Reading Dead? Redemption!

 By Steve Leech

(Test Prep (ACT/SAT/SSAT), and English Literature Tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a student wishing to perform well on a standardized test must contend with a reading section. This can be a problem for many students because reading sections are generally resistant to short-term improvements; while math or grammar sections can be approached by starting with fundamentals such as polynomial division or comma rules, the reading sections largely just have the one fundamental: can you read English?

If you want talk pretty some day, what can you do to prepare? Start early. Now. Yesterday. Earlier, if possible. Reading skills are like muscles in that the more you use them, the stronger they become. Although many students read plenty of words in a day through text messages or e-mail or WhatsApp or HamBown or what-have-you, this is essentially high reps at low weight. It isn’t going to help build strong skills like moving some really heavyweights–your Munros, your Murakamis–around is, and just one or two thick novels isn’t going to do the trick.

Read more from Steve – “Introduction to Post Colonial Theory”

Strong readers are all alike; each weak reader is weak in their own way. Even so, regardless of where she starts, the more a student reads and the more difficult the texts, the higher she is likely to perform on a given standardized test. While each individual test may vary, the SAT and ACT both draw passages from texts that have Flesch-Kincaid reading scores corresponding to US grade levels 10-16, which means that they are supposed to be at the reading level of a student approximately 15 to 22 years of age. This range covers late high school to early college, so The Hunger Games (about grade 4) and Harry Potter (about grade 7) simply aren’t challenging enough regardless of how much fun they may be to read.

Texts written for older audiences, on the other hand, will help expose students to more complex grammar and sentence structures, more varied vocabulary, and a wider range of ideas, all of which make the challenges of reading easier since these test sections will include unusual language constructions and exotic word choices in descriptions of ideas or subjects students may not be familiar with. This also has some ancillary benefits on other sections dealing with grammar (Writing and Language for SAT, English for ACT, both essays) as well as student literacy in general, which helps when writing things like admissions essays, personal statements, graduate theses, doctoral dissertations, cover letters, résumés, and Nobel acceptance speeches.

All this happens, but you don’t have to go mad and become an expert on F-K readability scores to find good texts. Appropriate reading lists from the IBO , College Board AP , or early college courses  are easy to find online. Furthermore, magazines such as CQ, The New Yorker, and The Economist have scores in the 10-12 grade range, making them quite useful at not just improving student reading skills but also taking the edge off of test day fear and raising performance (since fear is, of course, the mind-killer).

Making a teenager do anything, though, especially something as terrible, horrible, no good, very bad as reading something kinda-sorta tough can be an exercise in frustration, but easing students into the challenge can seriously improve the situation. Consider material that might be particularly interesting to your individual student; the tests want to see how well test-takers can read varied texts, not how much they know about the humanities or 18th-century political philosophy. A student who reads a college-level text about something he is interested in is already at an advantage over a student who read nothing at all or, worse, Twilight. As the student improves, the texts can more closely resemble those on the test. Similarly, start with short stories or individual articles and work up to full-length novels or nonfiction essays.

Starting to exercise reading muscles early absolutely pays dividends when Test Day looms like a white whale on the horizon. The immediate benefits are large and obvious, but the secondary benefits cannot be ignored: reading now also leaves time later for practicing other test sections and leads to improvements in writing across the board. Ultimately, improved reading skills will help all students throughout college and beyond; even math majors have to read, after all, and employers don’t write contracts in emojis. Hopefully, then, many months later as you face the test booklet and answer sheet, you will remember this distant afternoon when I told you to start reading.

And you will succeed.