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Reading Difficulties and Solutions for Passage-Based Reading on the SAT

By: Paul Osborne (2009)

LD SAT Study Guide

Excerpt from "Reading Difficulties and Solutions" in LD SAT Study Guide

View LD SAT Study Guide on Amazon.

Reading difficulties and solutions

This section will teach you how to solve many of the problems that plague students while they read Passage-Based Reading passages. First I will cover the problems, and then in "Solutions to Common Reading Problems" I'll tell you how to solve them.

Common difficulties while reading

Here are some of the more common problems readers face. For each difficulty, I will discuss the symptoms and then list possible solutions.

Losing your place
You can lose your place two different ways: you can lose track of what word you are on at any point, or you can lose track of what line you are on when moving from one line to the next. Losing your place wastes time and can inhibit your comprehension.


  • Take breaks
  • Trace your place

Losing your focus
How many times have you been reading a passage, and realized halfway through that you have no idea what you have just read? Instead of paying attention to the text, you are thinking about what you are going to do later, what some friend said, or why you have to take the stupid SAT. This wastes time and energy, and makes comprehension impossible.


  • Take breaks
  • Read aloud
  • Take notes

Not getting the point
Even though the words and sentences may make sense, you may not be able to put them together to get the meaning of the passage.


  • Take breaks
  • Take notes

Forgetting what you have read
Just because you don't have to memorize all of the facts does not mean that you can completely forget everything that you have read. You still need to recall the main ideas of the passages. If you come to the end of the passage and cannot recall what it was about, you need to improve your retention.


  • Take breaks
  • Read aloud
  • Take notes

Solutions to common reading problems

There are certain steps you can take to alleviate the damage done by some of the previously mentioned reading problems. Just knowing about these techniques is not enough; be sure to use and practice them as you read the sample passages.

Take breaks
Remember, cognitive fatigue can lead to all of the aforementioned problems, and to other problems as well. If you do not rest your mind, you will likely get fatigued and it will cost you points.

Trace your place
You can mark your place either by pointing to each word as you read it, or by placing a sheet of paper underneath the line you are reading. Pointing to each word with a pencil or your finger can help your eye see where it should be reading. Placing a piece of paper under the line you are reading can help you to move smoothly from one line to the next.

Read aloud
If you are in your own room, you can actually say each word aloud. If you must remain silent, mumble the words to yourself, or at least mouth the words, and say them in your head. It is important that you actually hear the sounds, even if you only hear them in your imagination. This multisensory approach to reading allows you to see, hear, and feel (with your mouth) what you are reading. Reading aloud should help you stay focused, understand better, and remember what you are reading.

Take Notes
If you are thinking about what is important enough to write down, you will pay more attention to the reading. This will keep your mind from wandering, help you process the main point of the passage, and improve the likelihood you will remember things. In addition, the notes you take are a record of the passage that you can refer back to if you do forget elements.

Here are some things you should note:

  • The subject and thesis of the passage
  • A summary of each paragraph
  • Anything important that happens with regard to the subject of the passage
  • Anything that is discussed for more than a few sentences in long passages

Notes should be written in the margin next to the relevant text, so you can easily find the portions to which they refer. Notes about the entire passage (the thesis) should be at the bottom of the page.

You will lose many of the benefits of note taking if you underline or highlight text instead. Highlighting does not require you to think as clearly about the passage, will not trigger your memory as well, and will force you to rely on the author's confusing wording.

Advice for specific learners


Passage-Based Reading is designed to test your ability to understand. Dyslexia is a difficulty in reading, not in understanding, so you can still do very well in this section. You must, however, be sure to get the right words from the page into your mind if you are to correctly understand the passage. Therefore, if you have dyslexia, it is very important that you focus first on figuring out the words on the page, and then focus on understanding the ideas.

Read carefully and deliberately
The SAT is not a race. Take your time when you are reading. Focus your attention on each word and be sure that you read what is written. While you cannot eliminate every mistake, breezing through the passages is sure to increase your mistakes.

Re-read for mistakes and content
Too often, dyslexic readers skip words or read slightly different words than are written. Therefore, when you come to the end of a complicated sentence, your first re-read should focus on the words more than the ideas. Don't assume that what you read is what was written. Look carefully at each word and don't let your first reading influence what you see in the second read-through. After you are sure that the words you read are the words that are on the page, you can move on to re-reading for content.

Be patient with unfamiliar words
When sounding out a word, take your time and be patient. Remember that the SAT is not a race. See the "Solutions for Common Reading Problems" above. This section has lots of valuable tips that can help you tremendously while you are trying to grasp the meaning of a particular passage.

ADD/ADHD and attention difficulties

ADD/ADHD can make it difficult to maintain your focus for long periods of time, and extended focus is exactly what is needed for Passage-Based Reading. Here are some ways that you can extend your focus and deal with distractions.

Try to avoid breaks during passages
Try your best not to take a break while reading a passage. ADD/ADHD can make it more difficult to regain your focus, and you may forget some of what you have read or learned about the passage.

Take notes
While note taking is important for all students, it can be especially important for students with ADD/ADHD, since it keeps you focused on the reading at hand. In addition, if you lose focus, you can review your notes to see what you have already learned about the passage, which should help you return to the passage more quickly. If you have ADD/ADHD, it might be useful to write more notes than most students do. Any idea you have about the passage should be written down and the location should be noted with an arrow.

Visual processing difficulties

Visual processing difficulties can make it difficult to navigate the text, since doing so relies heavily on using visual cues. You will have to learn to use other techniques to navigate the text.

Trace your place
The biggest problem for students with visual processing errors or other spatial difficulties in the Passage- Based Reading section will be tracking your place while you read. When reading, be sure to trace your place with your finger, a pencil, or a piece of paper to keep from losing your place.

Mark the location of notes
When you make a note about a passage, be sure to use an arrow to indicate the part of the text to which the note refers.

Test takers with text readers

Test takers with text readers lose some control of the testing process because someone else is doing the reading. The most important thing to do to regain control is to speak up and ask for whatever it is you need from your reader.

Ask the reader to re-read
Don't be shy about asking your reader to re-read a passage.

Look or don't look at the text
For many readers, it is helpful to look at the text while it is being read to them. Others only want to hear the text. Be sure to follow along with the text as it is being read to you, if that helps.

Take notes
Just because you are not reading doesn't mean you shouldn't be writing. Take the time to ask the reader to stop so you can write proper notes on a passage.

Memory difficulties

With so much text to read, at times it can be difficult to manage it all. If you have a hard time remembering, the most important thing you can do is find ways to limit the amount of information you try to remember.

Take notes
Notes allow you to avoid relying on your memory to keep track of the different elements of the passage. Take notes of everything.

Don't worry about details
Remember that the point of reading these passages is to get the main idea. It is okay to forget the details, so don't waste your energy focusing on details.

Organizational difficulties
A lot of information is packed into each passage, and to understand it, you will have to see the connections between different ideas, which can be challenging for students with organizational difficulties. Here are some things you can do to help yourself organize the information and find the central ideas.

Mark the location of notes
When you make a note about a passage, be sure to put an arrow to indicate the area to which the note refers.

Look for connections between ideas in each passage
Because seeing connections between ideas does not come automatically, it is important for you to take some time to try to find the connections between sentences, paragraphs, and any other ideas you see in the passages.

Excerpted from Osborne, P (2010). LD SAT Study Guide: Test Prep and Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities. New York, NY: Alpha Books.