One of the cornerstones of a good education, whether in high school preparing for the SAT, in college, or after college, is the ability to read, comprehend, criticize, and discuss a variety of written material. As a tutor, English student, and self-proclaimed literature nerd, I am often asked for reading suggestions that will help students practice their critical reading skills without suffering through those boring SAT passages. Practicing SAT Critical Reading sections is useful for building endurance, testing comprehension, and providing examples of test questions, but the skills used in understanding those sections can be practiced using a variety of writing genres not found on the SAT. While the best practice is simply to read as much as possible from different sources and difficulties, today’s students usually don’t have the time for the 19th Century masterpieces of French, Russian, and British literature.
Luckily (while I do love a great novel) it is not as important what you practice reading as how you read it. What is essential is to use the same critical reading strategies used on the test: focusing on understanding rhetorical devices, comprehending argumentative strategies, discovering new words or new meanings for familiar words, and developing an ear for tone. Reading any text in this manner will reinforce the skills important to any humanities education or fulfilling life of reading.
That being said, certain types of reading material work especially well for practicing specific Critical Reading skills. Many high school students struggle with understanding the argumentation of passages on the SAT, often because students are more used to reading novels in their English classes and not this type of non-fiction. Many questions on the SAT rely on understanding why an argument is structured the way it is; questions often ask how a certain example adds to the passages main idea, how the author of a passage discusses an argument made by an outside source such as a previous study, authority, or hypothetical objection, or what would most undermine (or strengthen) one of the author’s arguments in the passage. To make things more difficult, the SAT expects students to recall these argumentative details clearly when they answer the questions. Without extra practice, students are likely to have difficulty with these types of passages. While any work can be read with an ear to argumentation (even novels are constantly putting forward a series of arguments), there is one type of writing which works particularly well for encouraging all of these skills: newspaper articles.
Now I know a lot of families no longer subscribe to physical papers, but there are many (often free) professional news sources online which provide great practice in understanding the workings of argumentation such as The Washington Post or The Guardian (UK). Articles are often the length of an SAT passage and written to express either a single viewpoint of the author or to summarize the opinions of various authorities, political figures, celebrities, or otherwise noteworthy people. In reading any news article, it is necessary to understand what main idea the author is trying to communicate to the reader and how the examples used convey that message or conflict with it. Many students struggle with types of questions which involve understanding how a passage’s main idea conflicts with an argument presented by a figure within the passage such as that of a scholar or social group. It is also important to think critically about the strength of the ideas expressed and question what information would be needed to strengthen or weaken the argument, much like on the SAT. Instead of having questions available to test information recall, each passage can be tested by attempting to summarize it afterwards without referring back to the article. Much like the Victory Step strategies strive for being able to read the passage once and not look back at it for all of the answers, each newspaper article is essentially written in a way that asks its reader to be able to remember and summarize the article to someone else if asked about it later. While this is difficult at first, as it is with students practicing their focus and recall on SAT passages, it becomes easier with practice. Lastly, each news article encourages its reader to compare its argument, examples, and findings with other articles about the same range of subjects, whether in the same paper over different days or in different papers. This mirrors the layout of the SAT’s two-passage questions where it is necessary to identify the main ideas of each argument and figure out the key points on which they differ.
Newspaper articles make great practicing material. Not only do they encourage the same type of critical thinking necessary for the SAT, but they are plentiful, quick, and constantly updated. Reading a few articles every few days provides an easy way to practice SAT skills without having to take out a practice test or having to worry about running out of reading material. Who knows, maybe those articles will be more memorable than the SAT passages and you’ll get to learn something new about the world while you’re at it.