It’s called close reading. Nobody tells you about this. It is like a hidden secret that would be so incredibly helpful to know, but with so much to cover and so little time to cover it in, teachers rarely get the opportunity to dig down deep into each individual line of text and explore its meaning. Not what the line means to you, not how it makes you feel, not the symbolism of the line in the context of the passage, but what that line is actually saying. That type of reading simply does not get covered in most high school reading classes. To be honest, it is rarely covered in college English programs.
Ironically, this reading is exactly the type that you are expected to do on the SAT and the ACT in the Critical Reading section. You will spend those 70 minutes largely doing close reading. What does the word “fortify” mean in the context of the line? What can be inferred by Gatsby saying that Daisy’s voice is “full of money?” And don’t infer too far! Danger! If you were to choose the answer that says that Daisy’s voice proves how much she likes money, you would be inferring too far. But, that answer choice can sound tantalizingly correct when you’re pressed for time.
The problem is that we have been told for so long that English is the subject wherein we can draw any conclusion we like as long as we can support that conclusion with the text. Unfortunately, many of us, myself included, get lazy, write down the first thing that comes to our minds, and then force the text to fit our conclusions. Again, there is simply no time to drill down on each individual student’s interpretation of each individual line of text. In the end, our flawed conclusions are rarely corrected, much less redrawn.
To that end, I am including here a complete step by step process of the Passage Based Reading approach as we teach it here at Bay Area Tutoring Centers with an explanation of each step. Learn these steps. Follow these steps. And if you’ve been a student of mine at any point, this will sound familiar: Do not abandon these steps!
1. Read the passage quickly.
Read the passage quickly means just that. Do not slow down. Do not back up. Read from top to bottom and outline the passage as you go. You have by now been trained to write a classic five paragraph essay. All of these passages follow this basic format: Introduction, body paragraph(s), and a conclusion. Where is the thesis? Underline it! What do your topic sentences say? Where is the specific illustration for that topic sentence? Underline key points, names, dates you notice as you’re reading. Slow down and read the conclusion a bit more closely. What is the larger point being made? Underline it. This preread should take you no longer than 3 minutes.
2. Find all the easy questions.
What is the primary purpose of this essay? You have no idea! You just raced through a detailed, complex passage from the 1960s about the oppression of black women throughout history. Skip this question. Also skip the question that asks you about lines 35-55. That question will take you a looooong time. Save it for last. Do all of the questions that seem quick and easy.
3. When you pick a question to work on, get an answer in your head first.
Read and understand the question, go back to the passage, read at least one line before and one line after the lines referenced, and understand the lines you’re reading. This means you may have to reread them. (Which is why you do not spend a ton of time on the preread. You’ll get plenty of chances to read and reread when answering questions.) Then, answer the question in your head. Then, and only then, go back to the question and eliminate all of the answer choices that do not match the one you came up with in your head.
4. POE (Process of Elimination)
Pay close attention to what the answer choices are actually saying. Does it sound extreme? “Children hate vegetables.” That’s extreme. Eliminate it. Does it make a broad, sweeping generalization? “Everyone enjoys physical activity.” That’s a generalization. Eliminate it. Is this answer choice even mentioned in the passage? No. Eliminate it. And finally, are the words lifted directly from the passage in this answer choice? Take caution. Make sure the entire answer choice is correct. Often when lines are lifted directly from the passage, those lines are then twisted to make the answer choice wrong. You fall for it because you’re rushing. Do not make this mistake. If you can eliminate two answer choices, guess. The odds are in your favor. If you cannot eliminate two answer choices, skip. The odds are not in your favor.
Let’s talk about those odds. It is crucial that you remember that this is a standardized test. It is not about how smart you are, not about how well you’ve done in high school, or how well you’ll do in college. It is not about who you’ll be twenty years from now. It is about playing the odds, taking calculated risk. What do I mean when I say calculated? I mean you have 25 minutes to complete 6 fill in the blank vocabulary questions, read two short passages and answer 4 questions about them, and read 2 long passages and answer 14 questions about them. You must be calculated and play the odds. Focus only on what is absolutely necessary. Don’t understand the sentence in a vocabulary question? Skip. Don’t understand a passage based reading question? Skip. Don’t understand any of the answer choices? Skip.
There is a 1/4 point guessing penalty on every question you get incorrect on the SAT because the College Board expects you to know what you know and what you don’t know. Basically, your self awareness is being tested. What should you do? Be self aware. Be okay with not having all the answers, and be confident in the answers that you do know.
So, why am I giving away all of this advice for free? It’s simple. You can probably read through a few websites and/or a few test prep books and gather all of the information you’ve read here. Bay Area Tutoring Centers doesn’t have exclusive rights to the best critical reading approach. I believe this information is the foundation required to do well on this section of standardized tests, and I also believe that the ability to read text closely, to read between the lines, to pay close attention to information you’re being given is a skill that comes in handy in all walks of life. When you’re debating a topic, when you’re interviewing for a job, when you’re up for a promotion, when you’re taking the next critical step in research. Heck, even in relationships. Close reading/and/or listening is key to success of all kinds.
I am a humanities tutor for Bay Area Tutoring Centers because here, we fight for you to be academically successful in whatever way that means for you.
By giving you this information, I am merely introducing you to the very beginning of a long process of preparation.
Coaching is the rest of this process. And if you can take this information and coach yourself with discipline and dedication through improving on the Critical Reading section, then you don’t need me or any other tutor.
Coaching is what we’re good at. Sure, we have the information. And now you have some of it too. But if you aren’t disciplined, if you doubt you’ll have the dedication to push yourself through lessons, figure out where you went wrong, and correct your mistakes, then get a good coach: a tutor.
And hey, you’re already here; you might as well stay.