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New SAT Reading Questions vs. Old SAT Reading Questions

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Today we’re going to look at some of the ways in which the types of questions on the March 2016 SAT Reading section differ from those on the version of the exam that will be used through January 2016. Overall, the new Reading questions are a considerable improvement over the older ones. They seem more interested in assessing whether a student has truly read and understood a passage, rather than trying to trip a student up with confusingly-worded questions and answers.


Straightforward Questions and Answers

SAT “Passage-Based Reading” questions are notorious for asking simple questions in difficult ways. Many questions are lengthy and worded in such a way as to deliberately confuse students about what a question is actually asking. Answer choices are similarly verbose and obtuse. Before you can answer these types of questions, you must first untangle what a question and its answer choices really mean.


The new SAT Reading questions are much shorter and more to the point. A “main idea” question might ask you to choose the answer that “best describes what happens in the passage” or “best describes the pattern of development in the passage.” Answer choices are concise, direct, and literal. They read like natural responses to the questions, not puzzles that you need to unlock.


Words in Context

The old SAT Reading “Sentence Completion” questions have been jettisoned completely from the March 2016 SAT. The vocabulary questions that do appear are all about the context of words in passages as a whole. How and why an author is using a particular word is more important than the dictionary definition of that word. You need to analyze a word’s relationship with closely-related words in the same sentence and consider how the word fits into the sentence and the passage overall. Intentionally archaic and obscure words are out. Instead, the new SAT tests students on what the College Board considers “high utility academic words.” These are the sorts of words that, while uncommon in casual writing, show up frequently in scholarly works. In short, vocabulary questions test students on precisely the kinds of words that they will see used with increasing frequency as they progress through their college careers.


“Two Part” Questions

The March 2016 Reading section includes some “two part” questions. Being able to choose the correct answer for the second question hinges on selecting the correct answer for the first question. The first question asks you to correctly describe a particular aspect of the passage. This could be something like the reaction that a character fears most or the reason why an author references a particular study or expert in his or her field. Unlike similar questions on the old SAT, these are targeted questions. You don’t need to hunt around cited lines or words to piece together the answer.


The second question asks you to pick the lines from the text that best support your answer to the first question. As with most of the questions on the new Reading section, the correct answer is usually quite literal. Assuming you have chosen the correct answer for both questions, your answer choice for the second question should directly reference something from your answer choice for the first question. If none of the answers to the second question quite seem to “fit” your answer to the first question that is your cue that you’ve either misunderstood an important aspect of the passage or have chosen the wrong answer for the first question.

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