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The Best Way to Read the Passage in

SAT Reading

Posted by Rebecca Sa er | Mar 29, 2017 8:30:00 AM


The SAT Reading section presents you with challenging tasks. Not only will you have
to sustain your focus over a long 65-minute section, but you’ll also have to search
actively for evidence in each passage to back up your answers.

The test may be time intensive and full of tricky “distractor” answers, but you can
learn to avoid the common pitfalls with the right approach. This guide will discuss the
best strategies for reading the passages e ectively and achieving a high score on
the new SAT Reading. To start, let’s go over what the redesigned passages are going
to look like on your test.

Types of Reading Passages On the SAT

Since the 2016 SAT (out of 1600 points) was rolled out, every SAT reading test
features four individual passages and one pair of passages. One of these passages
comes from US and World Literature, two come from History and Social Studies,
and two deal with Science. In total, each passage (or set of paired passages
combined) will contain about 500 to 750 words. One or more of them will feature a
graph, table, or chart. 

You’ll be tasked with answering a total of 52 Reading questions. You’ll complete the

Reading section all at one time in one 65-minute section—the rst section you'll do
on the SAT.

There are a few strategies you can use when reading the passages. Before delving
into these reading strategies, let’s review the types of Reading questions you’ll

Types of Reading Questions On the SAT

The new SAT asks reading comprehension questions about main points, details,
inferences, vocabulary in context, function, author technique, evidence support, and
data analysis from a graph, table, or chart.
The new SAT is primarily concerned with how you connect evidence to your
answers and deconstruct logic and arguments. By keeping this emphasis in mind,
you can keep an eye out for relevant details and meaning as you read through the
passages. These are the main ways that College Board will test your reading
comprehension skills:

1. Big Picture / Main Point: What is the overall purpose of the passage? Is it
describing an issue or event? Is it trying to review, prove, contradict, or

2. Little Picture / Detail: Detail questions will usually refer you to a speci c line
within the passage. They might ask what a sentence means or how it functions
within the overall passage.

3. Inference: These questions ask you to interpret the meaning of a line or two in
the passage. Don't worry, they won't be too vague or open to interpretation, as
there can only be one absolutely correct answer.

4. Vocabulary in Context: These questions usually also refer you to a speci c line
and ask how a word functions within a sentence. These words are often not too
advanced; instead, they're often common words that may have an unusual
meaning based on context.

5. Function: These questions often ask what a phrase, sentence, or paragraph is

accomplishing within the context of the whole passage. This links to your
understanding of the big picture / main point.

6. Author Technique: What's the author's tone, style, or other technique in this
passage? Paired passage questions often ask you to compare and contrast
author techniques or opinions.

7. Evidence Support: These questions ask you to choose a line or series of lines
that provide the best evidence to your answer to a previous
question. Therefore, an evidence question could refer back to any of the
question types mentioned above, with the exception of vocab-in-context. These
evidence support questions often take the form, “Which choice provides the
best evidence to the previous question?” While these questions can help you
check your thinking, they may also contain a trap; if you answered wrong to the
previous question, you'll probably nd that the mistake in your thinking has a
corresponding answer in the evidence question.
8. Data Analysis: These questions are entirely new and refer to graphs and
charts. They may ask something like, “Which claim about tra c congestion is
supported by the graph?” The hardest ones may combine with an inference
question, like, “"The author is least likely to support which interpretation of the
data in this gure?”

Understanding the types of passages and questions will begin to improve your
understanding of the Reading section and how you approach each passage. As you
take SAT practice tests, keep a critical eye on how each question ts into one or more
of the above categories. Now let's look speci cally at what steps you should take
when reading through the passages to maximize your comprehension and take
control of your time management.

One step at a time...

How to Read the Passages

Some students jump into reading, others read the questions rst, and still others
swear by a “back and forth” method. In our view, the ve steps described below
represent a tried and true approach that works for most students. It uses e ective
methods to understand the important points of the passage before you even read it,
and it helps you save time digesting the passage.

With ve passages to read and 52 questions to answer in only 65 minutes, time is of

the essence. Read over these steps, give this approach a try, and see if it helps you
preserve your focus and work e ciently as you prep for the SAT Reading.  

Step 1

A good standard approach is to glance over the corresponding questions before

you begin to read the rst passage. This way, you'll have a sense of what you're
looking for and where to focus your attention.

Even though the passage may be a fascinating description of space mining or

Japanese marriage customs, deep reading is not your goal here—answering the
questions correctly and e ciently is. You can always learn more about a topic after
the SAT. For now, you want to laser your focus onto the tasks at hand.

As you read the questions, you can circle the Big Picture / Main Point questions
right o the bat. You can leave these for the end, as in this example from College
Board's SAT Practice Test 1:

Here, the main purpose question comes rst. You can choose to answer it last, though,
once you have a strong understanding of the passage.

As for the speci c line questions, you can make a mark on the lines referenced and
pay special attention to them when reading.

All of this marking and prioritizing is not to suggest that you won't be quickly reading
the whole passage; instead, it's a way to know what you're looking for before you
start. Again, this is an approach that saves time for most students, but you should
also feel free to use the method that works best for you.

Step 2

Quickly read the information blurb that comes at the very beginning of the passage.
This should help you situate the passage in context. When is the author writing,
for instance? Is she an author of ction, a scientist, or a historian?

Having this context at the beginning may help you begin to have an understanding of
the tone, style, and purpose of the passage.

This passage is from the dads of DNA themselves! Things are about to get science-y!

Step 3

Now, go ahead and read the passage. You should read quickly, even skimming for
important features. These include the last line of the introduction (usually the
thesis of the passage), opening sentences of paragraphs, and the conclusion.

Also, look out for transitional words and phrases, like however, additionally, and
despite, that might mark a shift in or continuation of ideas. This approach will be
much more helpful and time-saving than trying to understand each and every word.

Another consideration as you read is your own mindset. You probably know that
being interested in a subject helps you pick it up faster. You may think you can't help
what you're interested in, but actually, you have a great deal of control over your
mindset. If you try to approach the passages being really interested in, even
fascinated by, the topic at hand, then you'll be able to speed up your reading
and improve your retention.

You might be skeptical, but the SAT actually can have some pretty intriguing, random
information, and they have such a great range you're likely to be interested in some,
if not all, of the passages.

Step 4

On to answering the questions. Leave the ones you circled for the end. It can be
helpful to predict your own answer before actually looking at the answer choices.
They are designed and worded so that they all sound plausible, so they could distract
you from your original understanding of the question.

If your passage includes a chart or graph, then you'll have one or two data
interpretation questions. You may be able to answer these even before skimming the
passage, but in most cases it will be helpful to have context.

Many of these questions don't ask for data analysis alone, but instead ask if the
data supports a claim made in the text or if the author incorporated a data point to
prove or refute an argument. These kinds of questions will call on you to nd
evidence in numbers as well as in prose, as in this table and question based on the
above mentioned passage by Watson and Crick:

Notice how this question isn't straightforward data analysis. It goes one step further by
asking a "little picture/detail" question about the authors' proposed pairing of bases in
DNA. You'll have to locate info in both the passage and the table.

As you work through the various passage and data-based questions, it can be
distracting to go back and forth between the test booklet and bubble sheet. It can be
useful and save time to answer the entire set of questions in your test booklet
and then transfer all your answers to the bubble sheet in one chunk. But make
sure you don't run out of time doing this, and be careful that your answers line up
corrently on the bubble sheet!

The detail questions should go in chronological order with the passages, so the rst
detail question might refer to a line near the beginning of the passage and continue
in order after that. They're not all mixed up in random order, but rather coincide
with the ow of the passage.

Step 5

Once you've answered the other questions, you can go back to the general purpose
questions you circled. You should have your best sense of the passage at this point,
after you've read it and answered other questions about it.

Finally, you can go ahead and carefully transfer your answers to the bubble

These 5 steps are an e ective approach for most students reading and answering
questions on the Critical Reading passages. If you've never tried this kind of reading
strategy before, de nitely try it out on your next practice test and see if your
score improves. This is especially e ective if you nd that you keep running out of

Let's discuss some other tips and strategies that are helpful to keep in mind.

Be on the lookout for SAT "red herrings"!


Tips and Strategies for Critical Reading

Beyond practicing your reading e ciency, you can use some other strategies as you
answer the questions and prep for this section. The age-old trick of process of
elimination  is alwayse useful. An unexpected preparation strategy is to practice
answering ACT Science questions. Read on for a few more useful strategies that will
help you do your best on SAT Reading. 

Look to Eliminate Wrong Answers

None of the answers will be glaringly wrong. In fact, they're worded in such a way that
they'll often all seem plausible!

This means you'll have to play interception on your own brain. It may be easily
distracted by answers that seem sort of right, but you have to halt your distracted
thought process in its steps. If you nd yourself overly rationalizing or justifying an
answer, it's probably not the correct one. 

There is only one 100% correct answer, and it won't cause you too much

Generally, wrong answers are too speci c, too broad, describe a relationship in
reverse order, or just present a totally unrelated concept. This article goes into
further detail about how to eliminate wrong answers in order to land on the one
100% correct one.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid extremes. Words like "never" or "always" are not
usually present in the correct answer. But to follow my own advice, I should never say

Another essential mindset, and one that the new SAT will ask to use explicitly, is one
that looks for evidence.

Back Up Your Answers With Evidence

Don't just choose an answer that "feels" right—instead, make sure you can back up
all your answers with evidence direct from the text.
None of these questions require you to have any pre-existing knowledge of the topic.
Instead, they're testing your reading comprehension. All your answers should be
proven and supported by the passage. Even if the answer were to be factually
inaccurate (don't worry, it won't be), the questions are still completely about the
passage, not about knowledge you already have.

This is an important point to remember for the SAT, which will use texts with which
you may be familiar or that are especially relevant to history or contemporary life. To
answer questions correctly, it's crucial that you turn o your personal biases or
opinions and base your understanding completely on the text at hand. Luckily,
the new evidence support questions will be a good reminder to keep referring back
to the text for your responses. 

You’ll likely get two to three evidence support questions per passage that
explicitly ask you to choose one or a few lines that prove your answer to a previous
question. These help you check your thinking and ensure that you have proof for an

Even if a question is not followed by an evidence support question, though, you

should try to use this mindset of backing up your responses with evidence
directly from the text. That way you know you’re basing your answer on the words
on the page, rather than on your own assumptions.


Practice Data Analysis with ACT Science Questions 

Those who consider themselves English bu s may not love the addition of charts,
tables, and graphs in their SAT Reading questions. What's this data doing in a
reading comprehension section, anyway? According to College Board, the inclusion of
data analysis is part of its attempt to connect the new SAT with what students are
learning in the classroom and with real-world skills. 

You can actually sharpen your data interpretation skills by practicing with ACT
Science questions. The ACT questions may call for more specialized scienti c
knowledge, but they still demand the same skills of interpretation as will the SAT
Reading questions.

By referring to charts and graphs for your answer and looking for evidence in data,
you'll be better prepared for the data and evidence-based Reading questions on the

Know Your Literary Terms and Techniques

SAT Reading is primarily concerned with understanding function (of words,

sentences, paragraphs) and argument. Therefore, most of your SAT reading
practice should focus on deciphering the logic and structure of a piece.

However, it's still useful to review the most common literary terms, like theme, style,
tone, foreshadowing, and imagery, as well as some of the most common words to
describe them. In addition to reviewing de nitions, you should learn how to apply
and nd them in something you read. It's one thing to know that a tone can be
somber, hopeful, or suspicious; it's another to determine the tone of a given passage.

Test prep will help you get better and better at this, along with reading and analyzing
as much as you can in and out of the classroom.

Study Vocabulary

As mentioned above, the vocabulary questions based on passages will not test your
understanding of little-used big words. Instead of obscure vocab, Reading
questions might ask about relatively common words that are used in an unusual
way within the context of the passage. This means you should practice
interpreting meaning in context, along with understanding the denotations
(de nitions) and connotations (what words imply or suggest) of words.

To give a simplistic example, note how the phrase, "Nice job," can have two very
di erent connotations in these two contexts.
1. "Nice job," Kathy snickered to her friends, after tripping you in the cafeteria.
2. "Nice job!" Kathy said admiringly, as you showed her the bowl you made in

Understanding multiple-meaning words, as well as tone, is all about context.

Given these steps and strategies, how can you strengthen your Reading skills?

Practice, Practice, Practice

The Reading section on the SAT is not always so closely aligned with your high school
English classes, although the redesigned version is more connected than ever before
with its emphasis on evidence-based reading. While your English classes may
encourage you to be creative and support all kinds of interpretations, your SAT
Reading questions will only have one absolutely correct answer, and that answer
must be derived from and supported by the text itself.

You can strengthen your ability to read and answer questions quickly with serious
test prep, which will not only help your reading comprehension skills, but also your
time management and pacing. Reading sources outside of class, like news articles
from the New York Times, will also help you hone your skills of analyzing logic,
deconstructing arguments, and determining author opinion and tone.

If you're applying as a humanities or social sciences major, you especially want to

make sure you score highly on the Reading section of the SAT. Take practice tests,
identify your weaknesses, understand your mistakes, and practice often and
e ectively so you can score highly on Reading. With the right approach and
su cient test prep, you could even achieve a perfect Reading score.

What's Next?

Now that you know about the changes to the Reading section, check out
our Complete Guide to the New SAT to learn about the rest of the redesigned test!

Are you deciding between the new SAT and the ACT? You can read all about how
the two tests compare to each other here, as well as learn about the changes taking
place to the Writing section of the ACT.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We have the industry's leading SAT
prep program. Built by Harvard grads and SAT full scorers, the program learns your
strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics, then customizes your prep
program to you so you get the most e ective prep possible.

Check out our 5-day free trial today:

Improve Your SAT Score by 160+ Points, Guaranteed

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Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!

Hasnain Manzoor 26/11/2015, 20:54:19

I wanna improve my score of reading & i 'm practicing upto my best. But i'm not
improving my Score above 550. I want to take it around 750's. So any guidliness?

Reply to Hasnain Manzoor

Rebecca Sa er 28/11/2015, 06:13:28

Hi Hasnain, improving your section score by 200 points is a tough challenge, but
you can work towards it by using high quality practice materials, like o cial tests
and by thoroughly analyzing your mistakes and guring out where you went
wrong. This process is unique for each student, depending on his strengths and
weaknesses. If you're having trouble guring out your study approach, I'd
recommend checking out our prep program, which customizes the study plan for
each student. You can try out a 5 day program for free to see if it works for you.

You can also check out 6 strategies for improving your reading comprehension
scores in this guide:

Also, check out this one for more on how to analyze your mistakes and use them
to improve your scores:

Finally, you can check out this ultimate guide to SAT reading with links to SAT
Reading strategies, tips, and practice tests:

Hope this helps, and good luck!

Reply to Rebecca Safier

Theogene MANIRAGUHA 28/12/2015, 14:05:05

Hello, this is Theogene from Rwanda and I have question which goes like this; what
happens when you fail SAT test. cant University help you and get admitted but rst
learn English when you reach in the school?

Reply to Theogene MANIRAGUHA

Rebecca Sa er 31/12/2015, 03:28:35

Hi Theogene, each section of the SAT is scored between 200 and 800. You can't
really "fail," but you can get scores that fall below what your colleges want to see.
There are actually a lot of schools that don't require SAT scores, which you might
be interested in. You can read about them here:

Some schools o er an ESL bridge program over the summer or school year - if
you get good grades, then you can transfer as an undergraduate following the
English language program.

Community colleges are also a good option, you can study English and take
classes for credit for a year or two, and then transfer into a 4-year college when
you're ready. You can read about applying to community colleges here:

I'd also suggest you read this article about the SAT and ACT for international
students -
guide. Hope that helps!

Reply to Rebecca Safier

salma 20/03/2016, 15:08:15

no matter how hard i try or how much i practice, i can never really get a score higher
than 330/400 in the reading section. at rst, i thought it was because my mind gets
foggy when i'm under pressure but that problem was later solved by practicing
reading more often. now, all my mistakes involve questions which answers require
much concentration. i don't really feel satis ed when i skim the passage and i feel like
i should read the whole passage to gain as much information. also, when i try the
opposite and read the questions rst, i get confused and i focus on only what i caught
a glimpse of and search for it completely not concentrating on whatever the other
questions needed which leads me to reread the passage several times. i'm really
struggling and i don't know how will i feel if i did not get a perfect score. i tend to feel
major anxiety towards my future and its truly tiring. if you have any tips for me then
please do say them because i need as much help as possible.

Reply to salma
Rebecca Sa er 14/04/2016, 12:00:19

Hi Salma, it sounds like anxiety may be interfering with your ability to think
clearly. While continuing to practice reading passages under time pressure
should help you improve, you might also want to try out techniques to calm your
nerves. These guides might be useful, and there are a lot of other resources
online (and perhaps via your school counselors) to deal with this kind of pressure
around the test and your future. Like with anything else, active practice should
help you use self-soothing techniques in a more and more e ective way. I hope
that helps!

Reply to Rebecca Safier

Abdulrahman Alsayed 24/05/2016, 10:22:59

This is the rst trial for me (June 4)

I have a problem with critical reading, the problem is when reading the passage then
the questions I start to forget what the passage was talking about.
Here is another problem with me:
"Which choice provides the best evidence to the previous question?..........these type
of questions always confuse please, I need your help to get a solution.

Reply to Abdulrahman Alsayed

Rebecca Sa er 26/05/2016, 15:17:05

Hi Abdulrahman, you should check out our guide with strategies for answering
Command of Evidence questions -
evidence-sat-reading. They're new question types on the SAT this year and can
de nitely be tricky!

As for having trouble remembering what you read, perhaps you can take small
notes on the margin or circle key details as you read. Another strategy is
skimming the questions rst so that you know exactly what information to look
for. I'd suggest trying out the di erent reading strategies to nd the ones that
work best for you. The more you practice and read everyday, the more you'll

You might also nd this guide on reading comprehension helpful - Hope that

Reply to Rebecca Safier

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