The Trouble with Reading Comprehension on The SAT

Why kids have so much trouble with Reading Comprehension on the SAT and some suggestions as to how to address the problem.

The Critical Reading section of the SAT is generally the most difficult of the three sections on which to improve one’s score.  Part of the problem is the vocabulary that is tested, but the bigger issue is the reading comprehension passages.  Whereas the Writing and Math sections of the SAT draw from a specific and limited body of content (certain grammar rules and mathematical properties and formulas), success on the Critical Reading section is more dependent on a student’s fundamental reading comprehension skills.

But the trouble does not stop there. The real problem is that the types of passages and the type of reading expected of SAT test takers is not the same as that experienced by most kids in high school. In English class, high school students read primarily works of fiction and discussion is often about the different ways in which one can interpret the piece. But on the SAT most of the passages are non-fiction of the type that most students will encounter only in college.

Wait, wait, wait, you might say. My child reads plenty of non-fiction. He has history textbooks and science text books, etc. Unfortunately, that is not the kind of non-fiction reading that appears on the SAT. The purpose of reading those textbooks is just to learn facts.  But SAT passages are written by authors who have an agenda or purpose, and seeing the author’s intention at every turn in the passage is one of the keys to success. This is a skill that is not taught at most public high schools (its actually not taught at many colleges either).

So what can be done about this? For one thing, its important to expose kids as early as possible to this kind of reading. Over the summer kids can be encouraged to read works of non-fiction, especially those that have an argument or agenda.  The subject matter can be anything, but the key is that kids be encouraged to read critically and try to see the author’s purpose in what is presented, rather than just reading for facts. 

If having a kid read an entire book is too much to expect, there are other options.  There are college readers that pool together short readings from a variety of disciplines and authors, and present them in a format that allows a reader to see that there is a debate going on between various authors. Often the passages are preceded by an introduction that provides context for the reading and followed by questions that foster thinking critically about the text. "The McGraw Hill Reader:  Issues Across the Disciplines" is one such option. There are older editions of the book that can be purchased used online for very cheap.

If even that is unrealistic, just getting your child to regularly read op-ed pieces in the New York Times or any other quality newspapers is extremely valuable. The opinion pieces are varied, pretty interesting, relatively short, and (most importantly) opinionated. So the author has a clear agenda or point of view that he or she is trying to convince the reader of, and it is this kind of non-fiction reading that most high school students are not exposed to enough.


Brian Prestia, a Port Washington resident, is a full-time, professional test-prep tutor and SAT expert. He has a decade of experience and scored a perfect 2400 on the test. For more information, please visit ReasonSAT.com or email reasonsat@gmail.com.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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