The least helpful advice I give to the high school juniors who are my SAT students is this: “The best way to prep for the SAT is to have started reading high-quality non-fiction five years ago.” The unhelpful-ness is attributable to our deficiencies in time-travel. Still, there are two categories of person who can benefit from the kernel of value in that silly bit of advice: younger students and everyone else.
When do I start SAT Prep??
I am often asked by parents of freshmen or sophomores when to start SAT prep – the assumption is that a prep class is essential (it isn’t, and I say this as an SAT prep teacher). Freshman year? (Answer: no.) Sophomore year? (No.) Surely, then, the summer after sophomore year. (Not if you ask me.)
Ok, then what do I do??
No, my answer is, before junior year, the thing to do is read non-fiction. I love Young Adult fiction, and poetry, and adult literature, and I would never want to interfere with any choice-reading a young person does, but I mean read non-fiction.
Let me clarify: All the choice-reading you do – whether you’re five or fifteen or fifty-eight – is good for your happiness and your imagination and your brain and your soul, and you should do it … but I’m talking about the SAT, which is a tiny sliver of a human being’s life, even if it is what is known as a “high-stakes” test.
Here’s how you, the parent, can help put this advice into practice:
1) Help your child find high-quality non-fiction on subjects that he or she enjoys.
This is not something that can be started in the fall of one’s junior year in high school; ideally, it is a regular part of ANY educated person’s routine. Sources like The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, Grantland, and The Smithsonian – to name a few – provide excellent non-fiction that covers a wide range of topics and does not “dumb down”. The recent invention of the term “longread” is just one indicator that we live in the golden age of the substantial journalistic feature; the more generic term is “long-form journalism”. Websites like longreads.com and longform.org aggregate for you, as do many other sources. (Thank you, Internet!)
High-caliber longreads feature aggressive vocabulary, adult prose stylings, and high, but usually not exorbitant, expectations for previous knowledge. Most importantly, longreads exist on almost any subject. The subject does not matter, as long as your son or daughter reads about things that interest him or her. As the premise of Dave Eggers’s excellent and noble “Best American Nonrequired Reading” project suggests, the fact that something is assigned by another person can tend to undermine the reader’s engagement. The reader’s act of choosing can be key.
You can find online, print, free, subscription, single-focus, general-interest – the variety boggles the mind. Start looking!
2) Advise your reader to be aware when the subject matter or anything else about the writing starts to get away from him or her.
In sources like these, one will get experience with reading for tone, appreciating irony (especially in op-ed or punditry), etc., as well as plenty of opportunities to have to use context clues to figure out what the heck is going on.
Plus, it’s really interesting stuff.
Content knowledge is crucial to the development of good reading. Good readers have reading skills – like looking to structure for context clues – and knowledge. Confusion tends to lead to boredom, boredom leads to lack of focus, which leads to putting down the reading, which leads to Xbox.
BUT … when a reader cares about knowledge, he or she has a more finely-tuned sensor for the need to re-read, to dig around for context clues, to activate schema (roughly: other things that the reader already knows about the subject), to look up something. Obviously, a student cannot “look up” during an SAT test, but building muscles in these reading-related areas is essential.
This returns us to the term “high-quality”. We all know how being challenged can lead to frustration or growth. Complacency – which, in this context, would mean reading simplistic stuff – does not promote growth. Read well-written, challenging things, and be willing to welcome a bit of confusion, and your reading will be on the right path.
3) Support that reading with conversation.
Leave the grilling for steaks and asparagus, but do have conversations. No multiple-choice questions about the article Junior just read. Talk. Ask. If your child is engaged, he or she may start those conversations, or at least be willing to participate. Now he or she knows more – maybe more than you do. Everyone loves to be expert.
If you are getting recommendations from your kid that say, “Mom, Dad, you have to read this!”, you have struck gold.
4) Suggest that your reader keep a vocabulary notebook.
When he or she encounters unfamiliar words (the above-mentioned texts will give plenty), they should be written down. The reader can look them up later. Don’t interrupt reading to do it; at the article-end or chapter-end could be a suitable moment.
A recommendation: Have your child bring the list, along with a dictionary, when watching TV; a half-hour show has 8 minutes of commercials in it, so the kid can mute the TV during commercials, look up a word or two during each little break, and voila!
(If you only watch TV via Netflix, Hulu or DVR, this commercial gambit won’t help you. But moments of downtime certainly exist elsewhere, and you and/or your child will find it.)
5) Insist that he or she not do SAT prep yet. That’s NOT.
SAT practice itself can be for later, unless your kid insists on taking the SAT in September of junior year. There is plenty of time. Reading is where to focus during the summer … and the best reason for that is – unlike taking a standardized test – reading something interesting that is well-written can be fun. Sadly, standardized testing isn’t.
There is one exception worth considering: If your child is a very strong student – maybe has taken the PSAT before and scored well (combined Critical Reading plus Math plus Writing score of 175 or higher) – he or she may want to practice taking a PSAT before that junior year October. The PSAT (“preliminary SAT”) is also the “NMSQT”, or “National Merit Semifinalist Qualifying Test”, and a combined score above 200 there (it varies slightly every year) could mean recognition and scholarship opportunities.
A little prep wouldn’t be ridiculous in that case, but all in moderation.
Tell your kid: Don’t work too hard! It is tempting to get very intense about SAT prep but a smart and well-read student with good math skills should do very well on the test without stressing through any summer or the sophomore or freshman year in high school.
Finally, I want to return to the end of my opening paragraph. Reading high-quality non-fiction is of value far beyond preparation for the SAT. I noted that it is good for younger kids; even eleven- and twelve-year-olds can understand articles on The New Yorker and The Christian Science Monitor. Remember, it’s invaluable to start acclimating the child to challenge, which builds skills and resilience, not to mention interest in subjects that school may not be touching.
And, as I noted, the second category of “student” who can benefit from this is “everyone else”. Reading well and gaining interest in and knowledge about the world is not only for SAT prep. Your college student should be reading this stuff, your spouse should be reading it, your dad should be reading it. You should be. Challenge yourself with a great longread today!
P.S.: Very timely and time-sensitive: The Awl”s aggregation of aggregations gives a very helpful set of links to The New Yorker online, which is the best of the best in long-form journalism.
Right now, and for a very limited time, much of the archive is available and free.
It is the perfect time – don’t delay, because I don’t know how long it will be open! – for your kid to find material that interests him or her. Got a drummer or a rock-music fan? A beauty-pageant contestant? A lacrosse player? A magician? If your student is interested in medicine, search for “Jerome Groopman” or “Atul Gawande”.
There are more great articles than a stick can be shaken at, including many entertaining ones on psychology and business by Malcolm Gladwell, Roger Angell classics about baseball, Nicholas Schmidle’s essential telling of the night in Pakistan when Seal Team 6 killed Osama Bin Laden, and stories about just about anything else. Maybe even the history of Stanley Kaplan and the SAT itself, a Gladwell go-to.
Enjoy! Choose! Read!!
Carl Rosin teaches English, philosophy, film analysis, and interdisciplinary studies at Radnor High School in Radnor, PA. He has also tutored SAT students and taught SAT classes for ten years. Tweet this list!