Lesson No. 2: The Two Step Competitive Reading Strategy

Reading Goal

  • Identify the main idea in the essay prompt and source text. The main idea in the essay prompt and source text will be the same. Furthermore, within the writing prompt, College Board has identified on which main idea they want you to focus. Good news is the SAT is redundant. They make sure you understand what they are asking you to do. Bad news is, the SAT is redundant. The writing prompts and source materials are highly redundant and wordy. Your job is to cut through the redundancy and focus only on what matters.


The Essay Directions and Writing Prompt

You will see the below directions BEFORE the source text. These directions are essentially the same for every essay test. You are going to learn these directions prior to test day so you can skip them on test day and go directly to the writing prompt.

As you read the passage below, consider how [author] uses

• evidence, such as facts or [AND] examples, to support claims. 

• reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.

• stylistic or persuasive [rhetorical devices] elements, such as word choice or [AND] appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.

*The three bulleted prompt items will be the same for any SAT Essay prompt you are given. If you train now and form a previous knowledge of and comfort with what the prompt bullets are asking you to do, you will know it like muscle memory and will save time during the test so you can focus more on the source material.

In your written response, use the words “statistical,” “evidence,” “critical reasoning,” “stylistic,” “diction,” and “rhetorical device.” Make it easy for your essay scorer to know you understand the prompt and you are addressing their requests. The words “evidence,” “critical reasoning,” “stylistic,” “diction,” and “rhetorical device” will not only prove you understand and are addressing the prompt, it will evidence a higher level understanding of the terminology, signaling to the scorer that you have a “command of the English language.”

On the day of the test, you will see the below prompt AFTER the source text, but it is helpful if you read this prompt and underline the main idea before you read the source text.

Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience.

*The stricken words are repeats of the information you already understand in the directions. Additionally, the stricken words will be pretty much the same no matter what essay prompt you are given. Familiarize yourself with the stricken out parts now so that in test time, you focus only on the main point, underlined above.

The SAT is not asking you to think individually. They don’t care if you agree with whether or not Peter S. Goodman builds an effective argument. They want you to “explain how Peter S. Goodman builds an argument to persuade…” For smart, critical readers, this is the more difficult aspect of SAT Essay tests.

Truthfully, there are holes in Goodman’s below article—i.e., paragraph #3 does not identify which “papers” and what “space.” Excellent critical readers will question the validity of Goodman’s argument because his details are incomplete and appear to be opinionated without specific support sources and details. Even if he had listed one actual news source title from the AJR study, it would have supported his claim much better, but he refrains. Perhaps, he was directed to leave the actual titles out? Maybe eHuffingtonpost.com did not want to incur the negative attention it might bring from the news sources in question? Regardless, Goodman might have address this gaping hole in his argument in some way so to further build the reader’s trust.

Additionally, excellent critical readers would use Goodman’s own “social networking” argument against him: his essay was published at eHuffingtonpost.com, an online news source, and does not include the level of specific support and details, especially in paragraph #3, that one would expect to find in The New York Times. Goodman is the “executive business and global news editor at eHuffingtonPost.com.” How thoroughly was his article edited by his senior editor? Did he have a senior editor or merely a fact checker and/or copy editor? 

However, the SAT has decided Goodman has built an argument to persuade his audience. So now, it is your job to support SAT’s assertion. One caveat, though the sample 8|8|8 sample response give for Goodman’s article does not address the holes in paragraph #3, you might make note of this critical issue in your own response, as long as you address the areas in which Goodman does build his argument well. 

Think of yourself as a good soldier with diplomatic talents. When your drill sergeant says that Goodman built a persuasive argument, you will say “yes, sir” or “yes, mam.” If you offer a counterargument to your drill sergeant, you will do so cautiously and with respect. If done effectively and respectfully, your sergeant will regard you as a critical thinker capable of leading. If done poorly, your sergeant will make you do push ups till next week. 


Here is our sample writing prompt taken from an actual SAT Essay:

Write an essay in which you explain how Peter S. Goodman builds an argument to persuade his audience that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States. In your essay, analyze how Goodman uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

*Notice how wordy the writing prompt is. Ignore the wordiness and focus only on the above highlighted section of your essay prompt on test day. Basically, the only thing you need to know from this entire paragraph is that “Peter S. Goodman builds an argument to persuade his audience that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States.” 

Take this further and add the bulleted items into a single sentence. “Peter S. Goodman builds an argument using evidence, reasoning, style (syntax, sentence variety) and rhetorical devices (word choice, appeals to emotion, repetition) to persuade his audience that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States.”

The best part? Not only have you cut it all down to an easy to process main idea, you’ve found the main idea of your essay response. Your “thesis.” This is a win win. Think about how many students go into the SAT Essay test without having trained for this easy and this very simple strategy. They will spend at least five minutes figuring out the wordiness of the writing prompt then potentially even more time working out their “thesis.” You have now boiled this all down to a single sentence that follows a formula you’ve already developed and know by heart. You will know what you are looking for a writing within two minutes flat. Now, your job is to simply locate Goodman’s main support details in the body paragraphs.


Reading in a Less Competitive Environment

Previously, we explored different notation approaches: underlining, circling and annotation notes. We also explored some testing tips from MIT. In this lesson, we are going to use what we learned to build a progressive strategy to (a) more quickly immerse yourself in the source content and (b) build thorough understanding of its main concepts.

If you weren’t in a competitive testing environment, and you wanted to gain full understanding of source material, you might read an article four separate times.

  • Reading 1: Familiarize yourself with the overall concept with a special focus on main ideas in the introduction and conclusion.
  • Reading 2: Highlight main concepts as you read now that you have a general viewpoint of the introduction and conclusion.
  • Reading 3: Notate in the margins so to create relationships between the main ideas.
  • Reading 4: Create a separate outline from your highlighted concepts and notations.

In a competitive testing atmosphere, every second counts. You don’t have time to read the source material four times. You must read, acquire, retain and understand the material more quickly.  For this reason, you are going to train yourself to use a two step reading acquisition and retention strategy. For the following strategy to work, you must practice, practice, practice each subset.


Reading in a Competitive Testing Environment

Read only the introduction and conclusion while highlighting capitalized words, acronyms, numbers, dates, words with four or more syllables (including compound nouns and hyphenated words) and repeated words. (Why are you highlighting four or more syllable words? Because they are going to be your higher vocabulary response words that will give you a more advanced word usage, diction, score.)


Sample Sat Essay

Remember your main idea that you have already outlined from the writing prompt: 

“Peter S. Goodman builds an argument using evidence, reasoning, style (syntax, sentence variety) and rhetorical devices (word choice, appeals to emotion, repetition) to persuade his audience that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States.”

Now, focus on finding the most important details that relate to and support this main idea. Focus on the introductory and concluding paragraphs first.


Adapted from Peter S. Goodman’s, “Foreign News at a Crisis Point.” ©2013 by eHuffingtonPost.com, Inc. Originally published September 25, 2013. Peter Goodman is the executive business and global news editor at eHuffingtonPost.com.

1. Back in 2003American Journalism Review produced a census of foreign correspondents then employed by newspapers based in the United States, and found 307 full-time people. When AJR repeated the exercise in the summer of 2011, the count had dropped to 234. And even that number was signifcantly inflated by the inclusion of contract writers who had replaced full-time staffers.

2. In the intervening eight years20 American news organizations had entirely eliminated their foreign bureaus.

3. The same AJR survey zeroed in on a representative sampling of American papers from across the country and found that the space devoted to foreign news had shrunk by 53 percent over the previous quarter-century.

4. All of this decline was playing out at a time when the U.S. was embroiled in two overseas wars, with hundreds of thousands of Americans deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was happening as domestic politics grappled with the merits and consequences of a global war on terror, as a Great Recession was blamed in part on global imbalances in savings, and as world leaders debated a global trade treaty and pacts aimed at addressing climate change. It unfolded as American workers heard increasingly that their wages and job security were under assault by competition from counterparts on the other side of oceans.

5. In short, news of the world is becoming palpably more relevant to the day-to-day experiences of American readers, and it is rapidly disappearing.

6. Yet the same forces that have assailed print media, eroding foreign news along the way, may be fashioning a useful response. Several nonprofit outlets have popped up to finance foreign reporting, and a for-profit outfit, GlobalPost, has dispatched a team of 18 senior correspondents into the field, supplemented by dozens of stringers and freelancers….

7. We are intent on forging fresh platforms for user-generated content: testimonials, snapshots and video clips from readers documenting issues in need of attention. Too often these sorts of efforts wind up feeling marginal or even patronizing: “Dear peasant, here’s your chance to speak to the pros about what’s happening in your tiny little corner of the world.” We see user-generated content as a genuine reporting tool, one that operates on the premise that we can only be in so many places at once. Crowd-sourcing is a fundamental advantage of the web, so why not embrace it as a means of piecing together a broader and more textured understanding of events?

8. We all know the power of Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media to connect readers in one place with images and impressions from situations unfolding far away. We know the force of social media during the Arab Spring, as activists convened and reacted to changing circumstances…. Facts and insights reside on social media, waiting to be harvested by the digitally literate contemporary correspondent.

9. And yet those of us who have been engaged in foreign reporting for many years will confess to unease over many of the developments unfolding online, even as we recognize the trends are as unstoppable as globalization or the weather. Too often it seems as if professional foreign correspondents, the people paid to use their expertise while serving as informational filters, are being replaced by citizen journalists who function largely as funnels, pouring insight along with speculation, propaganda and other white noise into the mix.

10. We can celebrate the democratization of media, the breakdown of monopolies, the rise of innovative means of telling stories, and the inclusion of a diversity of voices, and still ask whether the results are making us better informed. Indeed, we have a professional responsibility to continually ask that question while seeking to engineer new models that can channel the web in the interest of better informing readers….

11. We need to embrace the present and gear for the future. These are days in which newsrooms simply must be entrepreneurial and creative in pursuit of new means of reporting and paying for it. That makes this a particularly interesting time to be doing the work, but it also requires forthright attention to a central demand: We need to put back what the Internet has taken away. We need to turn the void into something fresh and compelling. We need to re-examine and update how we gather information and how we engage readers, while retaining the core values of serious-minded journalism.

12. This will not be easy…. But the alternative—accepting ignorance and parochialism—is simply not an option.


Training for Competitive Reading

  1. Before You Start: You’ll need a printer, pencil, and timer.

  2. If you have a testing buddy, great! This is highly suggested. Decide on a time when you can both complete your training together. In the morning is best.
  3. Print each of the following SAT Practice EssaysSAT Practice Test 1,  SAT Practice Test 2SAT Practice Test 3SAT Practice Test 4. (Print a set for your buddy, too!)

  4. Sit at a desk or table and straight-backed chair. Try to replicate the actual testing environment as closely as possible.

  5. If you are testing with a buddy, see who can read and circle all items—capitalized words, acronyms, numbers, dates, words with four or more syllables (including compound nouns and hyphenated words) and repeated words—first. Begin with Practice Test 1. When done, count how many circled terms you each have and cross check to see which words were missed. Who won? What does the winner get?

  6. Do the same with each of the next three practice tests.

  7. Stay with this skill step until you have mastered it. You might schedule weekly Sunday morning competitive testing sessions for a month or two or for several days straight. Generally, it takes the body and brain three weeks of regularly training to learn new habits. How much and how often you train for this step will depend upon your own acquisition and retention rates. Don’t fret if you are a slower reader or if you are a learner who does better audibly. This is what the training is for. Just keep training and you will build this skill step for strength and endurance.