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Understanding SAT Literature Subject Test Selections

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In the previous lesson we discussed some strategies for figuring out the meanings of antiquated words on the SAT Literature Subject Test. Now we’re going to offer some techniques that will help you to prepare for and understand the literature selections themselves. While you can practice these with any piece of poetry or prose, short selections written before the twentieth century will most accurately reflect those found on the test. A collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a Dickens novel are good examples of practice material. Take your time and get used to using these strategies so that they become second nature by test day.


Put Selections into Your Own Words

Rewrite selections with difficult language into a form that you can more easily understand. Work through a selection line by line, putting the ideas in each into your own words. Condense your rewritings down to a concise summary of the poem or prose. Don’t worry about translating the meaning of every single word. Instead, focus on pulling out the subject(s), main idea, and the author’s/speaker’s purpose. After you get the hang of this process, shift to doing as much of it as you can in your head and focusing on just the parts of a selection that give you trouble.


Indentify Contrasting Relationships

Skim a poetry or prose selection for concepts and key words that are synonymous with or antithetical to one another. This is easiest to do with a piece of poetry, such as a sonnet, which has a fixed rhyme scheme. A repeating word or phrase tells you that the word/phrase is integral to the meaning of the poem. Opposing concepts expressed in very similarly-structured lines indicate that the relationship between those concepts is either very important to the main idea of the poem or is actually the main idea itself.


Identify Figurative Language

Learning to identify what type of figurative language an author is using can, in turn, help you to figure out why he or she is using that particular literary device in the first place. A simile, metaphor, or allusion indicates some type of comparison. Allegories and parables compare not only the characters in a work but what those characters more broadly represent. Other examples of figurative language include puns, symbolism, aphorisms, personification, idioms, sarcasm, reifications, parody, and metonymy. Once you identify the type(s) of figurative language that an author is using, ask yourself these questions: Why use this particular literary technique? Why not use another one or just write the meaning out literally? Why did the author use the exact imagery and choice of words that he or she did? An author who personifies the second hand of a ticking clock as the steps of a ravenous wolf is offering a very different interpretation of the passage of time than an author who describes the passage of minutes as the plodding steps of an elephant.

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