How to Become a Better Reader for the SAT

Avid readers generally only need minor touching-up when it comes to taking the verbal portion of the SAT. You can’t really fake an interest in reading, nor should you try. But you can break down the aspects of reading comprehension and try to practice them individually.

  1. This is the one that gets just about everybody. The people with the largest vocabularies breeze past questions that others have to rely on a combination of logic and guesswork to slog through. The larger your vocabulary—and the more you are used to reading passages with unfamiliar words, the better you do. What’s to be done about it?
  2. Sentence construction. Sometimes, it’s not how many words you know, but how good you are at seeing them all strung together. What do you do if you only know about three quarter of the words in a paragraph, the phrasing has got you thoroughly confused, and to top it off, you know somehow in your heart-of-hearts that that paragraph holds the key to answering two, even three, questions.
  3. There are a dozen little things the mind does when we read something—things most of us are not even aware of. These mechanisms get better with exercise. So, what kind of practice is going to serve us the best so that we have the benefit of training these instincts and tools before the Big Day—and even beyond that?

We’ll go in reverse order.

Practice. The simple answer here is that there are things everyone enjoys reading. There are books about everything; people who don’t enjoy reading simply haven’t found what they like to read. You may even say you have a learning disability that prevents you from reading or from understanding what you read. Learning disabilities are no fun. But I have seen people with severe learning disabilities—the kind that keeps you out of the mainstream public and private schools—latch on to very narrow genres of reading. I saw one boy even learn reading skills their parents thought impossible just out of sheer fascination with a particular book. Somewhere out there—I promise you—is a book that will momentarily make you forget all of your issues with reading. Start with a kind of movie you like:


-Political Intrigue





-Comic Book Super Hero

All of these genres have one thing in common…they’re fun to read, they’re popular and common. How does your love of romance novels help with your verbal scores? It’s simple. Read up! Find an author who writes highbrow literature in the romance genre—someone like Jane Austen, if you like reading about the dating scene; William Styron, if you’ve got a bit more of a violent streak; Dickens, if you like slapstick. All of these writers were bestsellers in their day, and you don’t get to be a bestseller without appealing to readers beyond the intellectual one percent. There’s something for everyone. Maybe you watched Sherlock on the BBC and want to give the old detective novels a try—Conan Doyle is just the tip of the iceberg, with Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin waiting just around the corner (sidearms at the ready, of course). Maybe you watched Doctor Who and want to meet some of the people the Doctor was so keen about—Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Dickens (again); or you want to read some science fiction by Isaac Asimov or H.G. Wells. Maybe you even found yourself liking a book you read in English class—Dracula? Frankenstein? Macbeth?—and wouldn’t mind reading something else in the same genre or by the same author; or even reading it again with an eye towards sussing out unfamiliar words…see what I did there? Anyway, once you’ve found something you like to read, you’ll find all sorts of time opens up: those long subway or bus rides; those long gym classes when you’re pretending your sprained ankle is still keeping you out of the weight room with its characteristic odor of aggression and feet; those long biology classes where you just can’t even physically imagine paying attention to the teacher for a second longer… pretty soon you’re a reader. And pretty soon after that, you’ll find new-you untangling some long, hairy sentence in a reading-comp passage that would have stumped old-you! You’ll also find your vocabulary is growing and you have hundreds of margins to doodle and write rude comments in (as long as it’s not a library book).

Ok. So you’ve taken to going everywhere with a book under your arm.


Now what?

Well. The more you practice the more specific strengths and weaknesses will emerge that you can deal with individually. With a tutor you can hone in on those all the more quickly and deal with them all the more readily.

But let’s assume that’s some kind of lost cause. Getting you to read a book is like getting Superman to read the morning news off a piece of kryptonite. Or getting Green Lantern to read yellow journalism. Oh dear. I’ve outed myself as a dork.


Despair not.

The essential aspect of reading comprehension is…comprehending what you’re reading. You can practice that less enjoyably but perhaps more efficiently using the raw materials of the exam itself. Simply put: you can read a passage and try to find patterns in what you’re reading. That’s all comprehension is, really. Patterns. Meaningful repetition and variation. And patterns are the one… pattern that unites the incredibly far-reaching topics of the SAT reading section.


Think about it. One passage will be about coming to the U.S. from Latin America. Another will be about late 18th century art criticism. Another will be about the Moon. What unites them all is that they are all kind of repetitive. If there is an important word in the passage you can bet they repeat that word—and synonyms—a dozen times over. And if there is an important sentence, you can bet the data or opinion in that sentence will be presented to you somewhere else, too. So even if you can’t tell exactly what a sentence is about, you can probably jump between two or three equivalent sentences and eventually figure out what the passage is trying to tell you. There are lots of other tricks. That’s just one of the bigger ones.

I’ve saved the best for last. Oh wait, no I haven’t.Blog2

Vocabulary is really hard to learn if you’re not 4 years old. Remember how fast it went back then? Twenty words a day? No problem. Nowadays we need charts and sentences with blanks in them and note-cards and flash-cards and little talking gremlins that live in our cell phones… Ah, to be young again.

Anyway, you too can learn vocabulary. Don’t believe me? What if I upped the ante and said that the best way to learn vocabulary is also the easiest and the most fun? It’s simple really: do it in pairs or a small group. The difference between, on the one hand, giggling and making jokes and coming up with weird sentences, and, on the other hand, sitting in a corner with a bunch of cards wondering what’s the least amount of time you can flip through these things without feeling guilty, or what’s the most amount of time you can flip through these things without your head exploding… The difference is having another person there. That’s another point where tutoring can come in handy, you know, just in case you’re hard-pressed to find friends to play vocabulary games with.

So. You’ve found a book you like to read. You’ve found a person who’s willing to study vocab with you for fifteen minutes a day during a free period or right before school or right after school or during the part in Geometry class where your ninety year old teacher starts to nod off (or maybe that was just me). You’ve figured out how many weeks there are until the SATs and that number is not zero.

I’d say you’re well on your way. Thank you for reading our first blog post. Good luck. And, of course:




Yup. All of them.

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