Why I Like the New Digital SAT (dSAT) Reading Section

This is the fourth part of my series on the new digital exam; you can read the first two parts:  

I spent the past few months rewriting everything for my SAT prep course. When the test changes, so must the curriculum. While I still think there are a number of drawbacks to the now exclusively digital SAT (and a number of reasons to try the paper and pencil ACT), I do like the new SAT Reading / Writing section.

What Is It?

If you are close to my age, you would have called this section “verbal” if you took the SAT. Today this section if officially called “Evidence Based Reading and Writing” and is scored from 200 to 800 points (the other 200-800 come from math.) For simplicity, I will call this section reading.

Structure of SAT Reading

Reading is first half of the new digital exam. Students will have two reading modules to complete. Each module has 27 questions (25 graded and 2 ungraded experimental questions.) Each module is 32 minutes long, unless you have been approved for testing accommodations that include extra time.

The questions in the reading are all multiple choice and are a mix of reading and grammar questions. Unlike the most recent paper and pencil version, these reading questions are not passage based. They are based on either single sentences or paragraphs (which College Board refers to as “texts”.)

What’s Tested?

College Board describes the reading as having four components. I’ve changed the titles to be more descriptive. Here’s the breakdown:

Claim & Support (26%)

These questions ask students to focus on the content of the text. The key is identifying the claim and supporting evidence. Questions include:

  • What is the main idea?
  • What completes the text?
  • Which choice best supports the claim?

These questions also include a few problems involving charts, graphs, and tables where students must identify key details.

Structure & Purpose? (28%)

These questions focus on WHY the text exists (its purpose) not the details of WHAT is said. This requires you to start with content and take one extra step to identify the goal or purpose. There are some unique challenges with these questions:

  • The questions sound very similar to the claim & support questions
  • Some questions ask students to compare two paragraphs (more reading plus potential for distraction)
  • What most students see as inferences from the text don’t match with what College Board thinks
  • The word choice questions involve a lot of college-bound vocabulary

Relevant Details & Transitions (20%)
This might be called “what we wanted to ask that didn’t fit into the other categories” because these question types aren’t really related.

Relevant detail questions are easy to spot because they contain a bullet point list of information and ask students to pick an answer that best synthesizes the details for a particular purpose.

Transition questions look a little like the word choice questions from the type above, but instead of testing precise vocabulary, these ask students to identify structurally what is happening and pick the word to match. The problem here is that we often gloss over these words in our own reading and when trying to evaluate the best choice, they all sound good. (How often do you think about the differences among words like nevertheless, although, similarly, additionally, therefore, in other words, etc?)

Grammar (26%)

Good old grammar! SAT has officially been testing grammar since the 2005 version of the exam which added the writing section. These are pretty standard questions and not that much different in content from what was tested last year on the paper and pencil version.

The problem is that even excellent writers may not be good at correcting someone else’s writing using the multiple choice options provided. Most native speakers rely on what sounds good and College Board exploits that to make great sounding wrong answer traps (and horrible sounding, but technically correct, right answers.)

What I Like About Digital Reading

I’m a fan of the new digital SAT reading because it plays into my strengths as a test taker and because I think the questions are more coachable.

I’m an excellent test taker, but I am a slower than average reader. The old 65 minute SAT reading section with five full length passages followed by a 35 minute grammar section was much harder for me to finish with good focus than these two 32 minute sections with short paragraph and sentence readings. I suspect many students will share this opinion.

Digital reading doesn’t have any of those paired questions, the ones that ask, “Which line numbers best support your answer to the previous question?” Those took forever to answer, were often hard, and were difficult to teach.

The new content is more coachable because significant improvement can be made if students understand:

  • What the question is really asking
  • Common wrong answer traps for this question type
  • And the rules College Board uses for grammar and transitions


Don’t read my positive reaction to mean the digital SAT reading is easier. It is not. There is still a balance of do-able, challenging, and downright hard questions on this section. College Board has mastered the art of getting intelligent, well-read, college-bound high school students to miss reading and grammar questions.

But the texts are a manageable size, the modules are significantly shorter, and with effective coaching students can turn this section to their advantage.

Digital SAT, dSAT, New SAT

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