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Why “Teaching Reading Comprehension” in SAT/ACT Is an Oxymoron?

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By Paul Lim | Kaplan SAT & ACT Trainer

Oftentimes, when test-prep tutors come together, they tend to discuss some of the most challenging problems that they have encountered.  And in most cases, the conversation invariably leads to the question: “How do you teach reading comprehension?”  Some tutors have become so frustrated with this issue that they surrendered by saying that reading comprehension CANNOT be taught.  Period.  If that is the conclusion of most test-prep tutors, then what are we doing in the lessons?

I tend to agree with most of the tutors that reading comprehension cannot be taught, but at least, it can definitely be learned.  It is something that students should have acquired elsewhere (this is called extensive reading, but more about this in later issues); it cannot and should not be taught in test-prep lessons.  In the lessons, we teach them neither “reading” nor “comprehension.”  We teach them the techniques and the methods that will help them focus on the main ideas so as to enhance their comprehension or understanding.  The basic presumption is that they already have a basic understanding of what the passage is talking about.  If not, then no amount of lesson time is going to help them to comprehend the passage.

To be more exact, we teach them that for each type of passage, what aspects they need to focus on to get the main idea.  We teach them what keywords and key phrases to focus on so that they can better understand what the author is trying to communicate.  We teach them to monitor the progression of the passage so that they know where to look when they need to find answers QUICKLY to the questions asked.  In other words, we teach them to focus on understanding the passage and have a mental mapping of the passage so that they have a high level of confidence that the selected answer is the correct answer.

In addition to teaching students how to understand the passage, we also tell them not to rely on their memory or impression.  The reason is that memory and impression are seldom reliable.  Many students try to remember, or memorize, either the questions or the many details of the passage.  This, to me, is a fool’s errand.  Human memory cannot remember so many things at one time.  Neuroscience tells us that as humans, we can only hold 2 or 3 things in our brains at any one time.  Since reading comprehension is an open-book test, I always tell my students that we do not need to remember the details of the passage, we only need to find the answers quickly – of course, from the passage – and confirm that our choice is the right answer.

So, if you have a chance to talk to your test-prep tutors next time, remember to ask them how they teach reading comprehension to your child and see what their responses are.

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Mr. Paul Lim
Kaplan SAT and ACT Trainer
MBA, National University of Singapore
B.Sc., Harvey Mudd College
TBE
TESOL

• Over 15+ years of experience in teaching SAT and ACT
• Graduated from a prestigious U.S. college
• Proven record in helping students achieve a perfect subject section score of 800
• Author of a book on effective learning strategies for mastering vocabulary

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