The Non-Native Speaker’s Guide to SAT Reading and Writing

In just a few days, the College Board will officially switch over to a completely revamped SAT. The new test includes a 800-point Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section to test students’ language skills and another 800-point Math section to test student’s quantitative skills, for a total of 1600 points. The new SAT also includes an optional essay, though it’s scored separately.

The previous version of the SAT had three writing sections including a 25-minute essay, three reading sections, and three math sections with each reading, writing, and math component counting for a third of your total score. Therefore, this change is good news for non-native speakers and anyone else with weaker language skills. On the new SAT, only half of your final score out of 1600 is derived from reading and writing questions instead of two-thirds.

Though the new SAT places more weight on math skills, reading/writing skills are still crucial.

The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section includes a 65-minute Reading portion and a 35-minute Writing and Language portion. Your results on both portions combine to create your score out of 800.

The Writing and Language section of the test asks you to read short passages and improve them in a variety of ways. All of the questions are multiple choice. You might be asked to:

  • Choose which of the following options is the best wording of an underlined sentence in the passage.
  • Decide whether an underlined sentence should be moved to a different paragraph or removed to make the passage more concise
  • Identify the correct verb tense or punctuation in an underlined sentence or paragraph
  • Improve word choice by selecting the word that best fits in the underlined sentence.
  • Correct punctuation, sentence construction, verb usage, pronoun agreement, or other sentence errors

The Reading section of the test asks you to read short passages and answer questions about things like tone and main idea. As with writing, all of these questions are multiple choice. You will be asked to:

  • Choose which section of the passage best provides evidence for the author’s conclusion
  • Identify the author’s main idea, tone, and purpose as well as how he or she supports the idea or argument presented.
  • Make conclusions based on the information provided in the passage, or decide which conclusion would be supported by the passage.
  • Use context clues to correctly define a word in the passage

Understanding the rules of grammar will be a tremendous help, but consuming as much (well-written) English as possible will help you see those conventions in practice. The best way to bridge the gap is for you to read as many books, articles, magazines as you can find.

Read short articles from a source like Time Magazine or the Atlantic and try to identify things like the author’s main idea, tone, and purpose as well as how he or she supports the idea or argument presented. You should also pay attention to transitions and the way the author organizes their argument. If you encounter an unfamiliar word, take the time to look it up and understand the different contexts in which the word might be used.

Unlike in previous versions, the new SAT does not test your knowledge of relatively little-used words. Instead, the test asks you to select the correct meaning for a word in the context of a sentence or short passage. So don’t waste time drilling yourself on the meaning of words like “assiduous” and “invective.” The new SAT is more likely to ask you on whether “next” or “furthermore” is a better fit for a given sentence.

Many non-native speakers find that while they can read and interpret passages, they are much more likely to run out of time than their native speaker counterparts. Practicing with newspaper articles and other English sources will undoubtedly help with this. But as you’re studying, keep an eye on the clock.

If you want to practice the new SAT’s reading and writing questions, Prep4SAT will be updated with new content for the new SAT in the next few weeks, so keep an eye out!