Admit it. You don’t know how to read (on admissions tests)

Admit it:  Reading is fundamental. This week Crisp Consulting + Coaching is pleased to welcome back Shahar Link, the testing guru.  This week Shahar shares insights on how reading affects the SAT and ACT.  Enjoy Shahar’s great post.

Here’s a common situation on a reading section of a standardized test: you read the
passage, you hit the questions, you do your strategies and techniques and all that, and
you still get two or three wrong. When you review the problem, you see immediately
what you missed – the answer was right there in the previous sentence! But you totally
read that whole paragraph! How did you miss it? What happened?

What happened is: you can’t read!

No one wants to hear that. Of course I can read! I read all the time!

Of course, we all know how to read, in a sense. But in another sense, that confidence
in our reading ability is exactly the problem. In normal everyday reading, we skip words,
even whole lines, and don’t really “get” all sorts of things going on in a given text. But it
doesn’t matter, as long as we get the gist of it.

But “getting the gist” isn’t enough on a standardized test, like the SAT, ACT, GRE,
etc. On these tests, you have to understand everything a question is asking about.
(Not necessarily everything in the passage, but everything that relates to any given

So, if you’re not acing the reading section, it’s basically because you can’t read. For
example, if a student is scoring about a 500 (out of 800) on the Critical Reading section
of the SAT, he or she is only comprehending basic ideas of what he or she is reading
for school. The nuance is going right past him.

The problem isn’t the student’s intelligence. The problem is how we teach reading.
Reading is taught at very early ages in American schools, and some children are ready
to learn to read in 1st grade, but some are not. That doesn’t mean they are stupid and
will never read well – it means that their brains are not there yet. Walking is similarly
developmental– if a child can’t walk at 9 months, it doesn’t mean she’ll never walk! The
problem is, after 1st or 2nd grade, we don’t teach reading anymore. We just assume that
students know how to read. But some never really got it; their brains weren’t ready yet. So they
just do their best to fake it for the rest of school, developing useful coping strategies
that can usually get them Bs in their classes (which aren’t hard enough to force them to
confront the fact that they can’t read). But on the standardized tests, that won’t cut it.

So with many students, we have to work on the basics – decoding, reading every word,
following with your pencil, etc. It’s amazing to me how many students are, in a very
literal sense, not reading. They substitute familiar (different) words for unfamiliar words.
They skip lines. They jumble up letters. This translates into not understanding anything
beyond the main idea.

Once students are actually reading what’s on the page, we can get to work on
understanding the text.

That’s where even good readers can get stuck. Passages on standardized tests are
very challenging. If a student is used to reading relatively easy material, she won’t know
how to deal with an SAT-level passage. What I explain is that good readers re-read
difficult sections of a text that they don’t understand. This is not conventionally taught.

“Slow down!” is what most teachers advise students who don’t understand what
they read. Supposedly, “slowing down” will increase their comprehension. But think
about the last time you read something and understood it well. Did you read it slowly?
Probably not – you read at the pace that is comfortable for you: not too fast, not too
slow. Slowing down actually ruins the natural rhythm we have when we are fully
engaged and understanding a text. Good readers don’t slow down when they don’t
understand something – they re-read it, sometimes 3 or 4 times, but at the same pace.
The point is: reading is a rhythmic activity when it is working well, and messing with the
rhythm will harm comprehension. Thus, instead of slowing down, we advise students to
re-read until they understand the text. Our experience shows that this simple suggestion
can work wonders.

One last point: we all know that students who read a lot over the course of their
academic careers have a much easier time on the reading section of standardized tests.
But the question is: do they read a lot because they just like reading? Or do they like
reading because they know how to read? Although I’m oversimplifying, I would suggest
that the latter is more to the point. People who read a lot find reading comfortable
and relatively easy. If one never learned how to read appropriately, one will never
be “a reader,” because the experience will always be cognitively uncomfortable. In
my experience, making reading more cognitively comfortable is a crucial step toward
developing the kind of strong reading habits that make reading on standardized tests a
very do-able thing.

In sum, when it comes to reading, Mindspire addresses 2 areas that very few test-prep
companies address: 1) basic decoding issues, which are more prevalent than many
teachers even realize and 2) how to understand difficult texts appropriately – by re-
reading until your brain takes it all in. We believe that these two lessons are hugely
valuable to students – not only for a test, but for their academic career in general.

Shahar Link is an educator and standardized test specialist who guides students to academic success by combining a deep understanding of content with a respect for students’ individual needs and ways of learning.  Shahar has been teaching and tutoring for over 15 years, and founded Mindspire Tutoring and Test Prep in 2011 in order to bring an experienced application of evidence-based research on motivation, learning, and teaching to the field of tutoring and standardized test preparation.

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