Where do critical reading passages come from anyway?

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One common belief about the reading passages that appear on the SAT/ACT is that they are written specifically for the exam -- this assumption is mostly false, but it does contain an element of truth.

One on hand, reading passages are always taken from pre-existing sources and are often written by well-known authors of both fiction and non-fiction. There is a heavy emphasis on contemporary prose non-fiction, and works composed prior to the 20th century are relatively rare as compared to works written in the past twenty or thirty years. In other words, the SAT does not include works written in Shakespearean language, and it only occasionally includes works written prior to the 20th century. What is does include, however, is short snippets of text -- often about unfamiliar subjects such as archaeology or cultural anthropology -- that are written in the kind of academic prose that is typical of college-level reading but that many high school students will never have encountered before.

One common belief about the reading passages that appear on the SAT/ACT is that they are written specifically for the exam -- this assumption is mostly false, but it does contain an element of truth.

One on hand, reading passages are always taken from pre-existing sources and are often written by well-known authors of both fiction and non-fiction. There is a heavy emphasis on contemporary prose non-fiction, and works composed prior to the 20th century are relatively rare as compared to works written in the past twenty or thirty years. In other words, the SAT does not include works written in Shakespearean language, and it only occasionally includes works written prior to the 20th century. What is does include, however, is short snippets of text -- often about unfamiliar subjects such as archaeology or cultural anthropology -- that are written in the kind of academic prose that is typical of college-level reading but that many high school students will never have encountered before.

On the other hand, while the basic source material for the passages is always pre-written, the College Board does take certain liberties in editing it. Sentences are often eliminated or condensed, and portions may be re-written in order to fully develop arguments in the space of 75 or so lines and ensure that the level of the text is not above what the most advanced 16 and 17-year old readers can handle (things like foreign-language references and sections that are excessively jargon-laden get removed since they are beyond what high school readers can be expected to understand).

The following is a list of authors and works that have appeared on recent SATs. While there is of course no way to predict exactly what books the SAT will excerpt its passages from, there are certain authors (e.g. Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin, and Michael Pollan) whose works have shown up on multiple exams. They are the exception rather than the rule, however, and multiple passages from the same exact same source are unlikely to show up twice. The materials and authors included on this list, however, should give you an idea of the kinds of texts you will encounter on the SAT. 


Non-Fiction

  • Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation
  • Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma, The Botany of Desire
  • Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
  • Philippe E. Wamba, A Family's Journey in Africa and America
  • Carol Strickland and John Bosman, The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern
  • Donald Sassoon, Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon
  • James Trefil, A Scientist in the City
  • James Dickey, Deliverance
  • Esmeralda Santiago, When I was Puerto Rican
  • Robert Hamlett Bremner, Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History
  • Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes
  • Drew Hansen, The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation
  • Michael Eric Dyson, I may not get there with you: the true Martin Luther King
  • Author N/A, More Word Histories and Mysteries: From Aardvark to Zombie
  • Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Fiction

  • Amy Tan: The Joy Luck Club
  • E.M. Forster: A Room with a View
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Charlotte Brontë: Shirley: A Tale
  • Charles Dickens: Great Expectations

Suggested Further Reading 

Periodicals:

  • Scientific American
  • National Geographic
  • The New York Times
  • Boston Globe Ideas
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • The Economist
  • Humanities Magazine
  • Wilson Quarterly
  • The New Yorker

For access to a wide variety of serious online publications, see Arts & Letters Daily (http://www.aldaily.com)

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 June 2013 01:06
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