Often, we think that once we become proficient at sounding out letters and identifying words that we can read. Well, you can, sort of. But that is the same as saying that I can find middle C on a piano, and can look at sheet music, and identify the right key to press that I can play the piano. Sure, I can, sort of.
Reading is a series of steps that you (hopefully) go through, and if you are a proficient reader you can take any text and get through all the steps.
Can you sound the word out accurately? You might give me a knee-jerk “well of course I can.” But can you fluidly without having to backtrack?
For example, read the following sentence.
The flowers wind throughout her hair.
Did you pronounce “wind” like “win” with a d? Or did you pronounce it like “wine” with a d?
The word is the verb form and is pronounced like “wined”, and so you can see that it isn’t always so simple even with easily identifiable words.
Do you have an internal definition for each of the words in the text? Can you infer the meaning based on context?
This is the step that can make or break your reading. If you have a solid understand of 95-98% of a text, you should be able to understand it. However, some students struggle to understand 80% of the words in a college level text. If you take a single page of text of about 200 words, and you need to look up 8-10 of those words, then you are in trouble. You just don’t have time for that and by the time you have processed and understood all the new words you will have to go back and re-read the page all over again and then you turn to the next page and “Bam!” 7 or 10 more words. University students have to read hundreds (yes, even you math majors) of pages of text per week, and you just don’t have time to look up dozens and dozens of words.
The most effective way to improve your vocabulary is to read more. As you come across words that you are unfamiliar with, you should be developing a context for their meaning. Over time, you will start to understand the subtleties of meaning (connotation) that will improve your ability to understand the SAT passages. Yes, it takes time and effort, but your understanding will be more grounded than memorizing lists or words and definitions.
Once you have read a sentence or paragraph you need to unify those words into ideas. Have you ever read a passage and carefully paid attention to each word, but hit the end and had no idea what you just read? Well then, my friend, you have just failed to consolidate your information. Consolidation happens when you can articulate the main idea and points made by the author, or if it is a piece of fiction, you can talk about the plot and the characters.
If you read everything like it is factual and literal, you can have problems with English. First of all, you should be actively engaging with the text and checking in with yourself about whether the text matches your own experience, seems plausible, is persuasive, and should be integrated into your body of knowledge. Especially in the age of the Internet, you should be wary of what has been written. Some of it could be wrong. It could be out of date information, lies, a misinterpretation of data, or any number of things that makes the information not reasonable.
You need to be able to accept or disregard information based on a set of criteria. This criteria changes depending on the type of reading you are doing. For example, if I am reading an entertainment magazine and there is an article about an actress being cast in movie, I am engaged in low stakes reading. That is, whether this information is true or false really isn’t going to affect my life in any meaningful way. So, if the story is just a publicity stunt to pressure producers to cast the actress, who cares? However, if I am reading a study that honeybees are dying at unprecedented rates and may be extinct in 10 years, I am reading something with higher stakes because we (humans) need bees because of their assistance in pollinating plants that create much of our food. Without bees, much of humanity starves to death. But before I start sounding the alarms, I need to consider where this information came from, who paid for the study, is the science accurate, have there been other studies that support this information, and what could the bias of the contributors? The answers to these questions will inform me whether I need to panic, tuck that information away for later consideration, or disregard it completely.
You need to be able to adjust your response to what you read in order to understand whether it requires an action on your part.
Much of what writers write is cross-textual. That is, writers reference other things in the world. These references can be to somebody famous, a historical event, another piece of literature, really anything. Often the purpose behind the reference is to add a layer of depth or meaning to the writing. However, if you, as the reader, do not recognize the name or reference, you will miss this layer of meaning. That layer of meaning can be crucial to having a complete understanding of the passage.
If you are not knowledgeable in history, literature, and popular culture, there may be a myriad of things you are missing just because Harry Houdini, Clark Kent, the Alamo, and star-crossed lovers have no associations to other people, events or references to you.
This is where I might lose you. It is overwhelming to try to take in an entire culture all at once. But you don’t have to. You just need to start and learn a little at a time because it is better than not doing anything. Pay attention to names and events that are referenced that you are not familiar with and (gasp!) look them up. You have immediate access to more information than any other generation in human history. This means you should use that access. Over time, you will have more knowledge that you can use to make connections. Eventually you will know automatically that Harry Houdini is a seminal magician and escape artist, Clark Kent is Superman’s alter-ego, the Alamo was the location of a historic battle in the Texas revolution (yes, Texas hasn’t always been part of the U.S.), and star-crossed-lovers refers to Romeo and Juliet who have become a common writing trope in romance novels.
What does this mean on the SAT?
Most SAT readers get stuck at steps 3 and 4 depending on their knowledge. Some easily manage the Science and Social science passages all the way to step 5 because they have a strong understanding of Science. Others struggle to get past level 2 in Literature and Global Conversation because they are not familiar with the vocabulary and sentence structures of some older writing styles. You need to identify where your reading level is and practice with articles and longer pieces of writing in the areas you struggle with the most.
Just like learning to play the piano, reading is a skill that takes practice to become proficient. You can start with the reading lists on this website (links below), or you can just start reading for pleasure more in order to improve your reading muscles. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes or magic potions you can take to change your reading abilities.
Reading Lists from the Released SAT Tests
Raise your Reading Score
Get step by step guidance to improve your SAT reading