Improve Your Critical Reading Skills for the SAT

Studying for the critical reading section on the SAT is more than learning thousands of vocabulary words. Here's why, and what you can do to study better.

It’s hard to know how to study for the critical reading section on the SAT, and it may be the most difficult to make significant improvement on when you only have a short amount of time to prepare, depending on your skills, weaknesses, and needs.

Think about math, for a moment, to compare the two: to get better at the math section, you have to learn rules, formulas, patterns, and strategies, then practice using them and learn from your mistakes. To get better at the verbal section, on the other hand, you have to improve your vocabulary (straightforward enough, although a bit time consuming) and … become a better reader? What does that even mean? Many people doubt it’s even possible.

I can’t say exactly what being a “good reader” is — there’s more than one way to read well — but I do want to make it clear that it is possible to make improvements to your critical reading score. It’s just a matter of studying in the right ways. Here’s what you need to do to make that improvement:

Learn the Questions

This might sound pretty obvious, but bear with me: if you want to get better at SAT reading, you need to learn how to handle the test. SAT questions come in a limited range of shapes and sizes, and getting familiar with the exact formats you’ll see can be a tremendous help.

When practicing this, you’ll want to learn how to approach each question, e.g. whether you should read the answer choices right away or first look for an answer in the text. You’ll also want to understand what makes wrong answers wrong and how, exactly, to go about a text completion question, among other skills.

But first and foremost, test practice gives you a chance to make mistakes and learn from them. No preparation for SAT reading is complete unless you are doing lots of practice tests and (I cannot stress this enough) finding out why your wrong answers were wrong.

Vocabulary Building

SAT sentence completions can get quite absurd. Do you know what “portentous” means? How about “indecorous,” “munificence,” or “raconteur”? I can almost guarantee that you’re going to see a word (or ten) that you don’t know; even students who get perfect verbal scores are likely to encounter some new words on their test.

So, studying vocabulary clearly pays off. Flash cards and vocabulary quizzes will do you well. But keep in mind that the test is much more than a vocabulary quiz — don’t get stuck in the common study trap of memorizing 2,000 words but doing little reading practice. After all, only a fraction of SAT critical reading is based directly on vocabulary.

Active Reading Practice

Reading on the SAT isn’t like reading for fun or reading for class (and definitely not like the chimera of reading for a fun class). For one, the SAT reading comprehension passages that you will see are made up of many short passages — bite-sized chunks of dense, often boring text. That means you’ve got to be able to focus intensely on a relatively small bit of information, rather than picking up the gist of a 15-page chapter. You need to have a really fine eye for detail, especially because the questions following the text tend to ask about very specific details.

But how do you stay focused, especially if the text is as dull as a knife made of cookie dough? You’ve got to keep from going cross-eyed — to keep taking in information so you know, at the very least, where to look for answers to questions, or even what the exact answers are before looking. And that means you’ll want to read actively. This is a skill that can only be honed through practice.

So read, and read often. Read dry, slow texts like newspapers or scientific journals (as long as they’re for general consumption, not only for professors/scientists/doctors/etc.) and treat them like puzzles — cryptic messages you need to decipher into plain English. Write down your thoughts and notes about the author’s main ideas: what are they trying to communicate? How did they structure that message? Draw lines between sentences and paragraphs — physical lines, if possible — and think of questions you would ask the author if you could. The more you engage with a text, the better.

This post was written by Lucas Fink, resident SAT expert at Magoosh, a leader in SAT Prep. For more SAT resources, check out Magoosh SAT vocabulary flashcards and the Magoosh SAT Blog!

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