Reading on the SAT and ACT can be tough. No one denies how challenging a battery of unfamiliar passages on a wide array of topics and styles under stressful timed conditions can be. Yet, despite the sheer difficulty of the task at hand, test takers routinely ignore information expressly provided to make passages easier to understand. Why?
Every Reading passage on the SAT and ACT includes some introductory information that spells out, at the very least, the author, title, and date of publication of the original source of the passage. Often, this sourcing includes much more that is relevant to the passage and its questions. In fact, the value of the sourcing has been increasing over time, which may be related to the expanded focus on sourcing inspired by Common Core. The 2012 Revised Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3–12 (co-authored by the current president and CEO of the College Board) provide very specific criteria for High-Quality Text-Dependent Questions and Tasks, which certainly describes SAT & ACT Reading:
Text-dependent questions do not require information or evidence from outside the text or texts; they establish what follows and what does not follow from the text itself… When examining a complex text in depth, tasks should require careful scrutiny of the text and specific references to evidence from the text itself to support responses.
At the same time, academics don’t want readers tackling unfamiliar text in a vacuum. The authors of an article titled Context: The Foundation of Close Reading of Primary Source Texts emphasize the importance of sourcing:
Primary sources are typically drawn from a world different from that of the students in time or place, or both. Teachers should provide historical context to their students by giving them information about the time, location, and purpose for the creation of the source. They should also situate the source in a specific location—whether local, national, or international—and examine the source in relation to other events of the time. Context is not the enemy of close reading of primary sources; context is the very thing that makes close reading possible and meaningful.
Useful sourcing answers fundamental questions to facilitate understanding:
- Who wrote this?
- What is the author’s perspective?
- Why was it written?
- When was it written?
- Where was it written?
- Is this source reliable? Why? Why not?
Reliability shouldn’t concern test takers, but the other questions definitely matter to a high schooler grappling with a long, daunting passage. Thus, even the simplest sourcing, like this example from an official SAT, makes a passage easier to understand:
This passage is from Charlotte Brontë, The Professor, originally published in 1857.
Students who spend a few seconds to read that sourcing will be able to steel themselves for another old fiction passage, which most teens particularly dread. Note that this sourcing provides less information than some do, such as these excerpts from a released ACT and SAT respectively:
This passage is adapted from the article “Green Music in the Rain Forest” by Suzanne Charlé, which appeared in the Fall 2002 Ford Foundation Report. OELA is an acronym based on Portuguese words rather than the English words used in this article. A luthier is a maker of stringed musical instruments.
This passage is adapted from Alan Ehrenhalt,The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. ©2013 by Vintage. Ehrenhalt is an urbanologist—a scholar of cities and their development. Demographic inversion is a phenomenon that describes the rearrangement of living patterns throughout a metropolitan area
Not only does each sourcing answer the essential questions, each one also defines terms used–but not defined–in the passages themselves. Students who skipped these brief blurbs deprived themselves of critical information just to save a few seconds.
ALWAYS read the sourcing for Reading passages on standardized tests. The grammar passages on both tests don’t include sourcing, but ACT Science passages sometimes do. When sourcing appears, invest a few moments in reading it before attacking the passage. The sourcing for Reading passages will never hurt, but will sometimes help quite a bit.