When it comes to the SAT or ACT Reading section, one of the biggest challenges for students is the paired passage. Some students call it the dual passage. Others call it the side-by-side. The vast majority of students call it trouble! But using some good, simple strategies can make it much easier to navigate.
What is a “paired passage”?
If you’ve not yet encountered a paired passage, they’re essentially what you might expect. Two short essays, speeches, or stories are featured next to one another, and they have some sort of connection. They may be agreeing on a topic. They could feature pro and con positions on a topic. Or they could be only tangentially connected by a subject addressed in both passages. In any case, one of our jobs is to figure out this connection. But more on that later…
A paired passage on the SAT typically looks something like this.
This particular set of passages comes from a recent test, and it features speeches from Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson. Paired passages don’t always feature historical documents, but when they do, the subject is almost always civil rights or women’s rights issues.
How do I attack a paired passage?
When most students are confronted with a dual passage, they make the mistake of plunging right in and trying to decipher it. As with any reading passage, you must have a plan! And Step 1 of that plan should be to read the “blurb” at the beginning. SAT and ACT reading passages generally give you a bit of information about the passage you’re about to tackle. Always take the time to read what they give you.
In our passage here, the blurb gives us huge (and immensely helpful!) context clues for what we’re about to read. We learn that the author of Passage 1, Paul Robeson, was an actor/singer commenting on remarks he made previously. The blurb also fills us in on the global situation at the time–namely, that the U.S. and then-communist Russia were at odds. Finally, the blurb lets us know that Jackie Robinson, the speaker in Passage 2, was called by the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee to address Robeson’s remarks.
We haven’t even read the first word of the actual passages, and we already know what to expect! We should expect that Passage 1 (Robeson) will be speaking about the Soviet Union and the United States, and that Passage 2 (Robinson) will likely be presenting a different opinion. Any historical context you know from your own studying of the Cold War will likely make this blurb even more poignant and helpful.
Step 2: Divide and Conquer
Ok, so we’ve gotten the blurb down. Now, we’re going to divide the paired passages in half. First, we’ll read Passage 1 as we would any reading passage. Read and annotate, looking for the main idea of the paragraphs, as well as the passage as a whole.
After going through Passage 1, we’ve discovered that Robeson (probably controversially) said that he loved the Soviet Union. In 1949, that was pretty incendiary! He then put the statement in a racial/political context: he loved the Soviets because they fought for freedom for all, including for black men and women. He wanted to love America, but the racial policies and attitudes of America kept him from having the same loyalty to the United States as he felt for Russia.
Now that we’ve gotten that down, our next step will be to answer the questions related to Passage 1.
Questions 11-14 deal with Passage 1 directly, so we’ll hit those first. Once we answer those, we’ll go back and read Passage 2, looking for the main idea, but also looking for how it relates to Passage 1.
We’ll then answer the questions directly related to Passage 2. Our final step will be to answer the last few questions (17-20), since they will compare or contrast the ideas in the two passages.
So to review the overall plan:
Step 1: Read the “blurb”
Step 2: Read and annotate Passage 1
Step 3: Answer the questions related to Passage 1
Step 4: Read and annotate Passage 2
Step 5: Answer the questions related to Passage 2
Final Step: Finish the questions that relate to both passages
Paired passages can be daunting. But with a little strategy and planning, you can have success!