tl;dr, because this is a long one: It’s irrational to use testing your reading as the primary activity for improving your reading, because reading skill is acquired by reading, not by testing your reading.
A student writes,
“I've taken 7 reading practice tests over the past 5 days and every single time I've missed 17-19 questions. I'm pissed and just wanna quit at this point. I'm terrible at reading and have finished the Erica Meltzer book but nothing seems to work at this point. Idk what's wrong with me.”
Does this sound familiar? It does to us; we see laments like this on what seems like a daily basis. Here’s another:
“I need serious help with reading. I’ve done 90% of the released tests yet I still absolutely FAIL the reading section!”
You’ve taken dozens of practice tests and worked through a hundred reading passages, yet your score progress in the reading section is maddeningly stagnant. How can this be? You’re practicing and practicing, and isn’t practicing how you get better? They’re called practice tests, so doesn’t that mean that they provide great practice?
Sure, it’s necessary to gain familiarity with the format of the reading section on the test, so taking a few practice sections can get you up to speed, and an SAT-specific reading book can give you general guidance and aid you in avoiding mistaken modes of thinking. But that’s all peripheral stuff, because most students have a deficiency in the core skill being assessed by the reading section. Can you guess what that skill is? Yup – it’s reading comprehension.
If you seem to be spinning your wheels grinding through practice reading sections with little change in your score, you’ve discovered two facts:
- The SAT does a very consistent job of assessing your reading comprehension skills
- Re-testing yourself over and over doesn’t improve your reading comprehension skills
A good SAT reading book has its place, but reading it can't improve your core reading comprehension skills any more than reading a book about basketball can make you a great shooter. To get significantly better at an activity, you have to engage in the activity – a lot. And the core activity in improving your reading comprehension is reading, not testing your reading over and over. You don't efficiently acquire skills by assessing them; if you did, the main educational activity in school would be taking tests.
Consider these parallels: If you’re an athlete, you don't just go to tryouts to get better at your sport; you play your sport, and you have to play it a lot to become really good at it. Do you play an instrument? Musicians don’t learn how to play by auditioning; they practice by playing more and more challenging pieces, thereby honing their skills directly, not as a hoped-for side-effect of the audition process.
But wait, you say! If taking practice tests doesn’t improve skills, why is my math score increasing as I grind through practice tests?
The answer is that, by happy coincidence (unlike with reading), practicing math and showing proficiency in math can both be accomplished by the same activity: solving math problems.
The way you’re tested on your ability to do math is by having you solve math problems; math proficiency can be assessed directly. Practicing math also involves solving math problems. So the exact same activity that’s used for assessment also happens to be the primary practice activity.
Why isn’t reading like that? Because while doing math is an external activity -- you are presented with a math problem, you solve it, and you return (or select) the solution, which can then be graded -- reading is an internal activity that consists of receiving communication and digesting it in your mind; it doesn’t produce anything externally, and a reading test can’t plant electrodes into your brain to check if you’re understanding what you’re reading (at least, not yet!).
Therefore, unlike with math, an indirect method of assessment must be used to determine reading comprehension skill: asking you questions about a short passage you just read to determine whether you understood it. But this means that the activity of testing reading comprehension only has a little bit of reading involved; most of the activity involves answering questions, not reading. Consider this: the total amount of text in the reading passages in all of the more than two dozen released SATs is less than that in one slender novel such as “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Furthermore, the level of reading proficiency for which the SAT is calibrated is that of a person who has been an avid reader for years. To achieve that level of skill generally requires reading large volumes of material over an extended period of time; reading is not a neatly defined set of learned principles and consciously-employed techniques that can be taught and drilled as with the math on the SAT, which can be absorbed in a few months. The approximately 20 minutes of disjointed reading you do on a full SAT practice test is a drop in the bucket from a practice standpoint.
All this means that attempting to use the taking of practice reading tests to build reading comprehension proficiency makes no sense at all. Because the central activity in improving reading comprehension is reading, using practice tests is an extraordinarily inefficient mechanism for getting that practice; it’s borderline useless, in fact, as you might have already discovered.
The bottom line: To get better at a skill, engage in the activity itself; to get better at reading, read as much as possible.
Bringing all this back around to real-world student experiences, here’s an observation by a student who took this advice to heart:
“For the EBRW section, what worked for me best was reading a lot of books. I turned reading into a habit of mine, and almost magically jumped from a 680-690 in my first 2 SATs to a 750 in my 3rd. I highly recommend reading a lot, especially if EBRW is your weak point. It works both for Reading and Writing.”
This might be hard to believe, but if you completely understand the passages, the questions, and the answer choices, the reading section is easy. Therefore, the main work that needs to happen must focus on improving reading comprehension skills; that work consists primarily of...reading.
We’ll leave you with one more quotation. This one’s from a student who scored a perfect 800 on the English sections of the SAT:
“I got 800 on the English portion without using any prep books. Honestly, I just read a f**k ton of texts with very difficult English, which improved my reading comprehension and familiarized me with the grammar to the point where I didn't even have to think about the answer; it was just instinctive.”