Breaking Down Critical Reading

Although reading is an ability that seems to come naturally to many of us, the area of reading comprehension always seems to trip us up on the SAT. The passages, albeit not difficult in themselves, suddenly seem to become incredibly hard to decipher during the test. What is the author trying to say? How do I know the author is trying to convey this particular emotion? All of a sudden, reading, or at least critical reading, no longer seems like a walk in the park. You might have realized that critical reading requires a certain way of thinking that is usually unfamiliar to many of us. But fret not, because this unfamiliarity can be overcome with practice!

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(Picture source: Sacredheart.org)

[Continue reading to find out how you can practice critical reading…]

To practice, take an article from any major newspaper or academic magazine such as the New York Times or The Economist and go through the following steps:

  1. What is the article about? Is the author writing about a particular subject?
  2. What is the author’s tone or attitude towards the subject? Does he approve or disapprove of the subject? Does the author use positive or negative words? The author will rarely be neutral on a subject but this could occur so don’t rule it out!
  3. Why does the author take this particular tone towards the subject?

TIP: Usually a combination of questions 2 and 3 will give you the answer to question 1!

Additionally, as opposed to common subjects of reading passages, the main points of the reading comprehension passages in the SAT aren’t what you would traditionally think of. For example, the main point is not usually a single word “Dogs” or “War” or even a theme such as “Freedom”. The main point of these passages is usually an argument such as “Dogs are used in hunting because of their acute hearing abilities”, etc. There is a huge difference between identifying the main argument and identifying the main actor (e.g. dogs) in the passage.

If identifying the main point is difficult, here is a quick way to work your way towards identifying it using a map of sorts.

  1. Start off identifying the introduction
  2. The first body paragraph (which usually contains the main point!)
  3. The supporting evidence
  4. The counter arguments
  5. The conclusion

TIP: Look at the connectors to figure out whether the arguments are supporting ones or opposing ones; to name a few, “nevertheless”, “on the other hand”, “additionally”, etc.

Identifying the main subject of the passage, the author’s tone and reasons behind the author’s attitude will help you answer those reading comprehension questions! These points form the backbone of understanding reading comprehensions.

Keep on practicing! :D

About the author: Shimin Ooi is a junior in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs department. She has a strong interest in economic and health policy and has recently returned from a semester of study at Hertford College, Oxford. In high school, her extensive research on standardized tests helped her achieve a near perfect SAT score and perfect scores on each of her SAT Subject tests. Through these blog posts, she hopes to help others achieve test-taking success as well!

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