Critical Reading


Words of “Wiz-dom“– Critical Reading is very important and that is why it is our first lesson about any question type. There are a total of 67 questions in the three “Critical Reading” sections of the test. Nineteen are “Sentence Completion Questions” and the other 48 are actually reading passage questions. In general, it is the section that most students can improve their score the most even though more students dislike it than the math section. Often students don’t finish this section and they also frequently find the passages boring. In order to perform well on the reading passages, you’ve got to change some habits you began developing when you started reading. In short, that means it counts a lot, is disliked, and you need to practice a lot. So, we’re going to spend a lot of time with it, show you it isn’t so bad, and teach most of you some new reading strategies.


There are always four long reading passages (one of which is a “double” passage: two authors write about the same topic from different points of view). There are also two short passages with each one having only two questions. You will also see a paired set of short passages that will have four questions together.

Words of “Wiz-dom”-Unlike all other question types, the Critical Reading questions are not organized based on difficulty. They are sequential, based on how they relate to the passage. This means that the easiest question could be the last question for a passage! So, you’ve got to look at every question.

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Passage Types:

Words of “Wiz-dom”-The passages can always be classified into one of four categories and one of each category will appear on the test. You may be better at or enjoy one kind of reading over another. This distribution of passage categories provides a good balance. For example, perhaps you prefer narrative-style reading to science or maybe the reverse. This organization gives you some of each.

  • Narrative
  • Humanities
  • Social Science
  • Natural Science

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How to Read


Words of “Wiz-dom”-The BIG issue is how to approach reading the passages in the Critical Reading section of the SAT. I remember working with a National Honor Society student who was taking all honors and Advanced Placement classes. She couldn’t finish the reading passages! It was killing her score. I had her read out loud for me the way she would read an SAT passage. It was all wrong. She paid attention to every word. When I asked her why she read that way, she said that was how she read for her classes. The same story is true for most students whether they are on the honor roll or not.

Remember the Purpose

The Wiz asks, “Why are you reading the passage?

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The Wiz asks, “How do you deal with these boring passages?

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Read for “MOPP”

  • Main Idea
  • Organization
  • Purpose, and
  • Perspective

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Focus, Read and Skim

  • Focus on the passage introduction. (It’s in italics.)
  • Focus on the first paragraph (but not slowly).
  • Read the first (topic) sentence of each paragraph carefully.
  • Read the last sentence of the passage carefully.
  • Skim all paragraphs except the first one.

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Words of “Wiz-dom”–Don’t forget Pillar II.  Restate = Paraphrase

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Attack the Questions

Words of “Wiz-dom”-You have to develop and use an aggressive reading style to maximize your Critical Reading score. (By the way, I don’t mean “aggressive” in the sense that you tear up the reading passages or use them to attack the test proctor!) Don’t be a passive reader who is simply trying to absorb what you are reading. You need to attack the passage by being an engaged, active, critical, analytical reader who is asking a series of questions: What is this author saying? Why is s/he making this point? Isn’t he assuming blah-blah? ? Isn’t this true because of his perspective? In the terms of ETS and the College Board, you need to be a critical reader. This reading style will certainly pay off in your current courses and in college. So, work on it.

The most important strategy you will learn in this entire program is “PICK.”  That is because it applies to all 48 reading passage questions.  The simple reason my students increase so much in reading is that I teach them, including you, how to tell the differences between, i.e., the characteristics of  right and wrong answers.  I’ve been accused by test writers as being a “cheater” since I teach you these characteristics.  They are certainly something that the test writers realize will raise your score with a very few strategies.

You don’t need  a different strategy for every question; you don’t even need to know a different strategy for main idea, inference, detail, and vocabulary questions!  There is one simple set of characteristics that applies to each and every question you’ll see on the test.  It is as simple as telling a fish from a frog.  Sure, fish and frogs have things in common: two eyes, swimming, eggs, etc.  However, they have things that make them different: scales/no scales, fins/legs, gills/lungs, etc.  You know those differences.  Do you know the differences between best (right) and wrong answers on a reading test?  I’m not surprised that you don’t.  If you knew them, your reading score would be higher.  That aren’t hard to learn; there’s only three of them and they are as useful as the way you tell fish from frogs.  Let’s take a look.

Words of “Wiz-dom”The Critical Reading section is the section that lends itself the most to Pillar V: The Answer is there. That’s because there are clear and distinct characteristics of right and wrong answers. You are going to be shown exactly how to identify nonsense and other wrong answers and usually find two of them on every question. That’s a major reason that you should never leave any blank questions in the Critical Reading section.

Begin by remembering the word “PICK” since you have to pick the best answer.

Words of “Wiz-dom”PICK” the right one:

  • Paraphrase
  • Insert
  • Consistent
  • Know

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The Wizard’s Checklist:

  1. Add?
  2. Main Idea?
  3. Disagree?
  4. Content?
  5. Paraphrase?

Question Types

Words of “Wiz-dom”There are only five different question types (different from structural issues described below) in the whole test! It doesn’t matter whether you are dealing with a narrative, social science, natural science, or humanities passage. You’ll only find these five types. Each of the five has its own signal telling you what kind it is. You need to be able to recognize each type for a number of reasons. First, the test writer is measuring a different set of reasoning skills with each question type. Second, each has its own pattern of techniques and strategies for answering it. Third, each has its own pattern of typical right/best and wrong answers. In short, when you recognize what question type it is, you are prepared to find right answers more quickly and wrong answers more efficiently, resulting in higher Critical Reading scores.

Main Idea Questions


  • The author is primarily concerned with…
  • The passage could be best described as…
  • What would be a good title for the passage?
  • The passage primarily focuses on…

Main Idea questions will typically be one of the first questions (usually THE first) for the passage and are asking to see if you got the big picture. The right answer will be general enough to describe the whole passage. It will not be about only one paragraph. It will not go beyond the scope of the passage.

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Detail Questions


  • In the fourth paragraph the author cites…
  • Based on information in paragraph two…
  • In lines 23-27, the author states…
  • According to the author…

Detail questions have become very unpopular with the SAT test writer in the last few years but when are on the test they represent easy points. Maybe that’s why they aren’t so common any more. Detail questions are about explicit facts that are stated in the passage. They are more like reading comprehension questions that appear on other tests. The right answer sounds like a paraphrase (Pillar II) of what was stated in the passage.

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Inference Questions


  • It can be inferred that…
  • The author implies…
  • Lines 34-38 suggest that…
  • With which of the following would the author most likely agree?

Inference questions are more common than detail questions. In fact, they are very common, perhaps the most common type you will see on the test. Your aggressive reading will pay off here because as you read you’ll be looking for what is not explicitly stated but suggested. You need to read for the message behind what is stated. Right answers sound like they are sentences that were accidentally omitted from the passage. They will fit right into the passage without changing anything. Wrong answers will not be consistent with the main idea or statements made by the author.

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Logic (Writing Technique) Questions


  • The author quotes Van Heusen in order to…
  • Beach sand is used as an example in paragraph two because…
  • In lines 23-27, the author states…
  • Why is the word “solution” in italics…
  • According to the author…
  • What tone does the author take towards the Civil War era?

Logic questions ask why and how the author did something. They relate to the “O,” organization of the passage. How does the author support the “M,” main idea? They also incorporate issues of style, tone and “P,” perspective.

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Vocabulary in Context Questions


  • In line 48, “instrument” most nearly means…
  • What phrase could best be substituted for
  • “became hysterical over the caricature,” in line 54?

These questions test whether you can figure out the meanings of words and phrases from the context that surrounds them. They won’t necessarily be tough words. For example, what did you think of when you saw “instrument” in the first example above?  Here’s something that is really important.  The right answer will be a less common definition than the one you reflexively remember when you see the word in the question. For example, instrument has a number of definitions.  Think of a few.  Go ahead; take a few seconds and think.  Did you think of, “agency: an instrument of government.”  That’s a legitimate but not common meaning for the word.  It’s likely to be the best answer!

In this course, we extend this question type to include restatement of phrases questions. Like the second example above, they simply ask for another way to say the same thing, just like a traditional Vocabulary in Context asks for a synonym. In both cases, you need to restate/paraphrase the author’s word(s) into word(s) with parallel meaning.

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 Weird Question Structures

Words of “Wiz-dom”– Mostly the question structure (different from types described above) is straightforward. You’ll see a question ending in a question mark or an incomplete sentence and the right answer completes it. There’s no big deal with these structures. However, there are a couple of special structures that require careful attention and consideration. They are “EXCEPT” questions and “Triple True/False.”

“EXCEPT” Questions

“EXCEPT” questions cause test takers to get confused because they are structured differently. They ask something like, “All of the following are true EXCEPT…,” or “All of the following are false EXCEPT….” Here’s the easy way to handle them. In the margin of the test booklet next to the letters for the answers, put a “T” for “true” and an “F” for “False” for each answer. The right answer will be the one that is different from the other four. It won’t matter if it is a “true EXCEPT” or a “false EXCEPT” question. The right answer will be the odd one.

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Triple True/False (Roman Numeral)

“Triple True False” questions give you three statements that are each preceded by a Roman Numeral. Your task is to decide which one(s) is/are true and false then find the answer (A-E) that matches your pattern of decisions about the “true-falseness” of the three statements. For example, (A) could be BOTH I and II. This is at least a convoluted task even when the statements are not so tough. Do this question as the last one you do for the reading passage. Why? Well, you’ve got to answer three true/false questions to get one point. That’s a major change in the rules!

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Paired Passage Strategy

Words of “Wiz-dom”The paired passages and related questions are no different than anything you’ve learned so far. The questions about each individual passage are the same as any other question type. The only “new” thing they introduce is questions that relate to both passages simultaneously. They are still consistent with the other question types. For example:

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  • “Both passages indicate mountains commonly are caused by…”  Answer 1
  • “Both passages imply Victorian architecture has…”  Answer 2
  • “The focus of this pair of passages is the relationship between…”  Answer 3
  • “The first author uses quotation marks in line 32 in order to…  Answer 4
  • “The first author would disagree with the second author about…”  Answer 5
  • “The authors’ perspectives differ in that…  Answer 6

The key issue is to attack these passages in a logical manner.

  • Read the First Passage then do the Related Questions.

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  • Read the Second Passage then do the Related Questions.

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  • Finally, do the Joint Questions.

Words of “Wiz-dom”-Practice, Practice, Practice

Passages from released SATs

Actual SATs provide the best practice items since the passages and questions have been on the test.


  • Editorials
  • Op Ed page
  • Sportorials


  • Time
  • Newsweek
  • National Geographic
  • Atlantic Monthly
  • Harper’s
  • Vogue
  • Forbes
  • Sports Illustrated

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Reading Passage Homework

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