SAT Test Prep

CHAPTER 4
CRITICAL READING SKILLS

Lesson 4: Simplifying the Passage

Simplify by Paraphrasing

When you read, your brain is not a CD burner: It doesn’t just record all the information for perfect recall. You need to train your brain to process the information into simpler forms. This is called paraphrasing, summarizing paragraphs and passages in a few tidy words.

Good readers constantly paraphrase paragraphs as they read. Don’t worry—it doesn’t waste time. With practice, paraphrasing will actually save you time on the reading section. Having the key ideas fresh in your mind helps you to zero in on the right answers.


As you read SAT passages, practice paraphrasing each paragraph. You may want to write each summary in the margin. Be as concise as possible, but capture the key idea. For instance, “This paragraph is about dolphins and their intelligence” is a poor summary because it doesn’t capture the key idea, just the topic. A better summary is “Dolphins have communication skills that other mammals lack.” If it’s relevant, make a quick note of how the paragraph relates to the previous paragraph. Does it provide an example of a concept described previously? Does it describe a situation that contrasts with the previous one?


Simplify, but Don’t Oversimplify

Avoid test-taking tricks that oversimplify SAT CR questions. Two of the most popular tricks in SAT courses and books are the “chuck the extremes” trick and the “don’t dis the minorities” trick. As with many simplistic shortcuts, they don’t work so well. They assume that the right answers to SAT questions are never “extreme,” particularly if they pertain to reading passages about minorities or women. So, they say, just eliminate any choices that take an extremely positive or negative tone, and eliminate all answers with a negative tone if the passage pertains to a minority or minority group “because the SAT will never disparage minorities.”

The problem is that the SAT always knows how to thwart these shortcuts, to force students to read to get the right answer, rather than just apply a test-taking trick. For instance, the “minority” passage on the May 2006 SAT was a story about two Asian-American poets. Here are two of the questions:

The tone of the characterizations quoted in lines 11–12 is best described as

(A) morose

(B) curious

(C) sardonic

(D) threatening

(E) incredulous

The tone of the statement in line 20 is best described as

(A) impatient

(B) apologetic

(C) reflective

(D) anxious

(E) unconvinced

Nationwide, thousands of students who had taken SAT courses were confident that they could “crack” these questions. Because the passage concerns American minorities, the tone of the correct answers must be positive, right? In question 12, the only choice with a positive tone is (B), and in question 13, the only one is (C). Easy!

But wrong. Even a cursory reading would reveal the correct answers to be (C) sardonic and (E) unconvinced, respectively. Pretty negative, huh? Of course, SAT passages are not disparaging of minority groups, but this fact is not so easy to translate into a quick-and-easy test-taking trick as some would like you to believe.

Simplify by Visualizing

Visualization increases your brain’s ability to absorb information. After all, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” right? Visualizing as you read increases your interest as well as your retention. Visualizing a narrative is relatively simple because narratives contain characters and action. But how do you visualize an analysis or argument?


• When reading an analysis, visualize the subject matter as best you can. For instance, if it’s about life in 15th–century Italy, picture a map of Italy, and visualize the people in dress of the times. If it’s about the discovery of a quasar, visualize the pulsing star and the astronomers gazing at it through telescopes, and perhaps visualize a timeline of the discoveries.

• When you read an argument, visualize a battle with the author’s thesis on one side battling the opposing thesis. It’s very important to “see” the two sides. The explanations and examples are like “weapons” against the enemy.


Concept Review 4: Simplifying the Passage

1. What should you visualize when reading a narrative?

2. What should you visualize when reading an argument?

3. What should you visualize when reading an analysis?

4. What questions should you answer at the end of each paragraph?

Practice paraphrasing by writing a quick summary after each paragraph.

5. When examined closely, “raising standards” does not often have the effect of improving education, despite all the rhetoric. When this game—and it is largely a game—is played right, the statistics improve, and its proponents claim victory. But we can do all sorts of horrible things to students in order to improve educational statistics: kick out slow learners, encourage cheating, employ superficial tests that are easily coached but reflect no real academic skill, and so on. We think that by saying we’re “raising standards,” we are challenging our children more intensely, and thereby producing smarter and more mature kids. For the most part, it’s a con game, and we’re all being taken in.

6. Art historians and aestheticians have long been confounded by Dadaism’s complexities and seeming paradoxes. Few seem able to express its real meaning. Dadaism imbues art with the outrageous and the whimsical, but it is a mistake to think that it is mere child’s play. It is a profound expression of art as life in the moment. Its works have sadly been lost on a public that expects erudition, archetypes, and allusions in its art, rather than the exuberance of life that art should be.

SAT Practice 4: Simplifying the Passage

The following passage discusses the philosophical distinction between two methods of explaining scientific phenomena.

1. Which of the following is the best title for this passage?

(A) Why Mechanism Should Replace Teleology

(B) The Science of the Ancient Greeks

(C) The Psychology of Wants and Needs

(D) The Causes of Scientific Ignorance

(E) Obstacles to a Full Understanding of the Mind

2. Which of the following is an example of a “teleological” explanation?

(A) water evaporates because it absorbs heat

(B) an engine works because it burns fuel

(C) a bird sings because it likes the sound

(D) a dog yelps because it perceives pain

(E) a ball falls because a gravitational field pulls it

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

3. The reference to Socrates (lines 28–36) emphasizes the fact that he was

(A) more influential than other Greek philosophers

(B) fearful of complicated machines

(C) concerned more with ethics than with physics

(D) aware of the mechanistic laws of physics

(E) inclined to explain phenomena in terms of purposes

4. In line 36, the word “possessed” most nearly means

(A) owned

(B) willful

(C) purchased

(D) determined

(E) spontaneous

5. The fourth paragraph (lines 37–49) suggests that teleological explanations persist chiefly because they

(A) are easier to use

(B) are more logically consistent

(C) agree with physical laws

(D) deny free will

(E) explain physical phenomena accurately

6. Which of the following best describes the characterizations of the “machine” in line 36 and the “machines” in line 60?

(A) The “machine” is modern, but the “machines” are ancient.

(B) The “machine” obeys mechanistic physical laws, but the “machines” do not.

(C) The “machine” cannot be explained teleologically, but the “machines” can.

(D) The “machine” is simple, but the “machines” are not.

(E) The “machine” is thought to have a soul, but the “machines” have had their souls diminished.

Answer Key 4: Simplifying the Passage

Concept Review 4

1. Visualize the characters and the action in vivid detail. Pay close attention to the conflict or problem in the story.

2. Visualize a physical battle between the opposing viewpoints in the argument. Imagine each rhetorical device as a weapon against the enemy.

3. Visualize the subject matter as best you can. If it is a historical analysis, try to visualize a map of the region being discussed, and visualize the people in dress of the times. If it is about animals, try to imagine watching a documentary about those animals as the “narrator” speaks.

4. What is the main idea of the paragraph? How does it relate to the previous paragraph? How does it support the central idea of the passage?

5. “Raising standards” can have many negative effects like cheating, unfairness, and superficial learning.

6. Dadaism is not silly or irrelevant; it is the expression of life in the moment.

SAT Practice 4

1. A The passage compares mechanistic explanations to teleological ones and explains why mechanistic ones are “more useful.” Choices (B), (C), and (D) describe tasks that go far beyond what this passage accomplishes, and choice (E) describes an idea that is mentioned only in the last paragraph.

2. C “Teleological” explanations are those that “describe causes and effects in terms of desires or purposes.” Saying that a bird sings because it “likes the sound” implies that the bird’s action is caused by a desire.

3. E Socrates is said to “be far more likely to ask you about your vehicle’s nature, or its desires, or its soul than about how the engine worked.” This underscores the author’s belief that Socrates explained things in terms of their “purposes.”

4. B Socrates, the author tells us, would believe that the SUV possessed a soul, so the “possessed machine” is one with a living spirit and will.

5. A The fourth paragraph tells us that teleological explanations “are convenient,” and goes on to explain why people continue to use them.

6. E The “possessed machine” in line 36 is the SUV that Socrates would believe has a soul. The “mindless machines” of line 60 represent the conception of human beings that many would have if human behavior were explained “mechanistically,” thereby removing (they would think) our free will and soul.