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Big Picture Readers

Reading comprehension is question driven. To be successful, you need to be an active reader – quickly consuming a passage’s main ideas and then saving time to locate relevant information within the passage to answer detail-oriented test questions.

It’s more important that you understand the big ideas in a passage than trying to memorize every detail of what you’ve read. Why? Because about 95% of the details in any reading passage will not be tested.

Only a few passage details will appear in Reading Closely questions. Additionally, those details will always be there; they won’t get erased when you finish reading, and you can (and should) always refer back to the passage.

So, if you’re asked why George Washington owned a slave, what Tan said to his mom, or what the author’s tone was in line 74, it is a better use of time to note where the passage talks about different topics so that you can look up any details quickly and accurately. Re-read the relevant text in the passage and then answer the question. If you spend a lot of time trying to remember them, you’re being extremely inefficient.

In fact, there are only three things that you need to take from a first read:

So, if you’re asked why George Washington owned a slave, what Tan said to his mom, or what the author’s tone was in line 74, it is a better use of time to note where the passage talks about different topics so that you can look up any details quickly and accurately. Re-read the relevant text in the passage and then answer the question. If you spend a lot of time trying to remember them, you’re being extremely inefficient.

In fact, there are only three things that you need to take from a first read:

  1. What is the passage talking about - the topic
  2. What is the author’s purpose in writing this passage - primary purpose
  3. Where are the details placed - mental table of contents

For example, just knowing a passage’s primary purpose can usually get you to the right answer on 60% of the SAT Reading Test questions. Therefore, you must figure out the “the topic,” “primary purpose,” and “table of contents” during your initial read.

The first two are self-explanatory, and we’ll get into more detail on both of those in the next chapter. For now, lets discuss number 3

Mental Table of Contents

Once you start answering the questions for each passage, you’ll find that most of the time, the proper line numbers and reference points are already provided. However, sometimes, you’ll need to scan through the entire text quickly to find what you need, and the question won’t give you any hint about where the relevant information could be located within the passage.

For example: “Which of the following ISN’T about planktons within the passage?”

Well, shucks. You’re given no line numbers or paragraphs. And now you’re required to go through the entire passage looking for four pieces of information and eliminating the three that are there. This process becomes much easier if you have a mental table of contents, which is basically an idea of where every category and “part” is located within a passage.

  • “Oh, answer A has to do with the structure of the planktons. I remember them talking about the plankton’s structure right here.”
  • “Oh, answer B has to do with food that plankton eat. It is in this paragraph.”

This is why we focus on actively reading a passage at first rather than truly deeply reading it. You don’t need every detail stuck in your head! You should never rely on your memory to answer problems unless the questions have to do with significant themes or overall ideas. For the majority of SAT Reading Test questions, you will need to look back at the passage, find the essential details, and then rip them off.

This is why building the Mental Table of Contents is so important; once you develop this skill, you’ll be able to find the key details necessary to answer each question much more quickly.

That is all well and good, but how should one approach and read an SAT passage? Based on our experience of teaching SAT Reading Test skills to thousands of students, the answer is by following these two methods:

1. Selective Reading

Selective Reading is a potent powerful tool that can increase reading speed and comprehension.

One of the biggest mistakes that students make when reading SAT passages is to assume all sentences are created equal and thus deserve the same attention. When students encounter something they don’t understand, they expect it must be important and spend time re-reading it. And if they still don’t understand it, they read once more. And maybe even third or fourth time. When students finally move on, they’re not only confused and frustrated, but they’ve also lost sight of what the passage is actually about.

What’s more, when most students selectively read a passage, they simply try to read everything faster, and they don’t understand the passage as a result. Because they haven’t focused on the key places indicating the passage’s main ideas and concepts, students are often perplexed when they encounter “big picture” questions that ask them about the passage as a whole.

As a general rule, you should always make sure to carefully read the question introduction and the topic sentence or sentences that introduce a paragraph’s topic. If you recognize that the bulk of the paragraph is simply there to support the main idea of the passage, you have no reason to get lost in details or try to master every bit of content.

For example, consider the following passage:
       European zoos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries incorporated the visual cultures of their animals’ native homes into ornate buildings reflections of their nations’ colonial aspirations. The Berlin Zoo’s ostrich house resembled an Egyptian temple, with large columns flanking the entrance and scenes of ostrich hunts decorating the exterior. Berlin’s elephant enclosure was built in the spirit of a Hindu temple; the home for its giraffes adopted an Islamic architectural style. Zoos in Cologne, Lisbon, Antwerp, and Budapest, among others, created similar exhibits. These zoos were no home for subtlety: The animals they contained were exotic to most visitors; the buildings that did the containing reinforced the sensation.
         You can find similar nods to foreign cultures in some U.S. zoos. The Cincinnati Zoo’s Taj Mahal like elephant house, for example, and its pagoda-like Passenger Pigeon Memorial Hut are both National Historic landmarks. In Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos, historian Elizabeth Hanson compares the style of the National Zoo’s Reptile House to that of northern Italy’s Romanesque cathedrals an appropriation that gave the building more than just an appealing look.

Both of these paragraphs are stellar examples of the topic sentence/supporting evidence structure. Each consists of a single topic sentence that explicitly states the main idea of the paragraph, and is followed by specific examples that clearly illustrate the topic sentence’s claim.

The passage should ideally be read as (in the orange font):
          European zoos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries incorporated the visual cultures of their animals’ native homes into ornate buildings reflections of their nations’ colonial aspirations. The Berlin Zoo’s ostrich house resembled an Egyptian temple, with large columns flanking the entrance and scenes of ostrich hunts decorating the exterior. Berlin’s elephant enclosure was built in the spirit of a Hindu temple; the home for its giraffes adopted an Islamic architectural style. Zoos in Cologne, Lisbon, Antwerp, and Budapest, among others, created similar exhibits. These zoos were no home for subtlety:  The animals they contained were exotic to most visitors; the buildings that did the containing reinforced the sensation. 
            You can find similar nods to foreign cultures in some U.S. zoos. The Cincinnati Zoo’s Taj Mahal like elephant house, for example, and its pagoda-like Passenger Pigeon Memorial Hut are both National Historic landmarks. In Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos, historian Elizabeth Hanson compares the style of the National Zoo’s Reptile House to that of northern Italy’s Romanesque cathedrals — an appropriation that gave the building more than just an appealing look.

At this point, you might be thinking that there’s no way you could ever make sense out of anything reading this way. And to be perfectly frank, that might be the case; jumping from key idea to key idea can feel like a very unnatural way to read, and this technique will not work for everyone.

But remember: if you want to improve, you have to be willing to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Reading this way takes practice, and if you spend some time every day practicing, you might be surprised at how quickly you pick it up.

You should also pay attention to significant transitions, strong language, and “interesting” punctuation such as colons, semicolons, and quotation marks. Words and phrases such as “therefore,” “for example,” “however,” “because,” and “in fact” tell you when authors are drawing conclusions, supporting evidence, shifting directions, and emphasising key points.

2. Few Words Summary

Have you ever reached the second or even third paragraph of a reading passage and suddenly realized that you had no idea what you had just been reading? Many of our AP Guru students have had this uncomfortable experience at some point. Faced with this type of reading, many people zone out and lose concentration.

Effectively summarising each paragraph is a method used to understand challenging, confusing, or detail-rich technical material, and is a beneficial approach for the SAT Reading Test.

The idea is simple: As you read the passage, pause very briefly at the end of each paragraph, and jot down in the margin a few words as few as possible to summarise that paragraph’s main idea or primary focus. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have created your own quick-reference map of the passage.

It may help you to pretend you’re explaining what you read in the fewest words possible to a 5-year-old kid. All you’re doing here is “summarizing” each paragraph and connecting it to the paragraph before it. In short, you’re connecting the dots. It doesn’t need to be fancy.

Let’s explain the entire process from start to finish, through an example. History passages are particularly challenging to follow. Consider the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln:

Abraham Lincolns’s The Emancipation Proclamation, Jan 1, 1863
         A Proclamation. Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognise and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
          “That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”
            Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States.
           And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognise and maintain the freedom of said persons.
           And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages. And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service. And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favour of Almighty God.
Here’s an attempt for all the paragraphs in the above passage:

Paragraph 1: Executive order

Paragraph 2: Not Follow Order = rebellion

Paragraph 3: War on rebelling states

Paragraph 4: Slaves in rebelling states are free

Paragraph 5: Slaves do not use violence

Don’t worry if your answers don’t perfectly match; these are just good examples. But see how this works: since you are forced to think of each paragraph, you pick up the relevant important details as you move along the passage and start to see the overall purpose of the passage clearly. Now, let’s try one more, but this time answering questions.

Solved Example 1

This passage on the next page is adapted from “Life History of the Kangaroo Rat: Dipodomys Spectabilis Spectabilis Merriam” originally published in 1922 by the Washington Government Printing Office.
       The burrow system, or den, in which spectabilis stores its caches of food materials, has its nest, and remains throughout the hours of daylight, is a complicated labyrinth of tunnels. Ejection of refuse and soil from this retreat builds up the mound frequently referred to.
       These mounds are, as Bailey says, characteristic of the species, and are as unmistakable as muskrat houses or beaver dams, and as carefully planned and built for as definite a purpose—home and shelter. They are, furthermore, the most notable of all kangaroo rat dwelling places. They range in height from 6 inches to approximately 4 feet and from 5 to 15 feet in diameter.
       The mound is built up not only through the cleaning out of chaff and other food refuse, but through extension and modification of the tunnels; old tunnels, entrances, and caches of musty food material are from time to time closed up and others excavated, repair and rebuilding being especially necessary after the collapse of portions of the den as a result of heavy rains or trampling by cattle.
        Ejected material is most commonly simply thrown out fan-wise from the openings, without much apparent effort to add to the height of the mound.
Here’s an attempt for all the paragraphs in the above passage:

Paragraph 1: burrow = tunnels

Paragraph 2: mounds = unmistakable

Paragraph 3: how built

Paragraph 4: goal ≠ height

Questions

1. According to the passage, which of the following is the reason kangaroo rats create mounds around theirburrows?

    A) For shelter

    B) To attract mates

    C) To store food

    D) To prevent collapse of the burrow

2. In the third paragraph, the authors indicate that common causes of collapsed kangaroo rat dens include

    A) excavation of older portions of the den.

    B) intense rainfall.

    C) the use of weaker building materials.

    D) larger herd animals’ sleeping habits.

3. According to the passage, why does Bailey call the mounds around kangaroo rat dens “unmistakable”?

    A) They have a similar structural form to muskrat houses and beaver dams.

    B) They are more easily identified at a distance than other animals’ homes.

    C)They have a distinctive cone shape.

    D) They are large, intentionally built, and a distinguishing trait of kangaroo rat dens.

4. The authors indicate that the kangaroo rat can be found in its den

    A) only when it returns to store food.

    B) at all times that the sun is up.

    C) during the first five months of its development.

    D) at night, when it sleeps.

Solutions

1. A is the correct answer. Paragraph 1 states the mounds are for “a definite purpose—home and shelter.”

2. B is the correct answer. The second paragraph states “the collapse of portions of the den as a result of heavy rains.”

3. D is the correct answer. This is the correct answer. In lines 7-10, we learn that the mounds are“characteristic of the species” (a distinguishing trait), “carefully planned and built” (intentionally built),” and “from 6 inches to approximately 4 feet[in height] and from 5 to 15 feet in diameter” (quite large!).

4. B is the correct answer. This is the correct answer. Lines 3-4 state that a kangaroo rat’s den is where it “remains throughout the hours of daylight.”

Timings for Reading a Passage

Students often ask how much time they should spend reading a passage. The best answer is always that no one has the same “perfect time.” Everyone is different. You need to find what works for you.

You need to spend EXACTLY the right amount of time reading the SAT passages: ENOUGH time to give you all relevant details - the topic, the primary purpose, and mental table of contents - to answer the questions provided, but not SO MUCH time that you can’t answer all the questions before the clock runs out..

AP Guru has worked with some students who spend about 90 seconds reading each passage, and who have no problem answering all the problems. We’ve assisted other students who spend four minutes per passage. Neither group of students does better or worse than the other overall - it’s all about the balance of time.

Even if the 90-second readers are faster, they might understand a bit less than the four-minute readers. However, fast readers do have more time to re-check their mental table of contents and review their answers, whereas the four-minute readers have less time leftover but have internalized information to guide them.

What matters is finding what works for you. One of the critical skills you need to develop as you work on your SAT Reading skills is a fine-tuned awareness of your reading vs. problem balance. No one can identify your timing for you. It’s entirely up to you and can take some experimentation. To help you, we’ve have created a little exercise.

From this point forward, you should maintain a conscious awareness of how long you’re spending reading and how this is affecting your overall performance. Remember that there are different passage types. You might need to spend lots of time on a Victorian literature passage and less time on the questions, but almost no time on a science-based passage. That’s up to you!

Before we end this chapter, it’s important to mention a couple of “special” ways of reading that lots of firms, tutors, and others often recommend. They’re actually more destructive than they are helpful.

Sub-Par SAT Reading Methods

Bad tip #1

Read all the questions first, then read the passage. The primary reason teachers give about why to avoid reading the passage first is that most questions require some kind of detailed look up anyway –so why not go right to the questions?

This strategy seems to save time upfront, but it means you have to spend a lot more time answering each question. More importantly, the approach leads to many wrong answers. Without a good general understanding of the passage, you can fall prey to trap answers.

Additionally, the main idea of any passage will help you to answer at least 60% of all the questions. If you don’t read the passage, you’re flying blind and will be in bad shape because you won’t understand the main idea. You also won’t know how any of the passage elements or evidence about how details fit into the broader picture. For all you know, the author could be imitating someone for the first three paragraphs, then telling you what he or she really thinks.

Bad tip #2

Take careful notes as you read, underline key elements, write in the margins, and re-read passages you think are especially important.

The truth is, only about 5% of what you read for an SAT passage will matter for answering questions, and you don’t know which 5% it’ll be. The SAT is all about speed. Every second you spend marking up potentially irrelevant details wastes valuable time!

More importantly, if you read too slowly and pay attention to all the details, you lose sight of the big picture of the passage. And the big picture is what you absolutely need to take away from the first read.

It often happens that when you read an SAT passage extremely carefully, you don’t remember a single thing you have read. Your eyes moved along the page, but you cannot recall a single detail about anything you have just “read.”

This is surprisingly common, and it kills your SAT Reading Test score. Your time is limited, so wasting it on “rubbing the text with your eyes” is a disaster.

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