The Critical Reader Blog

Occasionally I'll stumble across a CR passage that seems perfectly straightforward to me, but that I see students stumble on over and over again. One such passage begins in the following way:  Through a friend's father, Elizabeth found a job at a publishing company.Her parents were puzzled by this. The daughters of their friends were announcing their engagements in the Times, and those who joined the Peace Corps or had gone to graduate school were filed under the heading of "Useful Service" as if they had entered convents or dedicated themselves to the poor.  The passage continues for another couple of sentences, but that's pretty much the gist of it.  That my students should have such difficulty with this of all passages was a mystery I had filed away in a mental drawer somewhere, to be trotted out an examined from time to time but never yielding sufficient clues for me to draw any real…
I recently spoke with Celest Horton, who runs the "How to Pay For College" podcast series, about how to prepare for the English and Reading Comprehension sections of the ACT. You can listen to the interview here or download it in iTunes here.  
Perhaps you've heard the saying "when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras." If you're not familiar with the expression, it means that when searching for an explanation, you should always consider obvious possibilities before thinking about more unlikely options. Whenever I tutor the Writing section of the SAT, I find myself uttering these words with inordinate frequency.  I've worked with a number of students trying to pull their Writing scores from the mid-600s to the 750+ range. Most have done well on practice tests but then unexpectedly seen their scores drop on the actual test. Unsurprisingly, they were puzzled by their performance on the real thing; they just couldn't figure out what they had done differently. And at first glance, they did seem to know what they were doing. When I worked very carefully through a section with them, however, some cracks inevitably emerged. Not a lot, mind you,…
If you're someone who consistently gets down to two answers but doesn't know how to choose between them, this post is for you. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of you out there; the test is designed to force you into making subtle distinctions between answer choices, so what you're struggling with is precisely what the test is designed to do. If nothing else, take comfort in the fact that you're not alone.  When I watch students in this category work through a question on their own however, I almost invariably witness the following sequence of events:   -Student reads question. -Student quickly rereads the necessary section of the passage. -Student looks at answer choices.  -Student quickly and decisively crosses off three answers that are clearly wrong. -Student stares at the remaining two answer choices. -Student stares at the remaining two answer choices some more. -Student's eyes begin to take on a "deer…
Once someone is consistently scoring above a certain level -- say 720 or so -- on Critical Reading, their mistakes are usually pretty random. A sentence completion here, a passage-based question there... Often, there doesn't seem to be any clear pattern to the questions they miss. It's more an issue of how they work through the test, especially when they don't see the answer immediately, than it is of what they know. Except, of course, when their understanding actually does fall short. Among my higher-scoring students, I've started to notice that two regularly tested concepts tend to give them trouble: idealism and mutual exclusivity. Not coincidentally, those ideas tend to show up on hard questions.  If my students scoring well into the 700s have trouble, I think it's safe to assume that most people who aren't hitting the 700 mark have difficulty as well. I also couldn't help but noticed a…
I will eventually.  Test aside, it's just that for now, reading David Coleman's vapid, repetitive, bloated prose makes me physically ill.  It is quite literally some of the worst writing I've seen in my life. "College and career readiness proficiency?" WTF? You can have proficiency in a subject, or in a field, or on an instrument, but you cannot have proficiency in readiness. Proficiency is readiness.   This is nonsense.   Dry and boring is one thing, but this makes my skin crawl. I've actually been mulling it over, trying to pinpoint just what it is -- textually speaking -- that's eliciting this reaction. As far as I can ascertain, it's something about the juxtaposition oftouchy-feely metaphors (heart of algebra! "digging into" problems!) and otherwise soulless, mechanical style that strikes me as downright bizarre. It's the worst type of edu-speak, one that pays lip service to the romantic ideal of education as…
From Federalist Paper I (chosen at random) To the People of the State of New York: AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there…
The first truly comprehensive guide to ACT English is now available.  270 pages of ACT grammar and rhetoric fun, dispelling the myth that the ACT is immune to shortcuts and providing answers to such eternal question as:   What's the second use of a colon?  How do I know whether the sentence really needs to be inserted? What the heck is a dash, and how am I supposed to use it?  Features a "cheat sheet" for the most commonly tested concepts as well as passages about favorite ACT topics including Native American gardening techniques, Asian-American architects, and what happens to your recycling after it gets hauled away. There are also two appendices listing all of the English questions in the Real Guide to the ACT -- one by concept, one by test. You can find it on Amazon.  And for a preview, click here. 
Here's one to add to the "critical thinking" lack-of-defiintion phenomenon. It probably won't come as a surprise to anyone that I've been following the news of the SAT overhaul pretty closely; suffice it to say that I've read quite a few articles about it in the last few weeks. In doing so, however, I've noticed a curious phenomenon: virtually every article I've encountered has included the line that the new SAT will eliminate "arcane" words. The authors of these articles almost invariably use the word "arcane." I've seen one or two authors put it in quotes, implying an ironic or skeptical understanding of the term, but the vast majority use it with the literary equivalent of a straight face.  The SAT, of course, is distinctly partial to the word arcane, along with synonyms abstruse, archaic, esoteric and recondite. (Admittedly, recondite is a tad, uh, recondite, but I'd say the other two are pretty common.) So the logical question: is…
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