By Rebecca Meiser
When parents of teenagers ask Megan Dorsey, a college admissions expert based outside of Houston, what they can do to help their children prepare for the college entrance exams, Dorsey has one big suggestion: Get them reading.
Although reading technically constitutes only one section of the SAT and ACT, both college entrance exams put students’ reading abilities to the test. “I tell students all the time, ‘You have to have good reading skills to understand what a math or science question is asking,’” says Dorsey. “Too many students miss word problems in math due to misreading the question. Their reading skills let them down, even if they could have correctly calculated an answer. The same holds true for ACT science, which is less about knowledge of scientific principles and more about effectively reading and interpreting data.”
And when the new SAT rolls out in spring 2016, one of the major focuses — once again — will be on reading comprehension. “Students will be asked to evaluate passages of text, some with a high level of complexity, so they will need skills that go beyond simple comprehension and involve deeper understanding and inferences,” Dorsey says.
Not only does the act of reading help students improve vocabulary skills and begin to look at issues from multiple angles (both of which are measured on the tests), it also “helps connect synapses in the brain, making the brain stronger,” explains Dr. Nancy Fordham, an associate professor of education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “And that, in turn, makes us smarter.”
Fordham suggests treating reading similarly to physical workouts. “Brain workouts” should be just as much of a focus as going to the gym.
But convincing your teen to log off of Facebook and pick up a book is certainly easier said than done. Here are some ways to help:
Let your adolescent lead. Experts encourage parents to help their teens seek out reading material that appeals to their interests. “Most reluctant readers have not read a book that really knocked them out,” explains Fordham.
To find books that spark your adolescent’s curiosity, Fordham suggests talking to teachers and librarians, and checking out websites like the American Library Association, which provides high-interest “quick pick” reading suggestions for reluctant readers, and Goodreads, which lets users know what books their friends are reading.
Avoid force-feeding material. That includs those “classics” you think your teenager should read. “Choice is very important–especially when you’re a teenager,” says Fordham. “Teens want to feel like they have some control and autonomy.”
Don’t like it? Don’t finish it. If your adolescent isn’t enjoying a book, encourage him to put it back on the shelf and pick another one. Be open to graphic novels, comic books, even newspapers, and magazines.
Talk about books. “You want to develop their comprehensive skills,” explains Dorsey. “Help them think beyond the simple plot. Talk about the characters, the motivations, and the themes. This will help them look for more details and find deeper meaning in the texts.”
These are the skills that college entrance exams are designed to evaluate. “SATs and ACTs don’t just ask students to tell the facts of the passage,” says Dorsey. “They want to know, ‘Can you interpret what’s going on from the information you’re given?’ A lot of kids struggle with that.”
In order to get your child reading more than text messages, it’s important that they see you cracking open a novel, as well. “Kids won’t value reading, if they see it’s not a priority in their own home,” says Fordham.
And in the end, reading does not just raise SAT skills, it also raises curiosity and understanding of the outside world—qualities that make for a textured and interesting life, long after the last test score is submitted.
Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer in Northeast Ohio and frequent contributor to Your Teen.