The reading sections of standardized tests can be some of the most difficult and frustrating parts of the ACT or SAT, and not just because the passages and questions are designed to be difficult. Reading is a skill that needs consistent practice, and these days it’s rare for school curriculum to prioritize building reading comprehension skills. However, there are a few simple ways to strengthen your reading ability, and they can be done independently! Here are five of my top suggestions of things you do to build your reading comprehension skills starting right now:
Read more! This may seem obvious, but the number one way to get better at something is to do it more often. For example, if you skip workouts for a week, your first time back on the treadmill always feels horrible, slow, and torturous. Whether it’s starting a new novel every couple of weeks, finding a blog that you enjoy, or catching up on daily news, read something for pleasure every single day. It doesn’t have to be particularly strenuous either - just 30 minutes a day will do. The goal is to become comfortable and confident with the act of reading itself, which with time will naturally improve your reading tempo and comprehension. That way, when you encounter the reading section, it won’t feel like the first time back on the treadmill.
Skim for main ideas and scan for key details. Skimming and scanning are not terms for just lazy reading. They are separate skills that require different visual and cognitive functions. Skimming is looking for the overall tone, purpose and idea of the text. Practice looking over a page in a few seconds and answering the question: “what is the author’s main point?” You will learn how to determine which parts are central and which parts of the text you can skip over. Scanning, on the other hand, is when you are searching for a particular piece of information. Practice finding key terms on the page, whether its a name, a date, or a piece of evidence. The better you are at these two essential reading skills, the better you can perform on timed tests.
Identify argumentative and rhetorical patterns. Whenever you are reading texts for your classes or browsing the internet, try paying special attention to the way that writers sway their audience one way or another. You will begin to notice how arguments are organized from start to finish, and the various rhetorical tactics that are employed to build an argument such as evidence, counterarguments, and logic - to list a few. Many articles will have a persuasive element, whether its scientific, political, historical, or even conversational. Make a mental note of the rhetorical tactics that are explicit, but also those that are subtle like the tone or context of the argument.
Make a vocabulary list. I can hear you groaning from here. Yes, this might seem like a stale study hack from the 80’s, but having a broad vocabulary can be a huge asset on tests. Nothing slows down reading like running into a bizarre word in the middle of an already confusing passage. Plus, a single word can carry a lot of context clues and tonal nuances which can be extremely helpful in determining the point of the passage as a whole. It’s easy to keep a note on your phone to jot down new words and definitions whenever you may encounter them.
Write your own comprehension questions. One of the best ways to check if you’ve absorbed what you’ve just read is to ask questions about it. Imagine you are someone who wants to know more about the subject of the text. Write questions that target key components of the article’s content, argument, or tone. You can get very creative and come up with fun, thought provoking questions. This can also double as a review technique for tests or essays you may have coming up!
-Kara Lu, SAT & ACT English Teacher