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Reading Comprehension on the SAT / ACT: Method I

There are two main methods I suggest to my students when it comes to approaching the reading comprehension section. The two methods are fairly similar, but one is slightly more conducive to tackling time management problems. This is the method we'll discuss today.

Method I builds on the idea that most of the text in each reading comprehension passage is unimportant in answering the questions. Following that notion, it draws your attention to the parts of the text that should be focused on.

General and local questions

Before describing Method I, we need to clarify a certain concept uniquely applicable to the reading comprehension section. This is the concept of 'general' questions vs. 'local' questions.

General questions

General questions are those for which the entire text needs to be read before the question can be answered.

Here are some examples of general questions:

  • 'The tone of the passage is primarily ...'

  • 'The author used a third-person narrator in order to...'

  • 'What is the likely purpose of this article?'

General questions (aside from evidence-based questions) are usually the first one or two questions on the section, and/or the last question in the section. Answers to these questions cannot be found in a specific line, word, or paragraph; they're based on the text at large. For that reason, you should wait until you've read the entire passage before answering them. More on this later.

Local questions

Local questions are based on specific parts of the text. Some examples of local questions:

  • As used in line 24, 'fortitude' most nearly means

  • The reference to 'ideology' in lines 42 - 74 serves to

  • In paragraph 5, the main purpose of the description of wildflowers is likely to

Local questions almost always go in order of the text. That is, if a certain question refers to lines 42 - 74, the next should focus on a part of the text after line 42. Each question should move to a later part in the text. There are exceptions, but this is the general rule.

Evidence-based questions

If you've done some reading comprehension practice, you've almost certainly seen evidence-based questions. These questions are usually comprised of a set of two. They look something like this:

Question 1: What conclusion can be most logically drawn regarding the intentions of Mato's mother?

Question 2: Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?

These questions go together. When you solve one, you solve thether. And since, as we're about to explain, this question set is considered general questions, they should be answered in the end.

Evidence based questions are general questions because their answer options usually extend over a wide range of lines. In addition, these answer options often show text locations later than locations in the next local question. As a result, it's best to simply finish reading the text, and only then address these questions.

Local questions, when the location isn't mentioned

Local questions don't necessarily include a reference to a place in the text (line 31, paragraph 2, etc), though they usually do. Local questions are simply questions whose answer can be found in a specific part of the text.

If location isn't mentioned, where in the text could you expect to find the answer? The answer: in the space between the last local question and the next local question. If you've read past where the next local question is located, you've read too far and have probably missed the answer. Go back and scour the lines you've just read.

Distinguishing between local and general questions

Let's say you have a question which is not evidence-based, and also doesn't specificy a location in the text. How do you know whether it's a local or a general question?

Just ask yourself a simple question: is this something based on the text at large? Or is the answer probably found in a specific place? That should be enough to clarify the question type.

Now that we've clarified general vs. local questions, we can continue to the method itself.

Reading comprehension method I

Step 1: Go down to the questions. Find the first local question.

Step 2: Return to the text. SKIM from the top of the text until you reach the location mentioned in the question.

Step 3: When you reach the relevant location, stop skimming. Read the text carefully.

Step 4: When you feel that you've found the answer to the local question, stop reading and answer.

Step 5: Find the next local question. Repeat steps 2 - 5 until all local questions are finished.

Step 6: Answer the general questions.

The reasoning behind method I

Approaching the text this way affords two considerable advantages:

First, as we mentioned earlier, most of the text isn't important. Reading the question before each part of the text points you to the places in the text where you should place attention. On the other hand, reading the text before looking at the question is akin to aimless wandering. You're trying to find something before you know what you're looking for.

Secondly, the SAT / ACT reading affords a great advantage in that its questions, for the most part, follow the timeline of the text. This means that you can approach the text in piecemeal fashion: read a little, and answer a question. Read, and answer. You're breaking down the text into one or two-paragraph pieces, which is much more manageable than the original long passage.

General questions usually can't be answered until most or all of the text has been read. For that reason, keep them until the end.

Note that it's important to skim over parts of the text that local questions aren't centered on. You're reading them for context, not because valuable information lies there. Many of the reading passages, especially the science ones, are filled with complicated technical details which are totally unnecessary to answer the questions. If you fall into the trap of trying to understand every technicality, the reading comprehension section will be very difficult for you.

Always think of the question during local reading

When you hit the location in the text (see Step 3), it's not enough to simply read carefully. You need to read with the question in mind. Maintain an acute awareness of what you're looking for.

Some of my students reach the right place in the text, read, go back to the question to remember what they're trying to answer, and reread. This is aimless reading. It will probably lose you time and wear you out, and is exactly what Method #1 was created to avoid.

Always have the question in mind.

A few last words

If you use Method I correctly, it should save you time, cut out distractions in the text, direct you as to where to place your attention, and garner you generally better results. If you've been struggling with the reading comprehension section, give it a try! You may find yourself surprised by the results.

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For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. In coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style. Studying privately with an excellent coach is the best way to increase your test score.

Happy learning,



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