SAT Reading: How to Tackle the History Passage
Each of the five passages on the SAT Reading section presents its own challenges. The section currently always begins with a literature passage drawn primarily from an American or British short story or novel written between 1800 and 2010. Two science passages and two social studies passages follow. The science passages are usually excerpts from articles on a science concept, science study or experiment, field of study, or a particular scientist. One of the social studies passages is similarly drawn from an excerpt of an article, this time on a topic such as economics, psychology, sociology, or anthropology. The other social studies passage, however, is quite different. It is commonly called the history passage, and many of the thousands of students with whom I have worked have told me that this one is invariably the most difficulty reading passage on the SAT.
The SAT History Passages: Topics
The history passage is an excerpt from a speech or piece of writing by an important historical figure, and was generally published between the 1780s and the end of the 20th Century. The majority of the examples of the history passage on real SAT testings over the last several years have come from the 1800s. The passages were generally selected based on the concept of the Great Global Conversation, which is a historiographic theory that the great thinkers of history both figuratively and literally communicated with each other with their writings in an ongoing debate on the human experience.
Many of the history passages on real and practice SATs produced by the College Board over the last few years seem to return to the same few topics again and again: the French Revolution and the rights of individuals, the abolitionist movement versus slavery, civil rights, suffragism and women’s rights, and imperialism versus liberty. This is a good example of the through line of the Great Global Global Conversation over time. Great thinkers debating the deepest and most pressing issues of the day.
History Passage Challenges
The first challenge of the history passage should be obvious: the language. Yes, the passages are all in English, however, the style of the language is the problem. The English spoken and written by the writers of the 18th and 19th Centuries was far more flowery and descriptive than the English used commonly today. The vocabulary of the time contains words that either no longer exist in everyday speech or, worse yet, mean something different now. Modern students often struggle with both the individual words and the use of language, especially figurative language, in the history passages.
The second challenge is the subject matter of the history passages. The original writers of the texts that are excerpted for these passages were discussing and debating enormous issues, some of which are still being debated in state houses, courtrooms, and cable news shows today. It is understandably difficult for students to grasp the entirety of an issue from a single 800-plus word passage. The complexity of typical SAT Reading section questions doesn’t help. The questions merely add confusion to an already difficult challenge.
Begin with the Summary
In order to beat the history passages, use what you have. Begin with the summary. Before every reading passage on the SAT, there is a short summary that lists a minimum of three important pieces of information: the name of the author, the title of the passage, and the year the text written and/or published. For the history passages, the summary often contains useful, if not essential, information on the historical figures or events discussed in the passages. Use this information to put the challenging language used in the passage into context for yourself. Consider that everything that the author mentions or discusses is in service of the issue highlighted in the summary.
Build Your Vocabulary
Next, build your vocabulary. While the SAT dropped the traditional vocabulary puzzle questions from the test in 2016, once a cornerstone of the Reading section since the test was first administered in 1926, vocabulary still plays a minor role in the reading passages. Usually, this is in the form of the vocabulary-in-context questions. The question sets of most reading passages contain at least one or two vocabulary-in-context questions. In these questions you encounter a relatively common word which happens to have numerous legitimate dictionary definitions: in other words, a multiple-meaning-word. The question asks which of the legitimate definitions listed in the answer choices is the meaning that is referenced in the passage at the given line number. These questions are challenging on other passages, but can be painful on history passages.
The use of archaic words and outdated definitions of modern words is common outside of the vocabulary-in-context questions on the history passages, as well. Take time to build your vocabulary. It is not a quick and easy process, but it does not have to be painful or annoying. There are several methods for building a strong vocabulary over time. First, read more. The more you read, the more you will unconsciously build up your vocabulary especially if you read texts from the 19th Century. You might already have read books and narratives from authors such as Charles Dickens, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jane Austen, and others, in English or history class. Pick out your favorites and keep reading. You can also build vocabulary actively by crafting your own flashcard sets, utilizing a word-of-the-day calendar, or other tools.
Finally, give yourself permission to slow down on the history passage. Many students set themselves a general pace on the SAT Reading section, and do their best to stick to that no matter what. There are passages that will feel easier to you and there are passages that will feel more difficult. Let yourself work a little more quickly and efficiently on the passages you find easier and spend that saved time on the more challenging passages, like the history passage.
Not only should you slow your pace on the passage, but allow yourself to mark up the passage. Since the SAT is still a paper-based test, you can write on the test booklet. You have two of greatest tools ever invented by humans, a pencil and paper, so use them. Jot down your thoughts and underline key words and phrases. Take the time you need to break down the text and translate it from “old-timey” language into modern English.
While the history passage is generally difficult, it is not impossible. With some pre-planning and practice you can develop your skills and build your confidence on these passages. As always, fold your practice into your existing homework time, spread it out over the weeks and months before the actual test, and avoid cramming.