Home / Blog / SAT Reading: Tips for Understanding Pre-20th Century Passages

SAT Reading: Tips for Understanding Pre-20th Century Passages

Small Logo on Transparent BG

The SAT Reading section contains passages adapted from works written in the 18th through the early 21st centuries. While students usually grasp 20th and 21st century passages with relative ease, many struggle with their 18th and 19th century counterparts. These “pre-20th century” passages are often written in ways unfamiliar to contemporary English speakers. Many feature words that we no longer use or whose meanings have changed drastically over time. Although you will likely never have as full an understanding of these passages as you will of more recent ones, there are some steps you can take to understand enough of a pre-20th century passage to successfully answer its questions.


Always Read the Description

The description at the beginning of a passage always tells you the year that it was published. This, combined with the next step, will help you to contextualize the subject being discussed.


Understand the Context

Any form of writing is a product of its time. Ideas once considered controversial have become commonplace. Notions that were once considered mainstream are now thought of as repressive and outdated. Knowing the basics major historical events can help you understand how and why an author of a particular era is discussing a topic and what position he or she is taking on that topic.


The SAT’s definition of “major historical events” is fairly limited, so take a look at the official guide before you start trying to memorize everything from the past three hundred plus years. Identify any historical topics in the practice tests that you are not familiar with. Ask you teacher or school librarian for recommendations on books that can bring you up to speed quickly on any areas you need a refresher in.


Read Some 18th and 19th Century Literature

If you find that you’re having difficulty with the language used in 18th and 19th century literature, consider reading a few books from these eras. The amount of 18th and 19th century English literature is massive, so look for authors in the official guide whose writing you have difficulty comprehending. As with historical events, ask a teacher, librarian, or other educator for reading recommendations that are written in a similar style.


Work around Difficult Words

You won’t know every word in an 18th or 19th century passage, so don’t try to. Instead, look for synonyms that you do recognize. If no synonyms exist, consider the context and examine the root of a word to get “close enough” to the meaning of a difficult word.


Put Ideas into Your Own Words

As you read a pre-20th century passage, try rewriting important parts of the passage in your own voice. While you can’t do this for every sentence, you should attempt to simplify the main idea/thesis and other major claims into forms that you can quickly reference. 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,