Are you a skilled reader?
Many people think of reading as a finite skill like riding bike. Once you figure out how to balance and pedal and get some experience you can ride any bike for the rest of your life. But reading is not like that. There are some basic reading skills that advanced readers unconsciously use that improves comprehension.
Reading is a skill more like playing the piano. Just because someone could teach me how to press a set pattern of keys, I might be able to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” but that doesn’t mean I know how to play the piano and am ready to take on Beethoven. Reading is a progressive skill that takes time and effort. Skilled readers develop cognitive strategies over time to enable them to read more challenging material and understand it. Weak readers tend to use guessing as their primary strategy. If you have read a passage and understood each individual word but really did not understand what those words as a collection meant, you may be a weak reader who needs to practice more (an hour a day—just like the piano).
There are several strategies that highly effective readers use to understand new material: Activating, Inferring, Monitoring-Clarifying, Questioning, and Selecting.
Activating is connecting the topic to what you already know. Skilled readers pause after they are introduced to the topic to think about what they already know. The SAT Reading passages start with introductory information—DON’T skip this. It is there to give you some context for the passage. It can inform you of the original title for the passage, the author, the date it was written and even a little background on the subject. If this were extraneous information it wouldn’t be taking up valuable real estate on the test page. Read it and connect it to your own knowledge. This will allow your brain to contextualize the new information.
Students frequently complain that they don’t know anything about the Civil War or Dutch Tulips. If you find that you know NOTHING that is mentioned in the passages, you need to start opening yourself up to the world of information that exists at your fingertips. Start reading articles and exploring websites. Pay attention to the world around you and start being intellectually curious, not because you will be tested on it, but because the more you know, the more interesting person you will be to others.
An Inference is information that is activated during reading yet not explicitly stated in a text. Much of what you should understand from a text should come from your own inferences. Inferring is one of the most essential cognitive strategies that skilled readers use. It is employed in combination with background knowledge and vocabulary connotations. For example, if I say that I went to bed at 3 a.m., you should infer that I am tired. Or that I am explaining why I was late. Or that I am working really hard to prepare for an exam. These would be valid inferences, but a correct one would depend on the specific circumstances surrounding the conversation.
Skilled readers are constantly aware of how much they are understanding and whether they need to reread, slow down, or speed up. Monitoring is thinking about what you are reading while you are reading it, and clarifying is simplifying and organizing the information in a way that allows you to comprehend it fully. If a reader encounters a word or idea that is unclear, he/she will hold onto it mentally until clarification arrives later in the passage. Weaker readers will drop the idea and leave it as a blank. The problem is that weak readers end up with passages that look (mentally) like Swiss cheese. When I ask students to write notes in the margins, I am artificially prompting students to engage in monitoring and clarifying for themselves.
Questioning is an important reading skill, but it takes up time and is less important for the SAT. However, that does not mean it can’t be a valuable tool to use on a difficult passage. For the SAT some reasonable questions to ask yourself as you read would be:
What is the purpose of this passage?
What is the main point?
What is the author’s position on the topic?
Are all the people referenced on the same side or do they have conflicting points of view?
Good readers are good at selecting what to read carefully and what to skim over. The more familiar you get with SAT style passages the easier this will become. You will tend to read topic sentences and beginnings and ends of paragraphs more carefully but skim over the details. A paragraph that is an example of a concept mentioned can be easily skipped over as long as you understood the concept. By being selective in what you pay attention to, you can speed up your passage reading.
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