Ka-thunk! I put the bar back on the squat rack.


"Nice job, man!"

I looked up, smiling, having just received what every man secretly wants but rarely gets: a compliment from another guy on how much weight I just lifted at the gym. 

A warm glow suffused my entire being (ok, that's being a little melodramatic, but it did feel good). Ever since I began the Starting Strength weightlifting program a couple of months ago, my progress has been uncanny - I'm quite a bit stronger now than I was in my twenties.

That's nice, you might say, but so what? Is increasing strength that much really necessary? My job certainly doesn't require a lot of strength (though it is easier now to lift the giant boxes of SAT books that come in from Amazon). In fact, most of our careers depend much more on our intellectual, rather than physical, capabilities.

However, being strong is not just fun - it can come in handy. The stronger I get, the more easily I can do things that involve muscle. It might be something as trivial as opening a jar of pickles or as vital as rescuing a damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks as a locomotive barrels towards us (you never know).

And, of course, there are other physical and mental health benefits to exercise, especially exercise with heavy weights. So, for me, building a foundation of strength is well worth the effort.

When we prepare students for the SAT, ACT, and GRE, different kinds of foundation are thrown into sharp relief.

Let's consider reading comprehension. If a student is a strong reader, she has the foundation to learn how to figure out reading comprehension questions. The technique we teach her will work, because she usually is able to understand what the words on the page say. That’s what the test is about - precise literal comprehension.

The reverse is also true: the weaker the reader, the less technique will help. Same thing for math. Imagine a student who barely passed algebra. Teaching them SAT math techniques like plugging in numbers may have a marginal effect, but won't work miracles.

So, the best SAT reading technique in the world doesn't do a heck of a lot for students who often can't understand what the passage or questions are saying. On these tests, interpretation and analysis are irrelevant; only what the words actually say matters, as opposed to your opinion of what they say.

The main solution? Read. The more students read and the more widely they read, the better their reading comprehension will get over time. It's not a quick fix, but, in the absence of a learning disability, this seems to be what works. I recommend aldaily.com for a source of reading material - try 20 minutes a day - this is of course in addition to any reading assigned in high school.

But once the SAT is over, do all these future STEM majors really need to be poring over fusty academic tomes when they could be learning how to code??

I would argue, absolutely. As Richard McManus of The Fluency Factory puts it, "in our world, reading skills remain an essential ticket to full participation in adulthood". (By the way, if your kid has a learning disability, is struggling with reading, or just doesn't like it, I've heard great things about The Fluency Factory - and they work with people online.)

As I like to say, the thought leaders in any field aren't revealing their deepest insights by posting videos on Instagram. They're writing. And they're not writing for the layman; they're writing for other intellectuals. To understand this kind of writing requires strong, literal reading comprehension.

If I rely on journalism, even good journalism, to inform me, I'm to a degree using an interpretation rather than a primary source. This is fine much of the time, but what about when deep understanding really matters? 

  • when I'm researching a medical condition that my doctor only briefly explained
  • when I'm trying to understand my legal affairs or taxes so I can ask the right questions
  • when I realize a soundbite summary of a ballot measure doesn't give me the whole story

Another benefit of reading is being able to appreciate literature. Fiction, particularly, reveals truths about being human that would be difficult to learn in any other way, and offers insights that no history or psychology text ever could. What was it like to live in South Africa during the height of apartheid? What was it like to be a Japanese teenager whose friends have abandoned you without saying why? What is it like to be a refugee?

In an increasingly divided world, understanding and empathy matter.

The Bottom Line

Pushing past the reading level required to do well in high school leads to higher test scores, but perhaps more importantly, to more competency to handle life's challenges and to understand others. 

Questions For Discussion

1. 315 for 3 sets of 5. (Did you really think I could resist telling you how much I was squatting that day?)

2. Describe the last time you tried to open a jar of pickles.

3. Is reading outdated, or is it just as important as ever to succeed in life?

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