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SAT Critical Reading


 Introduction to SAT Critical Reading

The Critical Reading section of the SAT is designed to assess two things: your ability to read and understand college-level material and the level of your vocabulary. Colleges want to know if you will be able to understand and draw the right conclusions from what you read, which requires a good vocabulary and the ability to process written material quickly.

Your SAT Critical Reading score is based on your performance on 3 timed sections:

  • two 25-minute sections
  • one 20-minute section

Spread across these three Critical Writing sections there will be:

  • 19 sentence completion questions (5 to 8 per section) that test your vocabulary and your ability to understand sentences
  • 48 questions that test your understanding of written passages


Critical Reading Question Types


Sentence Completion Questions


In the sentence completion questions, you are presented with a sentence with one or two words missing, and it is your task to select which of the answer choices best fill these blanks. These questions, like SAT math questions, are arranged in rough order of difficulty with the easiest ones first.


Reading Comprehension Questions

Reading comprehension questions test your ability to read and understand short (100 words) and long (850 words) passages drawn from fiction, the humanities, social studies, and science. The questions ask about the meaning of the passage, its tone, and what inferences can be drawn from it. You will also be presented with two passages and asked to compare them.

Note that unlike other SAT questions, the reading comprehension questions are not arranged in order of difficulty and instead follow the general organization of the passage. Questions about the material found at the beginning of the passage are first, and are followed by questions about material found later in the passage. Similarly, when comparing two passages, you will first see questions only on Passage 1, followed by questions only on Passage 2, followed by questions that involve both.


Critical Reading Sample Questions


Sample Sentence Completion Questions: Below are the types of sentence completion questions you would see on the Critical Reading section.


1. He was a ________ man, well known for his _______ acts, such as large donations to museums and art galleries.

A) miserly...esteemed
B) generous ... antisocial
C) effusive ... reticent
D) inquisitive .. tasteless
E) munificent... philanthropic


2. Beth was a taciturn child and shied away from talking to other children.

A) garrulous
B) taciturn
C) loquacious
D) effusive
E) habitual


3. Although others found Francine dull, Gerald found her conversation ______

A) conservative
B) shallow
C) scintillating
D) obtuse
E) morosoe


Sample Reading Comprehension Questions

The sample reading comprehension questions below are based on the following short passage. (On the SAT, there are short passages such as this one, but there are also much longer passages that are typical 5 to 8 paragraphs long.)

As a circus it was a pitiable affair. Everything about it stank of defeat and misery. There was no planned performance; now and then, when a sufficient crowed had assembled, a pair of gloomy acrobats did some tumbling and walked a slack wire. The Human Frog sad down on his head, but with the air of one who took no pleasure in it. The Wild Man roared and chewed perfunctorily on a piece of raw meat to which a little fur still clung; the lecturer hinted darkly that we ought to keep our dogs indoors that night, but nobody seemed afraid.


1. In line 7, “perfunctorily” means

A) without interest
B) voraciously
C) ravenously
D) with malicious intent
E) heartily


2. By commenting to the audience that they should keep their dogs indoors, the lecturer is suggesting that:

A) the circus performers might come steal their dogs
B) the Human Frog will break into their backyards
C) acrobats might attack their dogs with wire
D) the Wild Man will come eat their dog
E) Their dogs will bark loudly while the circus is in town


3. The tone of the author in describing the circus indicates he think it is:

A) malevolent
B) heartless
C) garrulous
D) benevolent
E) pathetic


Study Strategies for the Critical Reading Section


1. Build your vocabulary and increase your comprehension in the long-term by reading challenging material

There is no doubt that the best strategy to ensure success on the Critical Reading section of the SAT is to read widely and regularly. A regular habit of reading will increase your reading speed, your ability to understand complex phrases and sentence structures, and also increase your vocabulary.

A very reasonable plan is to aim to do 20 to 30 minutes of non-school-related reading a day, this modest effort can result in your breezing through over 25 books a year. You can start with light fiction, but it’s also important to branch out and try more challenging works of literature, history, and science. Most SAT prep books will list books which have had excerpts used as questions on the SAT. This is an excellent resource that can get you started reading exactly the kind of material you need to be able to handle to score well.


2. Build your vocabulary using flashcards

Although the primary purpose of the sentence completion questions is to test vocabulary, getting a reading comprehension question right can also often hinge on knowing the definition of a particular word, so building your vocabulary should be an absolute priority if you want to improve your Critical Reading score.
As mentioned earlier, the best strategy to build vocabulary is to absorb new words as you read them, but you can also build your vocabulary more quickly with flashcards. Get a stack of index cards and on one side write the new word. On the other side write a definition, list any synonyms, and make up a sentence that uses the word. Keep these tips in mind:


1) Carry your flashcards with you wherever you go. Test yourself while you’re waiting for the bus, walking between classes, or waiting for friends. If you have a spare minute, pull them out and start reviewing them.

2) Make sure to take note of which words you keep forgetting the meaning of and put them in a separate pile so you can test yourself on these more often.

3) Group together words of similar and opposing meanings. Placing the cards “loquacious” and “voluble” next to each other will help you remember their similar meaning, and if your next flashcard is “taciturn” it will highlight its opposing meaning.


3. Be Aware of Common Reading Comprehension Question Types

The same types of questions occur over and over again as reading comprehension questions. You should familiarize with the many different ways these questions are asked and keep them in mind while you are reading the passage.

These include questions like:

    1. What is the purpose/main idea/topic/theme of the passage?
    2. What is the tone/mood/attitude/feeling of the passage?
    3. What does the word “X” mean in the context of the passage?
    4. What can be inferred/implied from the passage?
    5. What is the relationship between the two passages?
    6. What best describes the structure/organization of the passage or the function of a phrase?


4. Be Aware of Common Wrong Answers

Questions that ask you about information found in the passages, (especially those asking you to report back specific details or the main idea) often use the same types of wrong answers to help disguise the right one. You can become familiar with these common types of wrong answers and put yourself on guard against them.

Common wrong answers include those that are:

  • too general
  • too specific
  • the opposite of what was said in the passage
  • an exaggeration or extreme form of what was said in the passage


5. Practice Reading Quickly

If you get distracted while reading and keep looking back to reread phrases and sections, put a piece of paper on the page and slowly lower it over a passage as you read it, covering up each new line once you are finished reading it. This exercise will prevent you from referring back to the last sentence and force you to focus your concentration on what your eyes are looking at. This will help you understand what you are reading the first time around and help you break a bad reading habit that can slow you down considerably.

Another great way to improve your reading speed is to try to accustom your eyes and brain to picking up information rapidly. Draw a line down the middle of a column of text. Scan down the page, keeping your eyes focused on the line, but trying to pick up the meaning of words to either side of it using your peripheral vision.