By Jordan Dodson, ESM Prep
If I could offer only one tip to students who are trying to boost their ACT or SAT scores, it would be this:
Practice becoming an active reader.
A lifetime of reading is crucial to doing well on the ACT and SAT. While there is only one reading section per test, strong reading comprehension skills are important for every section. For the Math and Science sections, students need to read the questions carefully to extract important information and determine what the questions are asking for. For the Writing and Language and English sections, students need to improve sentence structure, catch grammar and punctuation errors, and make sure passages are concise, organized, and on-topic. In general, students need to read efficiently and strategically on every section of the test.
The ACT and SAT are just as much about speed and endurance as they are about testing a student’s knowledge and analytical skills. Students face back-to-back sections that demand their full attention and understanding to answer questions correctly. With each test falling just under the 4 hour mark, many students fall victim to fatigue and lack of interest in the passages and questions they face. They zone out while reading, losing valuable time and missing precious points.
This is where active reading comes into play.
Here are 3 tips to build active reading skills:
1. Annotate. A word loved by English teachers and loathed by students. Time is of the essence on the ACT and SAT, and while it is important to refer to a passage or question when choosing an answer, it is a waste of time to read the same passage or question multiple times. Annotating can help you stay engaged with the content, look back at the text more quickly, and be an active reader.
I remember annotating Crime and Punishment in my AP English Literature class my senior year of high school. The memory is not a fond one. My teacher graded us on the thoroughness of our circling, highlighting, and note-taking in the margins. At the time, I couldn’t imagine why my teacher wanted to torture us with such a time-consuming task. Wasn’t it enough just to read the novel and discuss it in class? However, a year later as a freshman at UC Davis, I found myself retracting my previous distaste for annotating. Suddenly, the clouds parted and I discovered how important it was to mark up the text. As I poured through scientific journals for my animal science class and wrote my own research paper, I realized how quickly I could find information if I circled and highlighted it in the text. I could easily use the notes I took to support my research, and I paid more attention to what I was reading. Annotating soon became a habit that I still value today.
Fortunately, your annotations on the ACT and SAT do not need to be as thorough as those expected by your English teacher, nor should they be. Circle proper nouns in passages and keywords in questions. Put a star next to an important statement or main idea. Use plus or minus signs to track shifts in tone. Summarize a paragraph in one word and jot it in the margin. Essentially, you are creating a map of the passage that you can reference later. I do suggest you avoid underlining, as many students tend to underline too many sentences and details; again, you want to keep it short and simple.
2. Look up definitions of unfamiliar words. I find myself doing this all the time, whether I’m reading a novel or an article online. When I see an unfamiliar word, I first consider the context and make an educated guess as to its connotation and meaning. Do I think the word has a positive, negative, or neutral connotation? What is another word I can use in its place? Then, I use a dictionary (or let’s be honest, Google) to look up the definition. While there is no longer a vocabulary section on the SAT, I have noticed that questions in the Writing and Language and Reading sections often include advanced vocabulary words. Additionally, both the ACT and SAT incorporate “vocabulary in context” questions in the reading section. Naturally, reading more will breed familiarity with how words are used in different situations, making it easier to understand a word’s meaning in an ACT or SAT passage.
3. Focus on main idea and tone. Unfortunately, time is short on the ACT and SAT reading sections (especially on the ACT!). The reading passages are often excerpts from a greater work or brimming with description and detail. You are not always given the complete context, and you do not always have time to read every word.
If you can grasp the main idea and tone of an ACT or SAT reading passage, then you can often narrow down answer choices for many questions. During tutoring sessions, I like to ask students to read a passage in 3-4 minutes and then summarize it for me in 1-2 sentences. While this seems like a simple task, it can be challenging for students to separate the main points from the minute details.
One way to quickly find the main idea of a passage is to read the first and last paragraph. It is also important to understand the purpose of each body paragraph, so pay attention to topic sentences. Additionally, keep an eye out for emotional words that may indicate the tone.
The more you read, the more you will identify structural elements and content within passages. You will also pick up speed while reading and learn how to effectively skim for important information. The good news is that you don’t have to limit yourself to ACT and SAT passages to prepare. Choose to read something that interests you! If you’re into sports, read ESPN articles; if you’re into current events, read New York Times op-ed pieces; if you’re into science, read some recent research journals. Continue reading and annotating fiction and nonfiction novels in school. Remember, the ACT and SAT reading sections will include literary narrative, social science, humanities, and natural science passages taken from research papers, opinion pieces, stories, speeches, and articles. The more you read from a variety of topics and sources, the better you will do on test day.