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Reading Methods

​Reading styles are subjective—there is no best method for approaching the passages. There are as many “systems” for reading the passages as there are test-prep books—all “authoritatively” promoting their method, while contradicting some aspect of another. A reading technique that is natural for one person can be awkward and unnatural for another person. However, I find it hard to believe that many of the methods advocated in certain books could help anyone. Be that as it may, I will throw in my own two-cents worth—though not so dogmatically.

Some books recommend speed-reading the passages. This is a mistake. Speed reading is designed for ordinary, nontechnical material. Because this material is filled with “fluff,” you can skim over the nonessential parts and still get the gist—and often more—of the passage. As mentioned before, however, SAT passages are dense. Some are actual quoted articles (when the writers of the SAT find one that is sufficiently compact). Most often, however, they are based on articles that have been condensed to about one-third their original length. During this process no essential information is lost, just the “fluff” is cut. This is why speed reading will not work here—the passages contain too much information. You should, however, read somewhat faster than you normally do, but not to the point that your comprehension suffers. You will have to experiment to find your optimum pace.

Many books recommend that the questions be read before the passage. This strikes me as a cruel joke. In some of these books it seems that many of the methods, such as this one, are advocated merely to give the reader the feeling that he or she is getting the “inside stuff” on how to ace the test. But there are two big problems with this method. First, some of the questions are a paragraph long, and reading a question twice can use up precious time. Second, there are up to thirteen questions per passage, and psychologists have shown that we can hold in our minds a maximum of about three thoughts at any one time (some of us have trouble simply remembering phone numbers). After reading all thirteen questions, the student will turn to the passage with his mind clouded by half-remembered thoughts. This will at best waste his time and distract him. More likely it will turn the passage into a disjointed mass of information.

However, one technique that you may find helpful is to preview the passage by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. Generally, the topic of a paragraph is contained in the first sentence. Reading the first sentence of each paragraph will give an overview of the passage. The topic sentences act in essence as a summary of the passage. Furthermore, since each passage is only four to eight paragraphs long, previewing the topic sentences will not use up an inordinate amount of time. (I don’t use this method myself, however. I prefer to see the passage as a completed whole, and to let the passage unveil its main idea to me as I become absorbed in it. I find that when I try to pre-analyze the passage it tends to become disjointed, and I lose my concentration. Nonetheless, as mentioned before, reading methods are subjective, so experiment—this may work for you.)

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