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Strategies for the Critical Reading Section

Teacher/Instructor Danielle DeLancey
Danielle DeLancey

Harvard University
PSAT expert

Danielle is a high scorer on the PSAT, National Merit Scholarship finalist and "Teach for America" corps member. She has masters in Education from Harvard University.

One of the most important things when taking the PSAT, is to be really comfortable with types of questions that you’re going to see, and to have some strategies in your back pocket that you can use on the different sections. What we’re going to right now, is take a look at the critical reading section, the types of questions that you’re going to see. And then also four strategies that are going to help you answer these questions successfully.

As I mentioned before, the critical reading has two 25-minute sections. This is like the SAT. On the SAT you’re going to have a few more sections, maybe three or four. In the critical reading section, there are two types of questions. The first are sentence completion questions. They are a lot shorter and easier, some people say as the passage-based questions.

Let’s take a look at what these might look like. A sentence completion question always is a complete sentence with one or two blanks. As you can see, you’ll always have five answer choices. Some of the words may be really difficult. You might not know them like artiste. But some of them you may be familiar with, things like philanthropist.

You also may have sentence completion questions with two blanks. For example, Cara’s essay was----- and -----, reflecting no originality and little effort. You have to pick the two words that will fit best in these two blanks.

The other type of question that you’re going to see on the critical section, are passage based questions. Now, there a couple of different questions that you’re going to see. Some of them are going to ask you to refer to specific lines. Something like; The author lists the topics in lines 15-17 in order to...what? So what you’re going to be able to do, is you’re going to be able to look at the passage on those specific lines to answer the question.

Some of the questions also may be a little bit more general. Something like this; The tone of passage can best be described as...what? It’s going to require you to read the entire passage and then answer questions as a whole. Looking at the passage as a whole.

Let’s take a look at a couple of strategies that you can use to answer these types of questions. As I mentioned, there are a couple of strategies that you can use on the critical reading section. Remember, you’re not going to know all the vocabulary words that show up in the sentence completion problems, nor are you going to know all the vocabulary in the passage-based questions. You’re not going to have read every passage. So it’s really important to have a couple of strategies in your back pocket that you can use.

The first top strategy, is something called using context clues. I know you’ve probably used this in class and your English teacher tells you to use this all the time. But what does it look like on SAT? Let’s take a look in an example. Here we have a sentence completion question. It reads; The publisher decided to ----- the work, reducing it from over 600 pages to just under 200. What goes in the word? Let’s look at the context or the words surrounding that blank to figure out what it is. We have the publisher. So we know that maybe a word that has to do with something literary. We that he decided he or she decided to ----- the work, that’s the word, we’re trying to figure out. Here is an important one, reducing. So it’s going to be a word that maybe means reducing or shortening. This is it from over 600 pages to just under 200. That’s really kind of reinforcing this idea of reducing.

Well, let’s take a look at our answer choices to see; improve, well that doesn’t really quite make sense, but we can't eliminate. So let's put a little question mark. Alleviate, it doesn’t really make sense at all. Anthologize, I don’t know what that means, so let’s go ahead and skip it. Abridge, well I know abridge means to shorten, so this could be a really good one. Debunk; that doesn’t really make any sense, like debunk a myth, let’s cross that out.

Even if we don’t know what all these words mean, we basically have eliminated two answer choices which means that we should guess regardless. The answer to this question is abridge. Let’s go ahead and read it back with the word. The publisher decided to abridge the work, reducing it from over 600 pages to just under 200. That makes sense. We used our context clues to determine the meaning of the word that should go in blank, and then we eliminated a few answer choices and chose accordingly.

Let’s take a look at our next strategy. Rephrase and predict. This works really well for passage-based questions and sentence completion questions. Let’s take a look at what I mean. Though Kayla insists that she can fix her bad habits, her friends and family consider her -----. Well, what should go in the blank? Let’s predict a word. You can do this like I said with sentence completion questions, or if you’re reading a question in the passages, you can really often times rephrase the question and predict.

Let’s see. Though Kayla insists she can fix her bad habits, her friends and family consider her, let’s say unfixable. I know it really doesn’t make much sense in SAT land, but this is basically just what we’re trying to go for.

So let’s take a look at our words. Facile? Well, if you know from Spanish facile means easy, so we can eliminate that even if we don’t really know the meaning of the word. Incorrigible? Well, we often hear about incorrigible children that seems about right. Let’s keep that. Let’s take a look at our other ones, catastrophic; definitely not unfixable. Predictable, no way. Benign; well, you might not know what that means, so let’s keep it. Even if you eliminate three of these answer choices, and you don’t know what the other two words mean, you have a 50-50 shot at getting it correct, which means you should guess. The answer to this question is incorrigible. Though Kayla insists she can fix her bad habits, her friends and family consider her incorrigible which means unfixable.

So, even if you don’t really quite know what the answers mean, you can always predict and eliminate answer choices accordingly, which gives you a great shot at getting the correct one.

Let’s take a look at our third strategy; don’t read everything. This is really important, especially for the passage-based question. On SAT and the PSAT, you have limited time. So you can’t read everything. Well, what should you read? Let’s take a look at a sample passage. I’ll point out what you should read.

Every passage in the SAT has a couple of sentences at the beginning that tell you what the passage is about sometimes who it's written by, and usually the date. Here we see that it’s an excerpt from ‘A Room of One’s Own’, a book written by Virginia Woolf. So if you know anything about Virginia Woolf, you know that she was a feminist author back in the mid 19th Century. It’s pretty important context.

After we read the little blurb about what the passage is about, it’s really important just to skim and scan the topic sentences of the whole passage. Now why do we do this? Why don’t we read the whole thing? On a PSAT, you don’t get points for reading the passage. You get points for answering the questions correctly. It makes a lot of sense. Also, the questions on the PSAT, like the SAT are really specific. They’re going to ask something like why did the author list the topics and why is it 15 through 17. My guess is by the time you get to the end of the passage, you’re not going to remember what the topics were in 15 through 17, nor whether author listed it. So it’s not really important to read the whole passage. It’s just important to skim and scan and see you get an idea of what it’s about, so that you can answer the questions, that’s it.

Let’s skim through a sample passage just to see and made a point out what exactly you should read. So we already read the top blurb, and here we have the first paragraph. I can’t get the whole passage on the screen, so I kind of broke it up. On the side right here, you see that we have some line reference numbers. Now it’s important to know these, but when you go back with the questions, it’s important that you know what these mean. So here we go. What we’ll do is we’ll jut read the topic sentence for each paragraph. So “It was disappointing not to have brought back in the evening some important statement, some authentic fact.” Well we don’t really know what it means so far, but let’s continue on.

The second paragraph. “For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.” Well if you know anything about Virginia Woolf, like we said, she’s a feminist author in the mid 19th century. So it seems here that what she’s doing is she’s puzzled about something, and why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature. So it’s looking like it’s a critic, maybe an exploration of a topic of something about women authors.

Let’s continue. “I went therefore, to the shelf where the histories stand and took down one of the latest, Professor Trevelyan’s HISTORY OF ENGLAND." So now she’s doing an exploration. She is taking down history book, and looking at something with women authors. That’s all we need to know.

Let’s move on. “Yet even so, ‘Professor Trevelyan concludes, ‘neither Shakespeare’s women nor those of authentic seventeenth-century memoirs, like the Verneys and the Hutchinsons, seem wanting in personality and character.” As you can see there are some complicated names. Some names you might not be familiar with that you stumble over like me. But that’s not important. So what she’s doing is, she’s looking at his, this professor’s work and she’s saying that the women in these works seem not wanting a personality and character. So basically it’s just saying that the women in these works were really powerful.

Let’s move on to the last paragraph. “Indeed, if no woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance.” There we go. You don’t even need to finish reading the whole paragraph. What it basically says is that, if no woman had existed save in the fiction written by men. So what we can conclude from basically reading at the topic sentences is that, Virginia Woolf is writing a historical account of women in fiction back probably around the time that she lived. And trying to determine why if women had no existence save in a fiction written by men that one would imagine her as a person of the utmost importance very various, heroic and mean, splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme. As great as a man, some think even greater.

Even without reading the whole passage, and just reading the first topic sentences, we get an idea of what the passage is about. So that we can move on and focus our attention on the questions. So I know that this can seem really counter-intuitive. Your English teacher always tells you to read thoroughly. But on the PSAT, it’s not necessary. Practice the strategy with the materials and the bonus material and then practice PSAT, the test.

The final strategy; build your vocabulary. This is really important for not only the sentence completion questions, but also the passages. As you’re reading the passages and you’re unfamiliar with some words, it’s going to really help to know what some of those words are, to be able to use those context clues, to get a better idea. It’s just going to make it much easier. What I would highly recommend is reading publications like, The Economist. Don’t read 'Us Weekly.' Don’t read Cosmo Girl, don’t read Sports Center, or ESPN magazine. Check out reputable publications like The Economist, or The New York Times. Read a little bit everyday probably about 20 minutes is all you need. It will really help you build your vocabulary.

I don’t need to tell you that you can’t learn to read overnight. But what you can do is you can study up on what the test is going to be like, and become more familiar with it. What you can also do, is you can learn and practice some strategies that it’s going to make the critical reading section much easier for when you sit down to take the PSAT.