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SAT/PSAT Reading Basic Strategy Outline

SAT Format and Timing:

5 passages and 52 questions in 65 minutes (10-11 questions per passage).  The first passage is fictional, and the last four are factual.  Of the four factual passages, two are on science topics and two are on history topics.  Two will contain graphs, and one will be a dual passage, consisting of two shorter passages on a related topic.

Force yourself very strictly to stay on the good side of a 13 minute per passage pace.  For example, after two passages, make sure no more than 26 minutes have elapsed.  Stay on this pace even if it means not spending as much time as you would ideally like on certain questions.

 

PSAT Format and Timing:

5 passages and 47 questions in 60 minutes (9-10 questions per passage).  The first passage is fictional, and the last four are factual.  Of the four factual passages, two are on science topics and two are on history topics.  Two will contain graphs, and one will be a dual passage, consisting of two shorter passages on a related topic.

Force yourself very strictly to stay on the good side of a 12 minute per passage pace.  For example, after two passages, make sure no more than 24 minutes have elapsed.  Stay on this pace even if it means not spending as much time as you would ideally like on certain questions.

 

Basic Technique

Read the passage, then answer the questions, going back to the passage as necessary while making certain to stay on pace.

 

How to Read

  • Read the entire passage.
  • Although reading faster is better than reading slower, understanding the passage is far more important than being fast, so adjust your reading pace according to the difficulty of the passage.

 

Factual Passages (Passages 2-5)

  • Your goal is get the author’s main point (by far the most important thing) and the author’s tone (positive, negative, or neutral).
  • Don’t feel like you need to completely understand every single detail; you can go back when you need. Avoid getting bogged down in facts and details, as doing so can interfere with your ability to grasp the main point.
  • Pay extra attention to the places most likely to contain the most information.
    • Entire first paragraph, but especially the last sentence. Consciously look for a thesis.
    • Beginnings of paragraphs, until you have a good prediction of what the paragraph is about. Look for a topic sentence.
  • After the first paragraph, pause for a few seconds to make a deliberate prediction about the main point.
  • In each of the remaining paragraphs, your job is to figure out how the paragraph supports or develops the main point and how, if at all, you need to adjust your understanding of the main point in response to the paragraph.
  • Passages written before 1950 are often extremely wordy and can take several long sentences to say what could be said in one short sentence. Filter what is important from what is not.  Some sentences will be dense with meaning, while others will be nonsense.  If you get caught up in the sentences that essentially mean nothing, it will be easy to misunderstand the entire passage.

 

Fiction Passage (Passage 1)

  • Fictional passages do not typically have a main point. Therefore, you should pay attention to characters, plot, and setting.

 

Addressing the Questions                        

  • Always read the answer choices before going back to the text (except for on vocabulary in context questions).
    • Use process of elimination.
    • You never know when the answer will be obvious, and you don’t want to waste time going back if you didn’t need to.
    • Even if you need to go back to the passage after reading the answers, doing so makes going back that much more productive, because you are going back to specifically choose between known options.
  • If you are given a line reference and you do not know the answer after reading the answer choices, go back to the text to the lines indicated. Always begin by reading the entire sentence that contains the underlined portion.  If this sentence is enough to help you answer the question, then answer the question.  If this sentence is not enough and you need more context, use contextual clues to decide whether to read the previous sentence or the next sentence.
  • On vocabulary in context questions, do not read the answer choices first. Instead, go back to the passage right away and read the entire sentence that contains the word.  If this sentence is enough to give you a good sense of the word’s meaning, come up with your own definition of the word.  If this sentence is not enough and you need more context, use contextual clues to decide whether to read the previous sentence or the next sentence.  Then, after reading the additional sentence or sentences, come up with your own definition of the word.  Once you have your definition, choose the correct answer choice.  Read your answer choice in the sentence to check your work.
  • Watch out for two part questions in which the second question requires you to identify the evidence for the first question. On any question without a line reference, before you go back to the passage to find the answer, you should check the next question to see if it is an evidence question.  If it is, do the two questions together, examining the lines referenced in each answer of the second question to see which one helps you answer the first question.  Watch out for false pairings – evidence that seems to support an incorrect answer to the first question but does not actually make sense.  On these evidence questions, the evidence must be found precisely in the lines referenced in the answer choices and not in its immediate context.

 

Correct and Incorrect Answers

Incorrect answers

  • Wrong name with the wrong thing.
  • Partially correct – if even one word is wrong, eliminate the answer.
  • Misrepresenting words from the text.
  • Absolute language (all, invariably, entirely, etc.). Words that offer NO room for exceptions are rarely found in correct answers.
  • Answer choices that just seem too strong. Be suspicious of any answer choices that seem like they are making big claims.
  • Illogical answers and answers that go against common sense.
  • Answers that are inconsistent with the passage’s main point or tone.

Correct answers

  • Are specifically and irrefutably justified by the text.
  • Should seem reasonable and makes sense.
  • Use your own knowledge when applicable.
  • Think about finding the answer that can’t possibly be wrong. You want the least wrong answer, not the most correct one.

 

Dual Passage

One of the passages will be a dual passage, consisting of two short passages on a related topic.  On this passage, read the first passage as described above, and answer the questions that relate to the first passage only.  Then read the second passage, thinking not only about its main point but also about how it relates to the first passage.  After you have read the second passage, answer the remaining questions.