One half of the SAT and fully three-quarters of the ACT are passage based. The skills of flashing on a headline, making some predictions about where a passage will lead, wading into the first paragraph or two, making necessary adjustments—all the things regular consumers of newspaper and magazine articles do every day—naturally and inexorably lead those who practice them to increased comprehension, increased efficiency in reading, and therefore higher test scores. Of course the math section requires focused practice, but in my more than fifteen years experience as an ACT/SAT tutor, I have come to believe that the single most important thing students can do to boost their scores is to form a strong habit of reading 2–3 articles every single day.
My advice to my students about how to form the article-reading habit: Pick up the front section of the newspaper at breakfast, and read two articles that grab your attention and one that seems likely to be boring. (Two reasons for the latter: 1. There’s a lot of cool stuff you don’t yet know about; and 2. You don’t get to choose the passages that show up on the SAT, so it helps to be comfortable making sense of “boring” articles.)
How parents can help:
Get a print newspaper back on the breakfast table. I know—everyone reads online these days—but there’s something to be said for seeing the daily paper lying next to the Breakfast of Champions, and spotting a headline that might not have shown up in your news feed. (Note: I’ve got a strong bias in favor of reading print on paper. For a more balanced view, check out Andrea Farenga’s recent post, “Print or Digital Text: What is Best for My Child?”.)
Once you’ve got a paper coming into the house on a regular basis, take the next step: Teach your kids how the newspaper works, including what types of stories can be found in each section, what the Op-Ed page is all about, etc.
Subscribe to three magazines. Any magazines are better than no magazines, but my go-to recommendations are Time (for current events), Sports Illustrated (for well written, thoughtful articles that go beyond a quick recap of last night’s game or hype about the upcoming draft), and Scientific American (for highly readable short articles and more challenging full-length articles on a range of science topics. The ACT has a Science section, and one of its four Reading passages is on a natural science topic. Students who are comfortable digesting science articles do much better!). You don’t have to make an “assignment” of reading these magazines. Just leave them where the kids can see them and see what happens.
Oh, and make sure the kids see you reading. Here’s my print bias again: When parents and kids are on their phones, everyone might be reading something meaningful … OR everyone might be stoking their FOMO on Instagram. If your kids see you reading the morning paper, there’s no ambiguity about what you’re doing or about the value you pace on the habit of keeping yourself informed.
Finally, habit research tells us what we all know from experience to be true, that a habit is a dependable response to a stimulus or cue: We smell the popcorn, we buy the popcorn. We hear the phone ping, we check the text. The good news is that we can use that knowledge to form and strengthen positive habits. Whether it’s helping to create a link between pouring the coffee and grabbing the paper, or between using the bathroom and reading the magazine that just happens to live in a basket in the powder room, you can help to create the conditions that will lead your kids to increased success.
Tim Tibbitts, The Whole Kid’s founder and lead ACT Prep tutor, can be reached with comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.