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The Most Important Rule for Reading Comprehension

This article is going to examine perhaps the single, most important rule for the Reading sections of the ACT and SAT. Interestingly, this rule isn't just important for college entrance exams - it's important for life! We're going to explore one of the main ways that test writers trap students into incorrect answers, but it's equally helpful to realize that this same technique has a place in helping us process much of the information inundating us in our daily lives. I'm going to lead off today's article with a few thoughts about baseball. If that's not your thing, hang with me. I promise, we're going someplace.

I spend a fair amount of time reading baseball blogs. One of the most interesting phenomena on a baseball website is the tendency for commenters to jump to conclusions about a player or a team without stopping to dig deeper to see if their viewpoints are grounded in reality. After a particularly rough game, for example, commenters might post something to the effect of, "I can't believe this team. They ALWAYS have a ton of strikeouts!" Fortunately, the particular websites I tend to frequent are full of data-driven commenters, and someone will usually reply, "What are you basing this on? The evidence I see is showing that they are one of the best 10 teams at avoiding strikeouts." What's going on here? How could two fans of the same team have such different impressions of their performance?

The human mind is built to see stories: it's one of the fundamental processing tools we use to navigate life. We see patterns, connect the dots, and allow those pictures to guide us in our future thoughts and decisions. The issue, unfortunately, is that we don't always take the time to check to see if our stories are backed up by evidence. So we watch a single baseball game where our favorite team performs poorly and conclude that they always struggle, when examining the entire season shows the opposite is true! The same can be said for any number of circumstances in our daily lives, and, most importantly for this article, the Reading sections of the SAT and ACT.

The most important skill that a test-taker can use for the ACT and SAT Reading sections is the ability to locate and examine evidence in the passage. The importance of this skill affects both how we read the passage and how we answer the questions. Without it, we're left jumping to conclusions, and with it, we're able to slice through the fog of tricky answer choices to get to the real, correct answer.

When reading through a new passage for the first time, students should pay special attention to remembering where things are in the passage. Given infinite time, most students could slow down, pick apart every tiny detail in each paragraph, and take their time carefully maneuvering each question. But when time is limited, we have to be careful how we use it. It's not always critical that we understand every detail of a passage perfectly on the first read-though. It's possible there are no questions related to certain ideas in the passage. But what is absolutely essential is that, if asked a question pertaining to a certain detail, we remember where we saw it. Then, if we have any difficulty with the answers, we know exactly where to look to clear things up.

In dealing with the questions themselves, it's important to understand how a test writer thinks. The most tempting incorrect answers aren't usually blatantly false; there's almost always some element of truth in them. Often, a tempting false answer will generally agree with the kinds of things that the author discusses, but when you stop to look for evidence, you find that it's not actually stated anywhere in the passage. This is frequently what's happening when students narrow the answer choices down to two but can't decide between them. One answer is generally believable based on what the student read, but the other is directly stated by the author. The most important strategy for deciding between two answers that sound right is to go back and see which one is really there.

There are two parallel life skills to our Reading strategies. The first is to know where to find reliable sources of information when we're presented with a challenging idea. We're all aware of the slant many sources put on the information they present. If unbiased information is hard to come by, the next best thing is to understand the slant of the sources available. The second life skill is not to allow our thoughts to become shaped by storylines that could possibly be true, but rather to hunt for evidence for what we believe. Furthermore, it is important to let new evidence challenge our previously held storylines, so that we're constantly updating our frames of reference to match what we are learning.

Finding the evidence will save students much frustration on the SAT and ACT. Applying the same skills to their thought processes will save them frustration in life. When we're presented with either a set of answer choices or brand new ideas, it's critical that we know how to find trustworthy information, and that we allow that information to shape our thoughts. Otherwise, the stories that steer our lives are driven by believable ideas rather than the truth.

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