Reading Passages
Tackling the Long Passage
Long passages adhere to a pretty rigid structure:
  • Paragraph 1: Introduction/proposition.
  • Paragraph 2: First point in support of proposed argument with supporting data. Transition sentence.
  • Paragraph 3: Second point in support of proposed argument with supporting data. Transition sentence.
And so forth. (There may or may not be a conclusion included in the excerpt.)
The first chunk will almost certainly contain the main idea of the whole passage; the first sentence of each subsequent paragraph usually contains at least some hint of the main idea of that paragraph; and the last sentence of each paragraph usually provides a transition to the next point. Now this won’t always be the case, but it is the case often enough to make the reading vs. skimming time savings an excellent bet for the savvy test-taker.
Knowing which parts of a passage you need to actually read and which you can skim is a crucial part of getting the most points you can on RPs. Follow this method every time you encounter a Long RP:
Step 1: Read the italicized introduction.
Step 2: Read only the first quarter of the passage. Jot down the key features of this chunk.
Step 3: Skim every subsequent paragraph. Jot down the main idea of each paragraph.
By “key features,” we mean the topic, main idea, purpose, and tone of the passage.
Let’s look at the rationale for this method in more detail.
  1. Read the italicized introduction. The italicized introduction sets the stage for the passage you’re about to read. Never skip it: the introduction is your first clue to the topic, scope, and main idea.
  2. Read only the first quarter of the passage. Jot down the key features of this chunk. The vast majority of passages give at least some idea of the topic, scope, main idea, and sometimes even the purpose in the first quarter of the passage. “Quarter” is a loose distinction—don’t count up the lines and divide by four. The combination of reading the italicized introduction and the first chunk of the passage will give you most of the key information you need to answer many of the items you’ll encounter.
  3. As you tackle a passage, you want to maintain mental focus and get the most information you can out of the passage. Jotting down key words or short phrases in the margins of your test booklet forces you to engage with the text. Jotting down notes also prevents you from losing focus and zoning out. Losing focus means rereading, which wastes valuable time, and as you know, wasting time is the cardinal sin on standardized tests. In addition to jotting down the main idea, you can also circle key words or underline them. Experiment with the practice material at the end of this book and do what works best for you.
  4. Skim every subsequent paragraph. Jot down the key features of each paragraph. Remember, skimming means:
    • Read only the first and last sentences in paragraphs.
    • Circle or underline signpost words or key terms.
    • Use your pencil to help you break the habit of reading every word.
As you skim across the surface of the text, be on the lookout for (circling/underlining) key words and terms and for signpost words that signal a shift in the argument.
Reading Actively
Notice how our step method to tackling passages encourages mental concentration and efficiency by making reading something more than just moving your line of sight across the page. The physical act of reading in this way, which includes doing a little bit of writing (i.e., jotting), engages other parts of your brain and body. This keeps you from zoning out and increases concentration.
The goal here is for you to maintain the level of concentration you normally experience when you read in untimed situations. When you’re really into a book or an article, the rest of the world fades away and you disappear into the page. Unfortunately, time constraints and the pressure of knowing you’re being tested make it difficult to maintain this kind of natural, high-level concentration. Reading actively in the manner we’ve described builds your concentration.
Tackling the Passage in Slow Motion
We’d like you to read the following abbreviated passage. We created this passage by excluding those parts of the full passage that you shouldn’t read word for word. We’ve used bold text to denote circling/underlining. In other words, we’ve applied the passage-tackling step method for you.
As you read, jot down the key features of the various chunks of the passage in the margin. Make sure to time yourself down to the second. Note exactly how long it takes you to read the passage in the space provided at the end the passage.

Abbreviated Passage: 478 Words, including Italicized Introduction

     

The following passage is taken from an article on the architecture of the Etruscans, a tribe that dominated Italy before the rise of the Romans, and the Roman architect Vitruvius’ On Architecture, which was written in the first century B.C. during the reign of the emperor Augustus.

     

As we have seen, decades of archeological research have shown that Vitruvius’ famous chapter on Etruscan temples idealized readily apparent diversity. While Vitruvius did accurately capture the main features of the Etruscan style, actual Etruscan temples deviated quite significantly from his ideal. We might ask why Vitruvius ignored the architectural diversity of the many different Etruscan temples with which he clearly was familiar. Answering this question provides some useful insight into not only Vitruvius’ definition of the Etruscan style but also the purpose of On Architecture as a whole.

      Traditionally, scholars answered this question by pointing to Vitruvius’ allegiance to Greek philosophy. In chapter six, Vitruvius reports that he has had the benefit of a liberal Greek education, which he recommends to all aspiring architects. Without such broad training, Vitruvius argues, no architect can understand proper architectural theory. For Vitruvius, architectural theory rested on the principles of mathematical proportion promulgated by such Greek philosophers as Pythagoras. These philosophers believed that the universe was structured according to god-given mathematical laws. … macrocosmmicrocosmproportionalityThus, … correspondencesbodytemple. Vitruvius Hellenized the Etruscan temple by superimposing Greek notions of mathematical proportionality on his purportedly empirical description of the Etruscan temple style.

      Vitruvius’ belief that specific natural proportions should be extended to architectural forms does help to explain why he idealized Etruscan temples.… However, far more mundane considerations acted in concert with Vitruvius’ allegiance to Greek notions of mathematical harmony to encourage the idealization of the Etruscan temple.

      Despite its title, On Architecture was not written primarily for architects. … Augustuspatronbusy :read the introductionsskip the rest ... One quickly realizes that the chapter introductions constitute an ancient résumé designed to convince Augustus to entrust part of his architectural legacy to Vitruvius.

      Moreover, one must also keep in mind that On Architecture, like all ancient books, was originally published as a series of scrolls. … “chapter”inconvenientfront-loadimportant ideas ... The ancient author had to earn each “unrolling” by concentrating that much more on the order in which ideas were presented and the economy with which they were expressed—and how much more so when one’s intended audience is the emperor of Rome?

      Vitruvius’ idealization of Etruscan temples now becomes even more understandable. Tellinglyrelatively unimportant ... In order toattentionpatronagedigestible package ... This fact, along with Vitruvius’

fundamental belief in proportionality, goes a long way toward explaining why Vitruvius ignored the architectural diversity he doubtless saw in Etruscan temples.

                                                                                                Time:

Here’s our version of the margin notes:
First “quarter”:the italicized intro to the first paragraph; a chunk of the second paragraph

NOTE: Remember to be flexible in defining the first quarter. There is no hard-and-fast rule to this designation. In this case, we started skimming as soon as we hit what looked like supporting data in the second paragraph.


Vitr. and Etruscan temples—why no diversity—why did he simplify in his book? 1st reason: traditional; Greek proportionality
Paragraph 3 another reason—more mundane
Paragraph 4 O.A. not for archs—it’s V.’s résumé
Paragraph 5 O.A. originally scrolls, not book
Paragraph 6 résumé + scrolls = another reason for lack of diversity in Et. temples
In the chart above, we’ve tried to mimic the jotting style of margin notes. You certainly don’t need to make a chart; you’ll be scribbling in the margins only. Your jottings were likely even more compressed and abbreviated, and rightly so. For example, a more realistic version of our notes for the first quarter would be:

V. and Et temps—no div—why? 1. trad scholars: Gk. proportion.

Scribbling that would take about three seconds. Be as economical as you can and remember: the only person who needs to understand your notes is you.
Now, fill in the chart below as best you can, referring to your (and our, if you like) margin notes on the main idea of each chunk of the passage.
Topic                        
Main Idea                        
Purpose                        
                       
Tone                        
                       
Notice how you got quite a bit of key information out of this abbreviated passage.
Do you really have to write down the topic, main idea, and so forth? That’s a matter of judgment. It’s possible that after enough practice, you’ll start noting these four major features of each passage automatically and mentally. But as you begin to practice, force yourself to write them down, if only to train yourself to look for these major features.
An Experiment
Now, read the full, unabbreviated passage word for word. Again, time yourself and note the time in the space below the passage.
Full, Unabbreviated Passage: 776 Words, including Italicized Introduction

The following passage is taken from an article on the architecture of the Etruscans, a tribe that dominated Italy before the rise of the Romans, and the Roman architect Vitruvius’ On Architecture, which was written in the first century B.C. during the reign of the emperor Augustus.


         As we have seen, decades of archeological research have
    shown that Vitruvius’ famous chapter on Etruscan temples
    idealized readily apparent diversity. While Vitruvius did
Line    accurately capture the main features of the Etruscan style,
(5)    actual Etruscan temples deviated quite significantly from his
    ideal. We might ask why Vitruvius ignored the architectural
    diversity of the many different Etruscan temples with which he
    clearly was familiar. Answering this question provides some
    useful insight into not only Vitruvius’ definition of the
(10)    Etruscan style but also the purpose of On Architecture as a
    whole.
         Traditionally, scholars answered this question by pointing
    to Vitruvius’ allegiance to Greek philosophy. In chapter six,
    Vitruvius reports that he has had the benefit of a liberal Greek
(15)    education, which he recommends to all aspiring architects.
    Without such broad training, Vitruvius argues, no architect can
    understand proper architectural theory. For Vitruvius,
    architectural theory rested on the principles of mathematical
    proportion promulgated by such Greek
(20)         philosophers as Pythagoras. These philosophers believed that
    the universe was structured according to god-given mathematical
    laws. They further believed that the harmonious mathematical
    structure of the universe (the macrocosm ) was reflected in the
    structure of the human body (the microcosm ). Vitruvius extended
(25)    this reflection to architectural forms. Temples, Vitruvius
    believed, must reflect the mathematical proportionality of the
    body, just as the body reflects the mathematical proportionality
    of the universe. Thus, Vitruvius claimed to “find”
    correspondences between proportional measurements of the human
(30)    body—that the hand’s length is one-tenth the body’s height, for
    example—and proportional measurements of the Etruscan temple.
    Vitruvius Hellenized the Etruscan temple by superimposing Greek
    notions of mathematical proportionality on his purportedly
    empirical description of the Etruscan temple style.
(35)         Vitruvius’ belief that specific natural proportions should
    be extended to architectural forms does help to explain why he
    idealized Etruscan temples. After all, mathematical models
    generally don’t allow for much deviation. However, far more
    mundane considerations acted in concert with Vitruvius’
(40)    allegiance to Greek notions of mathematical harmony to encourage
    the idealization of the Etruscan temple.
         Despite its title, On Architecture was not written primarily
    for architects. It was written to convince the emperor Augustus,
    the most powerful patron in Rome, to give Vitruvius the
(45)    opportunity to do large-scale architectural work. Vitruvius knew
    that if Augustus devoted any time at all to On Architecture, the
    emperor would most likely do what busy executives still do to
    this day: he would read the introductions to each of the ten
    chapters and skip the rest of the book. Reading On Architecture
(50)    in this manner—each introduction in sequence—is a revelation. One
    quickly realizes that the chapter introductions constitute an
    ancient résumé designed to convince Augustus to entrust part of
    his architectural legacy to Vitruvius.
         Moreover, one must also keep in mind that On Architecture,
(55)    like all ancient books, was originally published as a series of
    scrolls. Each modern “chapter” most likely corresponds to one
    ancient scroll. This physical form lent even greater significance
    to the snappy, pertinent introductions and the concise writing
    that modern readers also demand. The physical act of reading a
(60)    scroll made the kind of flipping back and forth that modern
    paginated books allow significantly more inconvenient. Scrolls
    strongly encouraged ancient authors to front-load the most
    important ideas they wanted to convey. The ancient author had to
    earn each “unrolling” by concentrating that much more on the
(65)    order in which ideas were presented and the economy with which
    they were
         expressed—and how much more so when one’s intended audience
    is the emperor of Rome?
         Vitruvius’ idealization of Etruscan temples now becomes even
(70)    more understandable. Tellingly, Vitruvius buried his discussion
    of Etruscan temples toward the end of a chapter (i.e., scroll),
    which reveals that Vitruvius considered Etruscan temples to be
    relatively unimportant. In the unlikely event that Augustus (or
    his appointed reader) might have actually put in the effort to
(75)    reach this discussion, the last thing Vitruvius would have wanted
    his exalted audience to encounter is any unnecessary detail. In
    order to capture Augustus’ attention—and patronage—Vitruvius had
    to demonstrate his complete command of architecture in the
    smallest, most easily digestible package possible. The purpose of
(80)    On Architecture was not to record architectural variety in
    encyclopedic detail but rather to gain architectural commissions.
    This fact, along with Vitruvius’ fundamental belief in
    proportionality, goes a long way toward explaining why Vitruvius
    ignored the architectural diversity he doubtless saw in Etruscan
(85)    temples.
                                                                                                Time:
Add anything you’d like to your chart:
Topic                        
Main Idea
                       
Purpose
                       
Tone                        
Here’s how we filled in the chart:
Topic V’s book on architecture/Reasons why V ignored diversity in Etruscan temples
Main Idea Along with traditional interpretation—V. liked Greek phil.—author adds that purpose of book (to get work for V.) and scroll-nature of book explains lack of diversity.
Purpose To introduce another “mundane” explanation for why V ignored diversity in Etruscan temples.
Tone respectfully academic; a discussion
Now, let’s interpret the results of our experiment.
  • How much more did you learn when you read the full passage?
  • How much more time did it take to read the full passage?
  • Compare the “cost” of the extra time that was required to read the full passage to the “reward” of whatever additional information and comprehension you gained.
While you probably gathered a little more information and gained a little more comprehension, the abbreviated passage gave you a fairly good idea of the passage’s topic, main idea, purpose, and tone. Furthermore, you know roughly what each chunk of the passage is about. The information you gather from skimming the passage will allow you to answer just about every possible item, as you’ll see in a subsequent section.
The take-home message here is: the significant amount of time you save by skimming will be devoted to tackling the items, which will gain you points. Reading a passage word for word is an unwise, unnecessary, and very low-yield investment. Answering items correctly is what gets you points. Items require a lot of time and attention, and the simple fact is, you don’t need to understand every single word in a passage in order to answer every item correctly. Remember: you are not reading for pleasure or for school. You are reading simply to score higher on the SAT.
Now that you know how to handle the basic long passage, let’s discuss the “special cases.”
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