Reading Nonfiction SAT/ACT Passages

For a strong understanding of nonfiction passages, 1) consistently adhere to the following directives, and 2) mentally articulate the following nonfiction takeaways upon finishing the passage. (Please click the triangular bullets (‣) to expand the collapsible outline for important detail.)

1) Directives: How to Read SAT/ACT Passages - Follow these precepts throughout your reading of SAT/ACT nonfiction or fiction:

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
◦ 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.
Recall and connect central ideas and key details
◦ The SAT and ACT reading tests are not chiefly tests of memory but do demand that a strong reader digest and recall the most important ideas in each text. However, even a student with an excellent memory for detail will not perform well unless she prioritizes synthesizing, filtering, and distilling the text's information into a few simple, recallable, and easily articulable ideas.
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, 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.
It Talks About
• Noting the various topics and subtopics the text discusses but neither assimilating the message about each topic nor inquiring about the function of that message within the passage context. This results in an unindented list of topics discussed with little understanding of what is actually said and even less understanding of the author's overall message. You will get few to no points for knowing what the passage "talks about". Be sure that you understand the central ideas the author is presenting and how the passage sections function and connect to convey these ideas and the main idea.

2) Nonfiction Takeaways - Mentally articulate in your own words the following essential understandings; preferably, articulate items in blue without referring to the passage and the other items only upon a brief review of the relevant part(s) of the passage:

• 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.
• The author's primary reason for writing this text.
• 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.
◦ Importantly, our articulation of the main idea should conform to SAT and ACT test authors' definition of the main idea, which is almost always a grammatically correct complete sentence conveying the central message about the passage's subject. Note that a title stating the passage subject, no matter now detailed, does not qualify - the main idea is a grammatically complete sentence.
TEXT FUNCTION - The function of each text component
• Each non-fiction passage is organized into sections - each a single paragraph, partial paragraph, or 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.
INFLECTION POINTS - Noteworthy author's choices i.e., "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

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