11th Grade English Language Arts and Literacy: Reading Study Guide for the SBAC

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How to Prepare for the Reading Questions on the SBAC Test

General Information

Some of the questions on the SBAC English Language Arts and Literacy Test assess your competence in reading. This study guide should help you know what concepts and skills are tested and how to best prepare. Keep in mind these facts about the test items you can expect on the real test:

  • There will be about 15 to 16 questions that assess reading skills on the actual exam.
  • There is no performance task relating to these skills; all questions are CAT items.
  • About 75% of the reading questions will be about informational passages and only 25% on literary passages.

The types of questions used for reading assessment include:

  • typical multiple-choice
  • multiple-choice with more than one correct answer
  • hot spot/hot text
  • matching table questions

Skills Assessed by All Reading Items

No matter what the question format on this test—and there are quite a few—you will be held responsible for understanding and using the following English language arts concepts and literacy skills. Sometimes, these skills will be tested, along with other skills, in single objective-style questions. Other times, groups of skills will be assessed in your response to brief writing experiences. See more about how to approach those near the end of this study guide.

Key Details

Key details are the pieces of information provided by the author to help the reader understand a text. Key details help answer things like “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and “how”; they provide important information that helps the reader make sense of what he or she is reading. Key details are present in both informational and literary passages, though they may take on slightly different guises.

  • In informational texts, key details are those aspects that help to support the main idea. They are often facts or statistics when presented in informational texts.
  • In literary passages, the key details often give the reader insight into character motivation and help advance the plot.

Being able to identify the key details the author uses to support his or her main idea is critical to reading comprehension and analysis. These details may also be referred to as supporting details as they support or explain the main idea.

Explicit Details

Explicit details are the tidbits of information that are clearly and directly expressed by the author in a text. There is no question about the information as it is stated outright. For example, if a story contains the explicit detail that “the rain fell from the sky in sheets that blanketed the parched earth with life-giving water,” then the reader knows that it was raining and there can be no confusing the setting for a dry day at the beach. In an informational text, facts are generally explicit details used to support the author’s position with regard to the topic. They are there, they are obvious, and they are easy to spot and understand.

Implicit Details

Implicit details are pieces of information provided by the author that may not be as obvious to the reader as explicit details. Using clues or hints in the text, the reader may infer the implicit details to gain a greater understanding of the text. For example, using our quote from above, “the rain fell from the sky in sheets that blanketed the parched earth with life-giving water,” an implicit detail is that this area may have been experiencing a drought. Although that idea is not explicitly stated, when you read that the earth was parched and the rain is described as “life-giving”, the implied suggestion is that this was a dead, dry area before the rains came.

Central Idea

The central idea, sometimes referred to as the main idea, is the most important idea that the author is trying to convey to the reader. Everything in the text should connect to the main idea somehow, serving to support, explain, or provide an example of it. The central idea, may be stated explicitly by the author, or the reader may have to read the text and infer the main idea.

Do not confuse the central idea with the topic—they are not the same thing. The topic or subject is what the text is about and can usually be encapsulated in one word or a short phrase:

“applications of algebra”

The central idea requires a complete sentence to explain and kind of sounds like a summary of the text:

“Butterflies migrate north in the spring.”
“Weather is becoming more drastic and violent in recent years as a result of climate change.”
“Algebra can be used in a variety of fields and workers may not even realize they are using it.”

You should be able to identify the main or central idea in an informational text (where it will probably be explicitly stated) and literary passages (where you may have to infer the message).

Also, make sure that you are not confusing the central idea with theme. The theme is the message or lesson about life that the author wants to get across to the reader (so, what about butterfly migration or violent weather changes or algebra being used in the workplace?)

Finding and Summarizing It

To find the main idea of a text, ask yourself:

  • Who or what is the passage about? (the topic)
  • What does the author want you to know or learn about this topic?

Often, the central idea or main idea is explicitly stated in a thesis located in the introduction paragraph. The main idea might also be identified by reading the topic sentences of each paragraph in a text. The body paragraphs generally begin with topic sentences that express the main idea and then use supporting or key details to explain or develop that idea.

Summarizing means to restate the main points in your own words. When you summarize the central idea of a text, it means that you identify the “big picture” or what the text is about and then state the main idea of the piece in your own words. On the test, it is important to be able to differentiate between the main idea and the details that support or explain that main idea. Test questions may give you several answer options, but may try to trick you by hiding the main idea in among answer choices that are actually supporting details. Practice being able to identify main idea versus key details.

Clues to the Central Idea

It can be difficult to pinpoint the central idea in a text. Even in an informational text, it may not be explicitly stated in a particular sentence or paragraph; you may need to infer the main idea. To do this, you need to know where to look and what to look for. Try looking at the last sentence or two of the introduction paragraph in a text. Often, this is where the thesis statement is found. The thesis statement is the anchor of a text and everything in the text must connect back to it somehow because it contains the main idea. As mentioned above, also look at the topic sentence of each body paragraph and at the concluding sentence of each paragraph. Ask yourself who or what the passage seems to be about? The clues that lead you to that conclusion will be the supporting details, and the conclusion itself is likely the main idea. Whatever everything in the text seems to link back to is the central idea; everything will tie back to it in some way.

Objective Only

The central or main idea is different from the theme. Whereas the theme is the message the author wants to give the reader, which usually makes the reader feel some sort of emotion, the central idea is objective and without an emotional connection or slant. When you identify or summarize the main idea, make sure that you are not including your own opinion about the topic or passing judgment on the main idea. Your summary should simply be a restatement of what the main idea of the text is, not what you think about it or whether you agree or disagree with the author’s position.

Word Meanings

The Reading portion of the SBAC does include some questions about vocabulary and word meanings. Word meaning questions may give you a word and ask you for a synonym or antonym. They may also ask you to select all of the answer options that indicate what an author communicates to the reader with the use of a particular word. At this point, you can only grow your vocabulary bank so much. Instead of trying to learn all of the commonly tested SAT words or cram over another vocabulary list, consider reviewing prefixes, suffixes, and roots so that you can determine word meaning based on the word parts you recognize. Even if you don’t get an exact definition, it should help you make an educated guess as to the answer. Check out the Determining Meanings section below for some more tips on how to identify word meanings in both literary and informational texts.

Word Levels

A variety of word levels are included in the passages you’ll see in the SBAC Reading assessment. Most are tier 1 and tier 2 words, which are basic vocabulary words that all 11th graders are expected to know and easily recognize, including words that have multiple meanings. In addition, test questions may measure your understanding of tier 3 words, or those that are subject-specific and generally occur only within particular subjects or areas of interest (e.g., technology, science, sports, etc.). These tier 3 words will not be really obscure or high-level for most students. The test questions will not indicate what tier of vocabulary is being used, but be aware that some of the word meaning questions may seem easier or more difficult to you based on your interests and areas of study.

Determining Meaning

When faced with a word you have never seen before and do not recognize, there are several approaches you can take to figure it out. Below are some helpful tips for determining word meaning for unfamiliar words.

Context Clues— Authors want you to understand what they are trying to tell you, so even if they use unfamiliar vocabulary, they usually try to include some context clues within the text to help you figure out those higher-level vocabulary words. If you come across an unfamiliar word, check the words around it, within that sentence and one or two sentences before and after, to see if there are hints as to what that word might mean. The most common context clues used by authors are:

  • including a synonym or antonym somewhere nearby
  • including a brief explanation within the same sentence as the unknown word or in the sentence immediately preceding it
  • giving an example to define the unknown word

Look for these context clues in the text nearby to the unknown words. Sometimes, it’s hard to find the context clues immediately, but if you keep reading, things may be explained in a different way later on that will help you understand that unfamiliar term.

Word Relationships— When you face an unfamiliar word, look to the words around the unknown term to determine possible relationships and connections. These might include synonyms, or words that mean roughly the same thing, or antonyms, or words that mean the opposite. Also consider the connotation of the word being used—what does it sound like and how does it make you feel? If you aren’t certain of its denotation, sometimes you can make an educated guess if you can identify its connotation within the context of the passage.

Word Structure— This is where knowing prefixes, suffixes, and root words can really come in handy. Looking at the structure of the word, can you break it down into any recognizable parts? Does the word remind you of any other words that you know? It is possible that they have the same root and may share a similar meaning.

Using References— Although dictionary and thesaurus access is not allowed during the testing period, knowing and understanding how to use references to determine a word’s meaning are important skills as you prepare for the exam. Knowing how to use a dictionary, glossary, and thesaurus is helpful to research word meanings. You may even see questions requiring this on the test in the form of a dictionary excerpt or thesaurus listing asking you to use that reference material to answer the question.


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