SAT Reading: To Skim or Not to Skim

Skim Reading

The “new normal” of skim reading, or “looking only for the general or main ideas,” is all the rage among teens and young adults according to Maryanne Wolf, UCLA Distinguished Visiting Professor of Education and Director of the UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice and the Chapman University Presidential Fellow.

In The Guardian’s 2018 article, “Skim Reading is the New Normal. The Effect on Society Is Profound,” Wolf references the consequences of skimming texts, many of which range from failing to comprehend an essay’s complexity to real world ramifications of acting on false information.

Close Reading

Undoubtedly, “close reading,” the art of carefully analyzing a passage for detail, style and meaning, allows students to thoroughly process literature, argumentative essays and scientific texts, which bolsters critical thinking, empathy and artistic appreciation among other important cognitive and social emotional skills.

While reading for detail and nuance is a vital skill for both developing and mature readers, is close reading the best practice on fast paced, high stakes college entrance exams?

As in all things complex, wouldn’t it be nice if there were an easy answer?

So let’s break it down the easiest way possible.

Skimming, Scanning or Close Reading?

Depending on the aptitude and reading ability of the test taker, distinct strategies will apply. Advanced, proficient and developing readers must adapt to the pacing and rigor of the SAT and/or ACT, and therefore adopt the strategies that will gain them the greatest improvement. Generally, a close reading of every part of a reading passage may not be the best reading method. There simply isn’t enough time to investigate every subtlety, scientific detail or literary slice of imagery.

Here are some general strategies that may apply to the three subsets of readers.

Skimming and Scanning for the SAT or ACT

  1. Advanced Readers
  • Scan the questions first for specific words
  • Skim each passage from start to finish
  • Hone in on repeating words and ideas
  • Return to the questions

2. Proficient Readers

  • Scan and annotate or underline questions for specific words
  • Scan and annotate titles, publishing date and charts
  • Closely read topic sentences and final sentences of each paragraph
  • Skim sentences in between
  • Hone in on repeating words or ideas
  • Return to the questions and eliminate wrong answers first

3. Developing Readers

  • Scan and annotate or underline questions for specific words
  • Scan and annotate titles, publishing date and charts
  • Closely read topic sentences and final sentences of each paragraph
  • Skim sentences in between
  • Stop every 5-10 lines and ask: What’s happening?
  • Immediately reread those 5-10 lines if you don’t get the gist
  • Ignore difficult vocabulary words as you read (not all vocab matters)
  • Hone in on repeating words or ideas
  • Return to the questions and eliminate wrong answers first

It appears that the higher a student’s reading level, the less they have to refine in terms of strategy. And so it goes. If we’re still developing our craft in any area of life, we have to work a little harder to arrive at where we need to be.

So what’s the good news?

With enough routine practice and training, every reader can improve their test scores by a significant margin once they master the combination of test taking techniques that works best for them.

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