SAT Test Prep

CHAPTER 4
CRITICAL READING SKILLS

1. What SAT Critical Reading Is All About

2. Analyzing the Purpose and Central Idea

3. Finding Patterns in the Structure of the Passage

4. Simplifying the Passage

5. Connecting the Questions to the Passage

6. Finding Alternatives in Attacking the Questions

7. Thinking Logically About the Questions

8. Checking That You’ve Nailed the Answer

Lesson 1: What SAT Critical Reading Is All About

If you want to ace the SAT Critical Reading (CR) section, you need to know more than just a bunch of vocabulary words and a few test-taking tricks. You need solid analytical and critical reading skills to help you tackle any difficult hunk of prose the SAT can throw at you. The most important of these skills is “active reading,” which means reading with key questions in mind.

The Three Key Questions


To ace SAT Critical Reading questions, read each passage with these questions at the front of your mind:

1. What is the purpose of this passage?

2. What is the central idea of this passage?

3. What is the general structure of this passage?


SAT CR questions focus on these questions, so you should, too. Here’s a quick explanation of each of the three questions you should keep in mind:

1. The purpose of the passage can be either

• to examine a topic objectively,

• to prove a point, or

• to tell a story.

2. The central idea of the passage is the single idea that provides the focus of the entire passage.

3. The general structure of the passage is the way the paragraphs work together to convey the central idea.

Later we’ll discuss and practice strategies for finding all these things.

Put the Horse before the Cart—and the Passage before the Questions

A favorite trick of “test crackers” is to read the Critical Reading questions first, answering those that don’t require much reading, and then to scan using the line references to get the rest of the answers. This sounds like a great trick because it’s so simple. In fact, this trick usually hurts most test takers by forcing them to focus on details rather than the all-important “big picture.” If you want a score higher than 500 (and if you don’t want to struggle with your reading assignments when you get to college) learn how to analyze passages for the big picture.


Don’t read the questions first. Read the passage first (including the introduction), but read actively and briskly to answer the three key questions. You often can answer the first two questions after just reading the introduction and the first paragraph or two! At that point, read the remaining paragraphs just to note how they support the central idea. The big picture is what counts! If you practice, you will learn to read SAT passages briskly and confidently.


These Aren’t Your English Teacher’s Questions

SAT Critical Reading questions aren’t the same questions your English teachers ask. English teachers like to ask you to explore symbolism, read between the lines, and interpret passages subjectively. But SAT questions must be objective—they must have answers that don’t depend on your point of view (otherwise, everyone would be arguing constantly about the answers). The SAT only asks questions about what the passage literally means and logically implies, not what the passage might suggest.

SAT Critical Reading questions can’t ask you to draw on outside knowledge. Again, all the information you need to answer the question is in the passage. Therefore, you should be able to underline it. You won’t be asked to make creative connections, read between the lines, or explore your feelings about a passage. All you have to do is say what the passage, literally means or logically implies.

Get Psyched Up, Not Psyched Out

Don’t psyche yourself out on the Critical Reading section by thinking, “Oh, great—another boring, pointless reading passage!” This guarantees failure by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you expect the passage to be boring and pointless, you won’t look for the interesting points, and you’ll miss the key ideas!

How well you read depends enormously on your attitude. SAT Critical Reading passages are chosen because they discuss ideas that college professors teach in class. Tell yourself, “I’m going to learn something interesting and valuable from this passage!” This will help you to readactively—with relevant questions in mind—rather than passively, hoping to soak up information just by decoding the words.

Concept Review 1: Mapping What the SAT Critical Reading Is All About

1. What three key questions should be at the front of your mind as you read?

2. Why is it better to read the passage before reading the questions?

3. What is “active reading,” and why is it better than “passive reading”?

4. What does “objective” mean?

5. Why do SAT Critical Reading questions have to be “objective”?

6. What kind of reading questions do English teachers ask that the SAT can’t?

SAT Practice 1: Mapping What the SAT Critical Reading Is All About

The following is an essay regarding current knowledge of subatomic physics.

1. Which of the following best summarizes the “paradox” mentioned in line 1?

(A) Teachers don’t utilize educational materials effectively.

(B) A law of physics appears to be violated.

(C) Scientists continue to test hypotheses that they suspect are false.

(D) Hideki Yukawa’s theory is incorrect.

(E) Scientists are increasingly reluctant to explore the difficult field of nuclear physics.

2. In lines 3–4, the author uses the term “vast knowledge” in order to

(A) emphasize the daunting task faced by science teachers

(B) empathize with overburdened students

(C) draw a contrast to an area of relative ignorance

(D) praise the productivity of physicists relative to other scientists

(E) acknowledge the difficulty of writing physics textbooks

© 2004 Christopher Black. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

3. In lines 35–36, the phrase “responsible for” most nearly means

(A) guardians of

(B) indebted to

(C) representative of

(D) capable of conveying

(E) responsive to

4. According to the passage, the nuclear force cannot be completely explained in terms of the exchange of pions because pions

(A) are not composed of quarks

(B) have little or no effect on the distances between nuclear particles

(C) repel each other

(D) cannot coexist with the gluons that convey the “strong” force

(E) are positively charged

5. Which of the following best describes the purpose of the fifth paragraph (lines 53–61)?

(A) It resolves a problem indicated in the previous paragraph.

(B) It provides an example of a concept introduced in the previous paragraph.

(C) It presents a counterexample to a misconception described in the previous paragraph.

(D) It provides an example similar to the one presented in the previous paragraph.

(E) It logically analyzes a claim made in the previous paragraph.

6. Which of the following best describes the organization of this passage as a whole?

(A) presentation of a theory followed by refutation

(B) description of a problem followed by a history of attempts to solve it

(C) statement of fact followed by logical analysis

(D) description of a scientific discovery followed by a discussion of its implications

(E) analysis of a theory and suggestions on how it should be taught

Answer Key 1: Mapping What the SAT Critical Reading Is All About

Concept Review 1

1. What is the purpose of this passage? What is the central idea of this passage? What is the general structure of this passage?

2. It’s better to read the passage first, before reading the questions, because you get the most points on the questions only when you get the “big picture” of the passage. The “read the questions first” strategy only distracts you from getting the big picture.

3. Active reading means reading with the three key questions in mind. “Passive” reading (which is reading without questions in mind and merely “hoping” to absorb information) is utterly ineffective on the SAT. Top scorers must read actively.

4. “Objective” means based on clear evidence and facts, not on your opinion or conjecture.

5. SAT Critical Reading questions must be objective—that is, based only on the clear, literal evidence in the passage—because if they weren’t, there would be no consistent way to score the test. People would be arguing incessantly about the answers to the questions.

6. English teachers ask lots of interesting questions that could never be asked on the SAT because they are too subjective, such as “What personal experiences does this story remind you of?” or “What kind of job would Hamlet have if he were alive today?” or “What could water represent in this story?” Contrary to what some claim, SAT Critical Reading questions are certainly not “worse” than English teachers’ questions just because they are less creative. Indeed, you can’t begin to interpret a passage subjectively until you first interpret it objectively. You have to understand what the passage says before you can get creative.

SAT Practice 1

1. B The paradox is that “protons stick together” (lines 9–10) even though a law of physics suggests that they should repel each other.

2. C The passage states that “Despite the vast knowledge that scientists have accumulated” (lines 3–4), “an obvious conundrum persists” (lines 7–8). Therefore, the phrase “vast knowledge” is being used to contrast the “conundrum,” which is a vexing problem yet to be solved.

3. D The passage states that gluons “are responsible for the force that binds quarks within protons and neutrons” (lines 35–37). In other words, they convey the force that binds the particles.

4. B The passage states that “pions carry the nuclear force only over distances greater than half a fermi—the radius of a proton—yet the distance between bound protons is far less than that” (lines 47–51). This indicates that pions do not bind protons because they are ineffective in the small distances between bound nuclear particles.

5. A The fifth paragraph describes how “physicists have refined Yukawa’s theory” (lines 53–54) in order to resolve the problem described in the fourth paragraph, namely, the fact that pions are not effective in the distances within nuclei.

6. B This is essentially the third key question: What is the overall structure of the passage? The passage begins by describing a “conundrum” (line 8), then describing attempts to resolve it. The passage ends, however, without a definitive solution: Scientists still don’t know precisely what holds an atomic nucleus together. Thus the passage is a description of a problem followed by a history of attempts to solve it.