We often associate math with logical, straightforward thinking and linear problem-solving. Reading, on the other hand, we associate with more creative thinking that lingers between words and dwells in the possibility of suggestions, connotations, and multiple interpretations. Students taking the SAT or ACT, however, would be wise to reverse those assumptions when taking the Reading and Math sections.
Built into our math and reading strategies is advice that many students may find surprising: we recommend that students “stay boring” on the Reading sections and save their creative energies instead for the Math sections. What? Isn’t math a more mechanical subject that involves logical steps leading to a discrete answer, while English and Reading are all about creative interpretation, inventive language, reading-between-the-lines, and conjuring fresh approaches to what we read? Not necessarily…
The most challenging question type in the Reading section is usually the “implicit” type questions, where a student is asked to make an inference based on the language in the passage. Students often get these questions wrong because they are prone to choose a creative answer choice that could be true instead of the answer that logically must be true. Students are right to look at the text of the passage as evidence for the correct answer, but they need to stay “safe” by reading the text closely and literally, drawing a natural conclusion that is usually not far from the black-and-white meaning of the sentences. “Stay close to the text,” I tell my students, and “pick the boring, seemingly obvious answer instead of telling a story of what might be possible.” We warn our students not to pick an answer choice that requires telling a story that explains how it might be true!
Shouldn’t students be using all the knowledge and skills they’ve acquired in English class on the Reading section of the SAT & ACT? Nope! In English class at school, students may be encouraged to explore the possible meanings of a word or phrase, or meaning of a repeated image, in the context of other language in a short story, poem, or novel. Often, students in an English class then write a paper that argues for one precise interpretation of the work, using textual evidence. On the SAT & ACT, however, students are not crafting their own theses that argue a debatable claim about a text. Instead, students are asked to understand the main ideas, locate and interpret significant details, make logical inferences, and analyze the tone or emotional content of a passage. Students may sometimes be tempted to use outside knowledge when answering questions about a passage involving a well-known historical figure, but instead should defer to what the passage includes–and argues–about that subject. A student may be excited to read a passage about Frederick Douglass, for example, because she had just learned about Douglass in school, but the passage on the SAT or ACT Reading section might not include things the student already knows about him, and may not be arguing a main point that the student expects. The key is to apply logical reasoning alongside reading comprehension, and stay extremely deferential to the literal black-and-white meaning of the face of the text.
When it comes to the Math sections, our four-step strategy includes a critical creative second step, where the student must consider different ways she can arrive at the final destination the question demands. Most math questions on the SAT and ACT are different than what a student is used to seeing on math tests at school. Math questions on the SAT and ACT are often long-winded paragraphs laying out puzzle-like problems that have multiple ways to reach the final answer. The creative step in our strategy involves looking for patterns and trap-door-like shortcuts in the problem, considering the answer choices, and pondering what the most efficient and comfortable route might be for the student to find the final answer. Once a student chooses a path to get to the answer, only then should the student begin calculations.
Thus, we tell our students is to rein in their creativity on the Reading section, while allowing themselves a crucial creative step when doing every math question. In the math questions, we urge students to explore possibilities while considering solution options. On the the reading questions, however, we warn our students to carefully stay close to the black-and-white of the text and not linger over creative possibilities. So, even though it may sound surprising, students should save their whimsical, experimental, creative side for math!