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General Knowledge and Reading Comprehension

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By Paul Lim | Kaplan SAT & ACT Trainer

We will leave our discussion of the future of SAT/ACT (and standardized tests in general) for the time being and talk about a topic that is widely misunderstood by parents and students alike. It is also related to how students can further improve their reading comprehension scores after they have learned the techniques and developed the skills that we teach in SAT and ACT classes. A lot of parents think that if their children scored, say 200 points (out of 400 in SAT) today and 250 points 3 months later after some test-prep lessons, then in less than one year, they will be able to achieve a perfect score of 400. The answer to that question is not as simple because improving reading comprehension does not happen by itself in a vacuum. Other than the vocabulary and the cognitive abilities to understand the passages given, students still need general knowledge in order to score at the very high levels.

As defined in Wikipedia, general knowledge is “information that has been accumulated over time through various mediums. It is strongly associated with general intelligence and with openness to experience.” It is not specialized knowledge that is obtained through extensive learning and training. It is knowledge that we acquired through reading (ties in with the extensive reading that I talked about some time ago) and other mediums like TV, videos, discussions, and classes. It is the kind of knowledge that we obtained through a better understanding of the world around us. It involves a plethora of subjects like natural sciences, social sciences, arts, history, and literature. It is acquired when people become curious about the things that are happening around them and want to find out more on how and why these things happen. Generally, these are the same topics included in the passages of the reading comprehension sections of SAT and ACT.

SAT and ACT have either 4 or 5 passages in the reading comprehension section. These passages revolve around topics of sciences, arts, history, social sciences, and literature (mainly in the American context). So, if the students do not know much about the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, women suffrage and equal human rights, then they will have a more difficult time understanding what these passages are talking about. However, if they already have the background of these social issues and events, then they have a better chance of understanding the passages given such that they have a higher chance of answering the questions correctly. This is how general knowledge plays an important role in reading comprehension and how helpful it will be to students who already have backgrounds in these subjects.

If general knowledge is so helpful, then what can students do to improve? The answer to that is very simple but may not be very easy. As I recommended previously in my discussion on extensive reading: parents can start by putting aside 30 minutes each day initially for their children’s reading. This is reading outside of schoolwork to stimulate their interests – curiosity is also a very important ingredient. It is best done regularly (before bedtime), consistently (every day), and persistently (over many months). Once that is done over a longer period of time, the results will definitely be a pleasant surprise to the parents.

Mr. Paul Lim

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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