Students often come to us with expressed fear of the math and English sections, and we usually start with one of those sections first because there is so much content we can cover that will quickly lead to higher scores. The Reading section of the tests, however, remains elusive, and is often the hardest section to make progress in. The best thing a student can do to improve their reading comprehension for the tests is read more–read widely, read often, read actively–and seek to understand what the text is saying, ideally by looking up vocabulary that is unfamiliar. Sustained reading increases the skills tested in the Reading section over time, but many students are scrambling to prepare for the SAT and ACT only a month or two before the exam date. So, when faced with a time crunch, what can we do to increase a student’s score in Reading?
One way is to be on the lookout for the disgusting “fly in the soup!”
How many flies does it take to ruin a bowl of soup? ONE! So, beware of the nasty fly: it wrecks the whole soup, no matter how delicious the soup is. How does this culinary disaster relate to Reading on the SAT or ACT? The key is to realize that many attractive almost-correct answer choices contain a nasty fly, one little thing that makes it a wrong answer, despite the accuracy of the rest of the answer. So, we teach students to look for the “fly” in order to eliminate answer choices that are alluring in their almost-correctness, but are ultimately wrong.
Overall, when discussing the Reading section, we teach students to “read for reference,” which means that the student practices actively seeking the main ideas and marking them in the passage, so the student can locate and track the core meaning of the text and can refer back to those important parts when answering questions. Our fly in the soup strategy steers students toward referencing the passage, as a student needs to be grounded in the actual black and white of the text in order to “spot the fly.” Staying close to the literal text of the passage is crucial to scoring well on the Reading section.
What will the fly look like? The “fly” that ruins an answer choice might be an exaggeration of what was actually written in the passage, an assumption that is not necessarily true, or even information that is outside the scope of the passage, and therefore is not what the passage actually says. The fly in the soup strategy helps students avoid jumping to conclusions that are not directly supported by the narrow text of the passage. I tell my students not to apply creative English-class interpretation skills to these passages–we are NOT looking for wild and interesting readings and possibilities but are instead being super logical, maybe even boring. We are simply tracking what the passage says, on its face, in black and white. Finding the “fly” in the answer choice that spoils the answer can be a fun way for students to learn how to connect the direct meaning of the text to the correct answer.
Once you master the fly in the soup strategy for the Reading sections of the SAT and ACT, you’ll find that answer choices on every other section often follow this same structure. No matter what you are being tested on, get used to the idea that, on standardized tests like these, mostly right is still completely wrong. Don’t taste the soup until you’ve checked for flies!