Here’s something I learned while running an SAT-prep tutoring business in an Asian-American community for 20 years: While many students studied hard, only a small…
Here’s something I learned while running an SAT-prep tutoring business in an Asian-American community for 20 years: While many students studied hard, only a small number of them were able to steadily improve their English scores toward a perfect 800. The rest of the students showed general improvement before their progress inevitably plateaued. The score at which they plateaued varied from person to person.
If anything, this score-stagnation phenomenon has become more pronounced in recent years. Unfortunately, because most students (and their parents) usually look for clues in the wrong places, they also end up with the wrong solutions.
"The last SAT’s Reading section was too hard!" I’d hear this from many students after each SAT test. (Most of you already know that the new SAT English test, revised in 2016, consists of two parts now: Reading section and Writing & Language section.) Of course, as true as this may have been felt to those students, the College Board that administers the SAT is constantly adjusting the test to ensure that the national average scores of both the English and Math sections remain relatively stable.
"I've been studying so hard—getting tutored, taking practice tests—but my English score is still almost 200 points lower than my Math score." This kind of disappointment wasn’t rare, even among many brilliant Asian-American students whose performance was outstanding in all the other subjects.
Your English classes at school are of limited value for improving your SAT Reading and Writing scores.
Many people believe that getting straight As in English at school will translate to high English scores on the SAT. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. What you learn in English Lit won’t necessarily help you nail reading comprehension questions.
There’s no shortcut: You have to read, read, read in order to improve your critical reading skills. In this sense, the best teacher...is you!
Think about it this way: You could sit in a classroom and have the winner of the Tour de France teach you how to ride a bike. Sit this way, lean this way, pedal that way. You can even learn the physics behind how bicycles stay upright. But no matter how expert the instruction, there’s absolutely no replacement for hopping on a bike and riding it yourself. By riding every day, it becomes second nature to you.
In just the same way, you should read constantly, until it becomes natural and even enjoyable. Your eyes and brain will become accustomed to working together, so that instead of drilling yourself on reading techniques and thinking about what you’re doing step by step, you’re naturally comprehending, analyzing, and assessing the sentences on the page intuitively. That’s what it means to have good critical reading skills.
Of course, it might be hard at first. Just as you can’t hop on a bike for the very first time and go for a leisurely spin around the block, you’ve got to practice reading. The tricky part is to stick with it, even when it’s not exactly fun. (You can make it more fun by starting with stuff you like to read anyway!)
Your writing and language skills are developed through reading, too.
Teachers can definitely show you how to write a basic essay, and elements like structure aren’t too hard to learn. But it’s incredibly difficult to learn how to write a very good essay if you haven’t already developed an intuitive sense of language through a good habit of reading.
I’ll give you an example. At our tutoring school, we had a high school student whose essay-writing skills registered at 12 out of 24 when he first enrolled. (This indicated to us that he hadn’t developed an avid reading habit.) After about eight weeks of tutoring, his essay scores improved to 15.2, on average. Not bad. During the next eight weeks of tutoring, however, his scores plateaued, fluctuating between 14 and 16. Because he hadn’t come to us with a firm history of reading in place, he was having to fight and struggle for every additional point.
On the other hand, we had another group of students who had maintained a good habit of reading since they were young. They displayed radically different results. Their average score upon enrollment was 18.2 out of 24, and it took only four weeks for the group’s average score to reach 22.4.
From these observations, weI can confirm that, for both reading and writing performance, the effectiveness of teaching tips, tricks, and techniques is very limited. Without a self-driven reading practice, it’s a major struggle to improve your SAT English scores above a certain threshold point.
And remember: even if you somehow miraculously achieve your dream score by focusing strictly on scoring strategies available to you in the test-prep market, that score has nothing to do with your true English proficiency. I’ve seen students come to understand this—with a great deal of stress and consternation!—once their college life begins.
It’s the absolute best way to improve your SAT English score.
Learning how to read well is like learning how to hit a baseball well. Let’s say you want to be the best batter on your…
Learning how to read well is like learning how to hit a baseball well.
say you want to be the best batter on your baseball team.
Your coach can teach you how to hold the bat, the stance you should take at the plate, the importance of keeping your eye on the ball, and how to connect with the pitch. This is knowledge-based teaching.
Unfortunately, even the best coach can’t make you a star slugger simply by teaching you the skills. You have to practice, practice, practice, until your muscles have absorbed that knowledge and you don’t even have to think about it; your eyes and your arms and your legs all know what to do when the pitch is thrown.
The point is that you don’t have enough time to analyze that pitch using everything you’ve been taught about speed, vectors, strategy; you don’t have time to remember everything your coach taught you.
To hit the ball before it flies into the catcher’s mitt, you have to use your intuition and the muscle sense you earned with countless hours of practice.
Your brain works the same way.
You first learned how to read using knowledge-based teaching: first the alphabet, then words, then sentences, followed by whole books. But to be truly a great reader, you have to practice, just as you do with baseball.
When you read, your eyes may be moving over the page fairly rapidly. But obviously, the act of reading is much more than simply scanning words with your eyes: your brain has to process those words whizzing by and execute many different jobs at the same time.
For example, your brain has to turn individual letters into words, analyze the order of those words to turn them into a sentence that makes sense, and hold onto that sentence even as it’s reading, processing, and analyzing the next one, and the next, and the next, until you have absorbed the meaning of the entire paragraph.
then there’s the next paragraph, and the one after that!
you think about how many letters, words, and sentences you’re dealing with when
you read a single essay, and how much work your brain is doing, it’s quite
amazing – as though your brain is hitting dozens of baseballs flying at you
If you’re still reading at the knowledge-based level, this can be very exhausting, difficult, and discouraging. That’s why we want to help you become a reading pro: someone who can analyze written material effortlessly, even enjoyably, at an intuitive level. But this takes practice.
Your teacher can help you only up to a certain point: the rest is up to you.
A good teacher can accomplish a lot; a great teacher can even change your life. However, just as your baseball coach – no matter how talented – can’t get you into the major leagues, your teachers and tutors can’t boost you to that intuitive level of reading. They can only get you to the knowledge-based level, about 30% of the way to your ultimate goal.
Even if you stay late after school, take test prep classes, and enroll in the best private tutoring money can buy, there’s no avoiding it: you have to practice, practice, practice on your own if you want to become a great reader. You’re the only one who can provide the other 70% of what it takes. There’s no magic bullet – or person – that can break this golden ratio of 30:70.
Knowledge-based English isn’t enough if you want to excel at standardized tests or in your college courses.
Plenty of high-schoolers muddle along fine in their classes with only knowledge-based learning. Often, they can even get good grades. After all, teachers are primarily interested in making sure you’ve retained what they have taught you – that 30% we were talking about. That’s what they’re testing you on.
The grade A in your English class at school has little to do with your reading comprehension skills.
So, using only the knowledge your teacher has given you, or perhaps the tricks your test prep tutor has taught you, won’t be enough to help you conquer the SAT/ACT.
Additionally, your college courses are going to be extremely difficult if you don’t have the ability to absorb reading material and process it at an intuitive level. You’ll be struggling at 30% of your true potential, while others who are better prepared pass you by.
But just read nonfiction at least for 15 minutes a day to make that other 70% much easier to attain.
How exactly can you go from being a knowledge-based reader to an intuition-based reader? It depends on which of the following cases describes you: Case…
How exactly can you go from being a knowledge-based reader to an intuition-based reader? It depends on which of the following cases describes you:
Case 1: You have been an avid reader since elementary school.
Case 2: You have never enjoyed reading, but you do the reading you have to do for class.
Case 3: English is your second language, or you’ve almost never read a book from start to finish.
Case 1: You have loved reading since you were young.
Congratulations! Your brain already has strong reading muscles, especially when it comes to your favorite books. Now you simply need to familiarize yourself with nonfiction texts from a wide variety of sources, so that your ability to comprehend informational content is as strong as your ability to devour novels and stories.
Case 2: You don’t read for fun, but you always do the assigned reading for your classes.
Your eyes and brain aren’t working together as efficiently as they could, because you haven’t done as much reading in your life as a Case 1 person. Remember, practice makes perfect. Build up those reading muscles by reading each essay or article a minimum of three times, using your lips to mouth the words at least one of those times. (Read the following paragraphs about Case 3 for more help.)
Case 3: You really don’t like reading. In fact, you’ve read hardly any books from cover to cover.
Because your brain hasn’t had a lot of practice with reading, it’s not a very pleasant activity for you. It’s very difficult and therefore very frustrating, and that frustration prevents you from getting the practice you need so badly. It’s a tough cycle to break!
What many non-readers never realize is this: language is not simply a collection of definitions and rules that you have to memorize. Of course, if you are at the knowledge-level, all you will see is an ocean of dead, uninteresting words floating on the page – words that you have to struggle and strain to put together before you can extract the meaning.
However, once you have mastered the ability to read intuitively, you’ll see that language is a beautiful living fabric made of words and stitched together with feeling, tone, and connotation. It may take a lot of practice to get to this level, but it’ll be worth it.
But what does this practice consist of in concrete terms? Basically, it means reading the same passage multiple times. The first time will be slow and hard; the second time will be much faster; the third time even faster, and so on. Rapidly mouthing the words will help, too. As with your muscles, your brain will get stronger and faster as you do more reps of the same exercise, until at a certain point you won’t be laboriously processing the words: you’ll be feeling their meaning as you read.
This is called repeated reading, and studies have shown that it is the fastest, most effective way to develop your reading skills. That is why we include it as part of our program.
Half of teens say they do their homework while also using social media or watching TV; even more say they’re texting and listening to music. Multitasking is clearly the rule rather than the exception.
How many of these teens could read a 500-word expository essay from start to finish without being distracted at least once by Instagram, or a text?
Probably not many.
This is just part of why it’s harder than ever to help teens learn how to read comprehensively. Many SAT/ACT tutoring services don’t spend time teaching students how to analyze reading passages; they focus on reading the questions and selecting answers based on tips and tricks. That’s also the strategy for many SAT/ACT workbooks.
In truth, tutors know that there’s no way to “teach” how to read. They know that reading skills are best acquired through a self-driven reading practice, one that’s developed over many years.
Sadly, once these students start college, they won’t have a chance to use those test-taking tricks. They’ll have to read the assigned material, from beginning to end, and write essays and take in-depth exams. At this point, they may find their reading comprehension skills simply aren’t up to the task. Furthermore, their addiction to online distractions will pose another constant challenge.
The fact is, unless they’ve been reading nonfiction since their early teens, college coursework —much of which will be nonfiction—will be extremely difficult.
Some parents think that subscribing to newspapers and magazines are a simple solution to this dilemma, but very few teens are voluntarily reading the kinds of essays and articles that are going to be helpful. Moreover, news articles alone aren’t sufficient for expository reading practice, since they do not include debates, reasoning, or opinions. Factual descriptions are of limited value for developing critical reading and in-depth analytical skills.
Students need help.
Reading Care provides daily passages that are an opportunity for focused practice: they’re short, but require concentration that’s free of distractions, because there are accompanying quizzes that must be completed.
Detailed annotations minimize the stress of reading about unfamiliar subjects, and instead of having teachers spoon-feed these notes to them verbally, students must read the notes themselves.
Think of the annotations as additional reading practice, a bit like training wheels, until students can read, comprehend, and analyze on their own.
Vocabulary previews, analyses of challenging sentences, paragraph summaries: they’re all tools Reading Care provides to smooth the journey to a self-driven reading practice.
Long story short: test-taking tips and tricks are of limited value now and will be completely useless in the long run. Because students today are fighting a multitude of distractions that are as close as their smartphone, their best chance for success in college and beyond is the ability to read critically.
And the best way to help them attain that ability is to foster the habit of reading now.