Many students who complete the ACT or the SAT cite the reading comprehension section as the most difficult. Other verbal portions of the exams are far simpler to prepare for and can be mastered by learning the rules of grammar and syntax, memorizing vocabulary and synthesizing strategies for tackling questions.
But even the most intelligent and prepared student will find the reading comprehension section to be rife with pitfalls. The best study method is to determine how the questions work and practice avoiding these three common student mistakes.
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1. Not using the text to support answers: Don't make the mistake of being too imaginative when choosing an answer. If you do, you're essentially answering the wrong question.
Both the SAT and ACT ask questions that have direct textual support. Do not expect to bring your own knowledge to the answer and do not allow your prejudices to lead you toward a particular response.
For each question, ensure that you can point to specific evidence in the text that supports the option you choose. Too often, individuals will find themselves building cases for why they think an option could be a reasonable answer. Again, refer to the text for explicit justification.
I can recall one prominent example from my tutoring experience. A set of practice questions referred to excerpts from two scholarly articles on the Mona Lisa, one of the world's most famous paintings.
Some of the questions relating to the artwork included an answer choice about the portrait’s famously enigmatic smile. This invited students to show off their knowledge of the piece. Close reading, however, showed that her smile was mentioned only in passing, and the text focused instead on the use of shadow to create an impression of depth.
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2. Ignoring different voices in a reading passage: Many reading comprehension questions in the SAT use passages that have more than one "voice." Oftentimes, multiple points of view are represented in one passage and answering the questions correctly depends on understanding how the voices connect to each other.
The issue of "voice" is easiest to see when selections from two different essays are used as source material for one set of questions. In the example cited above, there were two essays, both addressing the Mona Lisa. One essay focused primarily on technique, while the other addressed both the painter’s technique and how that painting became famous.
As an added complication, however, one of the practice problems cited an expert quoted within passage two, and asked how that expert would react to passage one. In other words, three voices were present for one set of questions, and getting the correct answers depended on keeping all of them straight.
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3. Answering questions in their given order: After reading the passage, look to the questions. Many of the reading comprehension problems refer to specific lines in the text, so answer these questions first. Read the sentences before and after the section cited.
After you address those areas, answer the questions that relate to the general sense of the passage. These are often the first problems that follow a selection.
Answering this kind of question requires reading the entire passage as well as understanding it, which you will have done by going through the section-specific questions first. That is why it is key to answer the questions in this particular order, as unnecessarily reading through the passage twice is a significant mismanagement of time.
The final element of time management is to answer all questions pertaining to a particular passage before continuing to the next. Take a moment to review your answers to ensure you're satisfied before you look at the next reading exercise. Once you’ve broken your train of thought, it is very difficult to successfully revisit a past selection.