support
• Detail
◦ Key ideas occupy crucial positions within passage sections and often define a section's primary function.
Focal Points - Noteworthy author's choices; "things that make you go, 'hmm...'"
◦ E.g., when the author:
• defines a term
• makes an important transition
• makes an unexpected choice
• uses pointed/charged wording
• limits a claim/acknowledges an opposing view
• momentarily digresses from the main discussion
• plays with words

Fiction Passages
• The time, place, and any relevant events or developments taking place.
• All characters referred to, major and minor, their interactions and dialogue, feelings, conflicts, key characteristics.
Sequence of Events
• Often presented in a nonlinear path including flashbacks from the present and allusions to past events.
Passage Sections - The functional components of the passage's organization.
• Fiction passages are typically more flexible in their organization, but like non-fiction passages, they consist of passage sections determined by the function of each section within the passage as a whole.
Focal Points - Noteworthy author's choices; "things that make you go, 'hmm...'"
◦ E.g., when the author:
• uses a particular literary device or technique
• makes an important transition
• makes an unexpected choice
• uses pointed/charged wording
• plays with words

Paired Passages
• In addition to reading each passage for the key components above, when passages are paired, include in your reading of the second passage comparisons and contrasts with the first passage in the dimensions of:
Subject and Scope
Writing Style and Devices

Avoid Guessing Games and Losing Tactics
Fake It 'Til You Make It
• Skipping past a part of the text you don't understand and hoping later, easier text will tell you the meaning of what you skipped. It won't. This tactic sacrifices your best opportunity to understand difficult text and endangers your understanding of not only the local meaning, but broader meaning, including even the main idea.
Let's Not & Say We Did
• Superficially skimming a part of the text and then hypothesizing a likely meaning, rather than tangling with the text and insisting on getting the actual message.
I Know It But I Just Can't Say It
• Failing to ensure you can articulate in your own words the key understandings (listed above for each of non-fiction and fiction passages), telling yourself that although you can't quite say it, you understand. You don't. Complete the more rigorous work of actually articulating these meanings in your mind to avoid having words put in your mouth by tempting wrong answer choices.