1611. 1729. 1847. When connected to reading passages, these are frightening dates. They are, in fact, the publication dates of Macbeth, A Modest Proposal and Jane Eyre, all of which have appeared in classrooms and on standardized tests. If you haven’t already heard, the new SAT will have some older passages on it. So far on College Board practice tests, I’ve seen writings from 1790, two from 1791, and one each from 1792, 1857, 1869, 1911 and 1938. And that’s to say nothing of the advanced age of many standard English class readings. So this brings up the universal question for high-schoolers: How am I supposed to comprehend something so old? It’s one of the most common questions we tutors get asked, and one of the most oft-heard lamentations of our twenty-first century students. There are many facets to this problem and I’d like to offer a few talking points below:
Old, yes. Impossible, no. I think that psychologically we tend to use negative reinforcement with ourselves more often than we think. There’s even a scientific term for it: learned helplessness. I did it with math, deciding and convincing myself that I couldn’t do it back in the third grade. To this day, I still completely doubt my ability and assume I will fail at any math-related task or problem. Many students I work with have mastered such helplessness when it comes to reading older passages. What they fail to realize, however, is that they have been reading for the past decade or longer, so assuming they will not be able to do it is learned helplessness at its best. I encourage positive visualization, giving oneself some credit, and not jumping to conclusions of failure, which by the way also has a psychological name: fortune-telling. Think of it this way: once you’ve done one, you’ve done them all. If you’ve had even a modicum of success on an older passage or book, it probably wasn’t accidental and it will probably be an outcome you can replicate and strengthen. Once you shed the negative thinking, you become open to the actual information in the passage and one step closer to mastering a very, very hyperbolic and frightening thing: comprehension.
Big sentences and big words don’t mean big information. In the mid nineteenth century, it was common practice for writers to write long- and I mean long– sentences. Many writers of the period, including Hawthorne, Dickens, and others who are commonly encountered in school, were famous (or infamous) for their page-long sentences which incorporated about a half-dozen semicolons, a dozen commas and a handfuls of esoteric vocabulary. But a long sentence doesn’t necessarily mean a long idea. And big words don’t necessarily mean big ideas. On one of the College Board’s practice tests there is a passage by Charlotte Bronte from 1857 which includes a twenty-line long sentence. Within this behemoth are four semicolons, nine clauses, and too many “old” British words and phrases to count on one hand. But here’s the crazy part: within this run-on of all run-on sentences, there is really only one idea: the narrator hates his job. Sure, there’s a ton of description and a lot of words and punctuation surrounding, but still there is only one idea. So it’s worth remembering that just because a passage is wordy that doesn’t mean you can’t follow the information.
Take it piece by piece. We tend to forget that paragraphs are units that form a cohesive whole. We desperately want to comprehend everything all at once and when we can’t, we panic, hence “text anxiety.” The truth is that we are better served working with the units than we are attempting to do something that can’t be done: “get it” all in one fell swoop. And if you’re in the education field, you’ve heard the phrase “I didn’t get it” more than you care to admit. I think we need to remind students that paragraphs build, and so does the narrative as each idea stacks on top of the previous one like building blocks. In the Bronte passage, once we know that the narrator hates his job, it makes sense that in the next paragraph, he hates his boss, and in the next one, he just hates, well, everything. (That’s British lit for you in a nutshell.) Understanding the “build” of the passage and not trying to do too much can make following older readings much easier.
In summary, half the battle is killing our own negative perception of dated readings. Take away the stigma, and you take away the self-imposed inability to succeed. Furthermore, understanding that there is, perhaps, less not more inside of these old and often convoluted sentences can be a great relief to the student aiming for comprehension. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither can you read a passage from 1792 in five minutes and understand everything. Rather, looking at it as a series of units, not overestimating the meaning, and changing your negative perception can make these old passages truly no big deal.
Written by Phil Lane