I’ve lost count of the number of students I’ve shown this “Divide and Conquer” technique to who have come back wide-eyed the VERY next tutoring session, and said things like:
- “That reading strategy is so much better than what I used to do.”
- “Dude, Peter, that technique really works. I barely missed any questions!”
- “OMG, why the hell didn’t they teach me this at [that expensive SAT prep institution I wasted all my money on]?!”
There’s a deep controversy brewing about what the best approach to SAT Critical Reading is. There’s the “passage first” school of thought, and there’s the “questions first” school of thought.
Well, let me tell you exactly which camp I stand for. Neither!
I show my students a third option which blows those other two methods out of the water. I call it the “Divide and Conquer” technique to kicking critical reading ass.
So here’s the deal: SAT reading is boooorrring. Snooze worthy material that could put someone wired on Ritalin and Red Bull straight to sleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping soundly at night, I have the cure: read a couple SAT Critical Reading passages. Works every time.
Here are three reasons you shouldn’t read the entire passage first before looking at the questions:
1. Wastes time when you have to re-read.
Ever catch yourself reading a passage, and before you know it, a couple paragraphs in, you already have no idea what you’ve read? You’ve already zoned out. It’s not your fault — the story is mockingly dry. So now you have to go back and re-read those same lines. What a complete waste of time.
Studies actually show the slower you read things, the less you comprehend. That’s because understanding happens in thought units. You shouldn’t try to comprehend each individual word or small phrase. You should bite off as much as you can handle all in one go, grasp the general gist, and find the connection to the next idea. These connections are what enable understanding. When you focus on each individual word, you lose sight of how that word connects to the next to form meaning.
Now I’m not suggesting you read so fast you can’t grasp anything–find a comfortable speed. But you can imagine how re-reading the same paragraph over and over slows you down to a snail’s pace.
Not only this, but reading the passage first is quite useless because when you get to the questions, they’re going to direct you back to specific lines, which you’ll then reread. This automatically doubles your reading time (and remember, you only get 20-25 minutes per reading section).
2. You don’t know what parts are important in the story, so you might waste time figuring out things that aren’t tested.
If you read the whole passage first, you don’t know what’s important to focus on. Maybe there’s a sentence or two really tripping you up. It’s just worded awkwardly or you just don’t get understand the concept they’re explaining.
But what if none of the questions even ask about that? Then you have egg on your face, embarrassed to have wasted all that time and raw brain power trying to comprehend something that doesn’t even matter. Talk about a death blow to your self-confidence.
3. It sets you up to fall for the “True But Irrelevant” trap.
You do remember this is the SAT right? And what would the SAT be without its infamous traps?
Imagine you’ve read the whole passage, so all sorts of random details from the story are floating around in your head. Then one of the questions asks a specific question about lines 23-27 in Paragraph 2. You begin going through the choices and suddenly you see one that seems to work. You definitely remember reading about that somewhere…you don’t know exactly where, but it’s ringing a bell like crazy. You scan for it…oh, there it is in line 45. Awesome, there’s the answer (right?)!
Not so fast.
One of the biggest traps on the reading section is that the answer choices will mention details that are true (you see it there in line 45) but just simply aren’t relevant to the question currently being asked. Having read the whole passage implanted that detail in your head, so when you saw it in one of the answer choices, you felt good about choosing it.
But just because something is stated in the passage doesn’t make it the right answer. This is a classic reason why a choice is wrong: it’s true, but irrelevant. The question is asking about a totally different area of the story.
If you hadn’t gone ahead and read the whole passage, you would have never known about that detail. Then when you read that particular answer choice, it wouldn’t have rung any bells and you wouldn’t have been tempted to pick it.
But you shouldn’t jump straight to the questions either. Here’s why:
You’re not going to remember what all the questions are asking, which means you wasted your time reading them.
The reason some tutors push for this technique is to avoid wasting time by not over-reading and not focusing on unimportant things. They believe that if you know the questions ahead of time, you’ll know what to zero in on when you do read the passage (ignoring all the other junk).
That sounds nice in theory, but the “passage-first” advocates are screaming, “You’re missing out on the main idea! How can you start answering when you don’t even know the overall gist of the story?”
The truth is you don’t need to know the big picture before you can accurately answer 80% or more of the questions. You simply save the main idea questions for last when you have finished reading the entire story.
But if you read all 7-12 questions in the passage, how are you supposed to remember which one to look for? Just pray to God that when you read a particular section in the story, it’ll remind you of one of the questions?
In my experience, students are unable to even properly remember ONE question they’re supposed to answer. So just don’t waste time reading over all the answers first.
What I suggest, and this has worked brilliantly for my students to the tune of 100-200 point improvements (sometimes in a SINGLE tutoring session), is dividing and conquering.
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I’ll soon be doing a video demonstration going through this Divide and Conquer technique on an actual SAT reading passage from the Collegeboard’s Official SAT Study Guide 2nd Edition. Check back soon for that.
But for now, try it out on your own. Let me know how it goes in the comments below. You’ll be a pro in no time!