guest written by Shahar Link of Mindspire Tutoring & Test Prep
Here’s a common situation on a reading section of a standardized test: you read the passage, you hit the questions, you do your strategies and techniques and all that, and you still get two or three wrong. When you review the problem, you see immediately what you missed – the answer was right there in the previous sentence! But you totally read that whole paragraph! How did you miss it? What happened?
What happened is: you can’t read!
No one wants to hear that they can’t read. Of course I can read! I read all the time!
Of course, we all know how to read, in a sense. But in another sense, that confidence in our reading ability is exactly the problem. In normal everyday reading, we skip words, even whole lines, and don’t really “get” all sorts of things going on in a given text. But it doesn’t matter, as long as we get the gist of it.
But “getting the gist” isn’t enough on a standardized test, like the SAT, ACT, GRE, etc. On these tests, you have to understand everything a question is asking about. (Not necessarily everything in the passage, but everything that relates to any given question.)
So, if you’re not acing the reading section, it’s basically because you can’t read. For example, if a student is scoring about a 500 (out of 800) on the Critical Reading section of the SAT, he or she is only comprehending basic ideas of what he or she is reading for school. The nuance is going right past him.
The problem isn’t the student’s intelligence. The problem is how we teach reading. Reading is taught at very early ages in American schools, and some children are ready to learn to read in 1st grade, but some are not. That doesn’t mean they are stupid and will never read well – it means that their brains are not there yet. Walking is similarly developmental– if a child can’t walk at 9 months, it doesn’t mean she’ll never walk! The problem is, after 1st or 2nd grade, we don’t teach reading anymore. We just assume that students know how to read. But some never really got it; they weren’t ready yet. So they just do their best to fake it for the rest of school, developing useful coping strategies that can usually get them Bs in their classes (which aren’t hard enough to force them to confront the fact that they can’t read). But on the standardized tests, that won’t cut it.
So with many students, we have to work on the basics – decoding, reading every word, following with your pencil, etc. It’s amazing to me how many students are, in a very literal sense, not reading. They substitute familiar (different) words for unfamiliar words. They skip lines. They jumble up letters. This translates into not understanding anything beyond the main idea.
Once students are actually reading what’s on the page, we can get to work on understanding the text.
That’s where even good readers can get stuck. Passages on standardized tests are very challenging. If a student is used to reading relatively easy material, she won’t know how to deal with an SAT-level passage. What I explain is that good readers re-read difficult sections of a text that they don’t understand. This is not conventionally taught.
“Slow down!” That’s what most teachers advise students who don’t understand what they read. Supposedly, “slowing down” will increase their comprehension. But think about the last time you read something and understood it well. Did you read it slowly? Probably not – you read at the pace that is comfortable for you: not too fast, not too slow. Slowing down actually ruins the natural rhythm we have when we are fully engaged and understanding a text. Good readers don’t slow down when they don’t understand something – they re-read it, sometimes 3 or 4 times, but at the same pace.
The point is: reading is a rhythmic activity when it is working well, and messing with that rhythm will harm comprehension. Thus, instead of slowing down, we advise students to re-read until they understand the text. Our experience shows that this simple suggestion works wonders.
One last point: we all know that students who read a lot over the course of their academic careers have a much easier time on the reading section of standardized tests. But the question is: do they read a lot because they just like reading? Or do they like reading because they know how to read? Although I’m oversimplifying, I would suggest that the latter is more to the point. People who read a lot find reading comfortable and relatively easy. If one never learned how to read appropriately, one will never be “a reader,” because the experience will always be cognitively uncomfortable. In my experience, making reading more cognitively comfortable is a crucial step toward developing the kind of strong reading habits that make reading on standardized tests a very do-able thing.
In sum, when it comes to reading, Mindspire addresses 2 areas that very few test-prep companies address: 1) basic decoding issues, which are more prevalent than many teachers even realize and 2) how to understand difficult texts appropriately – by re-reading until your brain takes it all in. We believe that these two lessons are hugely valuable to students – not only for a test, but for their academic career in general.
About the author: Shahar Link has coached hundreds of students toward higher scores on standardized tests over the past 15 years. After earning his Masters degree from Stanford University (with a thesis on the history of IQ testing), Shahar taught high school history and economics for 10 years in New York and California. He recently founded Mindspire Tutoring & Test Prep to put his innovative and effective tutoring system to work for students in the Triangle Area of North Carolina and anyone who has an internet connection.