The Critical Reader Blog

To anyone who purchased a copy of The Complete Guide to ACT English before 8/25/14:  p. 35 incorrectly states that the word however should only be used after a semicolon, not a period, at the beginning of a clause. In reality, the ACT considers both constructions correct.  Correct: Many people believe the tomato is a vegetable; however, it is actually a fruit. Correct: Many people believe the tomato is a vegetable. However, it is actually a fruit. On grammar questions, "semicolon + however" will be used, while on rhetoric questions, "period + However" will be used. To the best of my knowledge (based on about 25 tests), you will never be asked to choose between the two constructions.  Affected pages: p. 35  p. 40 p. 46 p. 179 p. 243
A couple of days ago, I posted about how reading the blurb before the passage can in some cases allow you to quickly eliminate multiple answer choices to a question -- even before you've read the passage(s). (If you haven't read that post, you should consider doing so before you going any further).  To refresh you, this blurb establishes that the Cold War is the topic of this Passage 1/Passage 2 pair: The term "Cold War" refers to a period of confrontation from about 1945 to 1990 between the two global superpowers of that era, the United States and the Soviet Union (a collection of republics led by Russia). These passages are adapted from a book published in 1998. Because the topic must almost certainly appear in the correct answer choice to the question below, you can start by eliminating (C) - (E), even in the absence of any additional…
If you've looked at any SAT prep books or taken a class, you've probably been advised to always read the blurb before the passage. As I was discussing with Debbie Stier yesterday, however, those couple of lines can seem like a throwaway. People keep on reading them because they know they should, but they don't really know how to use the information they provide. Truth be told, I never thought all that hard about those little blurbs until recently, when I was explaining to someone to how incredibly important it is for students to be be able to identify passage topics. Forget main point, tone, and all those, uh, "higher order thinking skills" like inferences. If a student cannot figure out what the topic of a passage is… well, they're not necessarily screwed, but let's just say that things won't be easy.  As I was saying this, I started thinking…
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…
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