For many students, different styles of writing present problems for reading comprehension. In particular, many students find it difficult to understand passages written in earlier centuries, really anything from before the mid-1900s. While these passages, like more modern works, are written in grammatically correct English, they tend to be more stylized: authors from earlier times tended towards ornate vocabulary atypical of modern writing or speech. Their writing also include more metaphors and figurative speech. For many students, this combination makes understanding what the author is trying to say exceedingly difficult.
Like it or not, both the College Board and ACT, Inc. love to delve into the archives for excerpts from Dickens, Bronte, and their esteemed peers. If you struggle with these types of passages (and you’re not alone!), try the following strategies:
1. Always focus the topic and main idea for the passage as a whole.
Don’t get caught up in details! Identify the topic using 3 words or less and then ask yourself what the author wrote the passage to say about that topic. This will give you either a thesis for nonfiction or–more likely when dealing with archaic passages–a story for fiction. Remembering these basic components of the passage will assist you in finding correct answers, while helping weed out incorrect answers.
2. Identify stylistic language.
While most students are familiar with many metaphors, such as “It’s raining cats and dogs,” or “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” the authors of many older passages integrate a variety of structural, stylistic, and rhetorical elements. When you read about an emotional issue described as a deep chasm in an otherwise magnificent mountain range, the author is probably not talking about mountains. Often, you can eliminate answers which are literal interpretations of employed metaphors. Of course, the tough part may be recognizing metaphor; pay close attention to the use of ‘like’ or ‘as’ for similes and other comparisons, especially when an author is describing something emotional. If you cannot even understand what classical authors are saying, start improving your vocabulary now so you’ll be ready later.
3. If you always struggle with classical writing passages, do them last.
Remember that you don’t need to do Reading passages in order. Tackle whichever type of passage is difficult last. You are more likely to be engaged and work faster on passages which you find interesting, which will instill confidence for more challenging passages as you go along. But remember to keep track of your answers correctly on your answer grid; if you skip any questions, be sure to mark your answer sheet accordingly!
4. Don’t be intimidated.
While you might not be familiar with a lot of vernacular from the 1600s, your task on SAT & ACT reading is always the same: extract the information required to correctly answer the questions. As in all reading passages, the information you need is in the passage. Cut through all the unfamiliar wording and style to comprehend the core meaning of a passage. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Believe you can, and you’re halfway there.” And who knows… you might actually enjoy the passage!