Books for Boosting Your Critical Reading Scores

Books for Boosting Your Critical Reading Scores

Your standardized test date is in a couple of months and you’re panicking. You’ve never been an English type, and suddenly you’re expected to score well on the critical reading and writing sections of the SAT, and/or on the English and reading comprehension sections of the ACT.

Never fear! The following list of reading material will help you develop your vocabulary, get you used to complicated grammatical structures, and might even increase your reading speed. Just don’t try and cram all of this the last week before your test…


The obvious first thing that comes to mind when talking about reading more, “literature” encompasses a broad range of fiction from classics like Jane Austen’s novels to more recent successes like Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, as well as short stories, essays, poetry and plays. There are way too many challenging books out there, but I’m going to try and pick a few that you might not have heard of to start you off. There are a variety of different genres here to pique everyone’s interest:

Word Origins and How We Know Them, Anatoly Liberman

This book, written by a University of Minnesota etymologist, gives you an insight into the art of etymology, or finding out the roots of words, while giving examples of etymological derivations. This, along with Webster’s Explorer Dictionary of Word Origins, could come in handy when you find a word that you don’t recognize on your test — e.g. “bellicose”. Instead of panicking and skipping the question, after reading this book, you start thinking of it in terms of its roots. Where else do you find the root “belli-“? How about in “antebellum”? That means “before the war”…so aha! “Bellicose” must mean something to do with war! And indeed it does: it means “warlike”.

SAT Vocabulary-Building Novels

There are a couple of series of these, including Kaplan Score-Raising Classics and SparkNotes SAT Vocabulary Novels, as well as individual novels published by enterprising authors, like The Marino Mission. These books either take pre-existing books and highlight all of the words that could potentially come up on standardized tests, often with definitions on the opposite page, or are original stories that work much the same way. If sitting down and searching through a dictionary for every single little word you don’t know sounds horribly tedious, these books are for you.

Pop Science

While books like Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise and Neil Shubin’s The Universe Within aren’t the type of thing you would find published in a statistics or astronomy journal, they still have value. While informative enough to help you learn something while boosting your vocabulary, they’re also not so technical that they’ll put you to sleep. Here are my top five choices for popular (natural and social) science books:


Sorry — I’m not talking about Cosmopolitan or Wired (or Playboy). Think more on the level of The Economist or The New Yorker. These periodicals use higher-level language and sentence structure than your average newspaper, and aren’t necessarily horribly dry and boring. Try and pick one that’s geared to your interest, so if you’re into science, Scientific American is a good choice. If you want to keep going, you can even get a subscription through Amazon!

Final Tips

Thinking outside of the list, just look for stuff to read that you find challenging. Instead of giving up on reading something that’s “too hard”, skim through it, mark the words you don’t know or structures that you find confusing, and come back to them and look them up when you’re done.

Don’t forget, though — the best way to prep for reading- and grammar-based sections is to do timed practice tests. So read a couple of these, and then do a practice section or two. Let us know how much you improved!

Any more questions or remarks? Let us know using the comment box below!