Are You Ready for the SAT & ACT?

Power of the “Word”

If you’re understanding these words right now, you already have the most essential skill on any standardized test: you know how to read. We learn to read when we are very young, so young in fact that we forget what it was like when we couldn’t read. Now we read all the time. Even if you’re not a “reader,” if you don’t read for pleasure or write creatively, you spend most of your days reading. Whether it’s what your teachers write on the board, what your friends send to you in text messages, or the street signs you read on the way to school, you summon your ability to read without even thinking about it.

Even now, stop for a moment and think about how you were able to understand the words in the previous paragraph. You can read and understand English, which is of course the basic requirement, but how do you understand what the words say? When we sit back and think about it, reading is a pretty mysterious business. How do we get from basic comprehension to understanding? Are the words magically transformed into meaning in our brains? That couldn’t possibly be it.

So in this chapter, let’s think about what we’re doing when we read.


In your English classes, you’ve learned about a large number of literary terms: tone, voice, metaphor, and many, many others. If you have trouble identifying these—especially the first two—you’re not alone. Where, after all, are you supposed to look for them? Aren’t tone and voice just things that you either get or you don’t?

Not exactly. You’ll never meet most of the authors that you read, nor will you likely hear them read their work out loud. Because you don’t know the person behind the words, then, there must be something in the words themselves that communicates these seemingly incommunicable things.

Reading on standardized tests can be very difficult because you are often punished for making inferences. However, the only bad “inferences” are those that are not rooted in the text. If you can point to particular words and phrases that support a particular inference, then you’re no longer working with inferences: You’re working with the intended meanings of the texts you are reading.

In this part of the chapter, we’ll start with the smallest possible units: words and sentences. You’ll be surprised at just how powerful single words can be, but hopefully you will also realize that you’ve known all along.