Thursday, January 5, 2012

SAT Writing Question Strategies

Okay.  This post is about a work in progress.  As many of you know, I have tutored on and off for years.  In recent years, my students have included high school kids taking the SATs.  I am now blessed enough to have a high level high school sophomore who is struggling with the writing section (especially the grammar portion of the writing section) of the SATs.  His dad is very concerned, and I have no desire to minimize that.  I was teaching him the best way I knew how, but Dad was still concerned, so I started to really research other test-taking strategy books.

My problem, which I present to you for your advice, is that I am not finding any good strategies for this section of the SATs!  I am so disappointed!

Thus far, the strategies that I have found for the grammar section of the writing part fall into two categories:

1.  Students should just memorize grammar rules, which are then usually just listed in the book; and
2.  Students should eliminate as many answers as they can and then select an answer based on the statistical probability of getting it right from the number of answers that remain.

In my mind, these are rather flawed strategies for an entire section of a test.  First, most students already know the grammar rules.  The problem is prioritizing them because grammar is, on some level, subjective (and you can argue with me about that, but I would simply point to the plethora of style guides out there and regional and national variations of language use--many of which include differing spellings, use of prepositions, and forms of past participles--and again state that, on some level, grammar is subjective).  Secondly, guessing should never be a fundamental strategy for a test.  A back up strategy, yes, but to pose guesswork as the main component of test-taking strategy is to equate the subject matter being tested with mystery, and while I may say that grammar is subjective, it is neither mysterious nor arbitrary.

So, now I'm going to put forth what I have been doing and really asking for your advice on how you might go about teaching this material because, as I said, Dad is worried, and, honestly, I would be hypocritical if I didn't seek out alternative strategies (even if I may ultimately discard them), which I feel is simply good practice and the basic responsibility of any educator.

Okay.  So thus far, I have prioritized a list of grammar questions that I use in a flow chart-y way.  By flow chart-y, I mean that you begin by checking the sentence for the first offense and move on if the sentence does not have that problem; if the sentence does present that problem, then, regardless of any other problems the sentence may have, you need to find the answer that fixes that first problem.  For example, say you have a sentence that is a run-on (offending issue number 1) and is passive voice (offending issue number 5).  If you find an answer that fixes the passive voice (#5) but not the run-on (#1), then it is no good.  But if you find an answer that fixes the run-on (#1) and not the passive voice (#5) AND THERE ARE NO OTHER ANSWERS THAT ADDRESS BOTH PROBLEMS (or you can't fix both because it would require changing more than the underlined section), then you MUST pick the answer that addresses the run-on (#1) and not the passive voice (#5).

Make sense?

So my prioritized list of issues is:

1.  Is it a sentence?
    a.  Specifically, check that every clause (dependent and independent) has a subject and a predicate.
    b.  Make certain that compound sentences are joined appropriately with coordinating conjunctions (think "FAN BOYS"--for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so--thanks to Chuck Thomas for the mnemonic) or semicolons, not commas or other punctuation.

2.  Do things agree?
    a. Specifically, if you have a plural subject, do you have a plural verb?
    b. Do the number and case of all of your pronouns match their antecedents as they (both the antecedents in terms of number and the pronouns in terms of case) appear in the sentence?
    c. What is the tense of the sentence?  Do all of the tenses line up?
    d. If you have a single modifier modifying two things (usually nouns, but sometimes something else), does it carry through correctly for both?  Be especially careful of "than" and "as ____ as" constructions.

3.  How are your modifiers?
    a. Are your modifiers in the correct places?  If they are modifying nouns, are they next to them?
    b, Do they fit--number, tense, person/thing (i.e., have you given a personal verb to an inanimate object--okay in the reading section but not here? If you have "who" is it modifying a person or if "that" is it modifying a thing?, etc.)?

4.  Are the words used correctly?
    a.  Are all of the words used appropriately?  See 3 b.  This is similar, but on a more global scale. In this case, you are looking for things like "less" vs. "fewer," etc.
    b. On a finer note, is the tone correct for all of the words?  Does one jump out as inappropriate?

5.  Is the sentence, or any of its clauses, in the passive voice?
     a.  FYI - This change may often cause a change in the subject of the sentence.
     b.  Make certain that the sentence is still a sentence after this change is made (this often appears as a trick!).

6.  Is the sentence's meaning clear?
    a.  Do all of the pronouns have clear antecedents (e.g., if there is a "she" can it only be one person, or are there two females in the sentence?, etc.)
    b.  Would a comma clarify something?  Sometimes things are running together and could be clarified a couple of different ways.  A comma is often used to separate, and you may see this in the answers.
    c.  Would reordering help?  Under the couple of ways to clarify, reordering ranks high.  Keep an eye out for this in the answers.

7.  A note of caution:  Differing styles use commas very differently, and in looking over these sample tests, I see VERY few questions in which commas are the crux of the issue with these exceptions:
     a.  Without the help of a coordinating conjunction following it, a comma cannot join two independent clauses; only a semicolon can do that.
     b.  Introductory gerund phrases and dependent clauses require commas after them.
     c.  Most styles now state that dependent clauses beginning with "which" require a comma (restrictive/unrestrictive set aside for the purposes of the test).  ETS seems to be following this rule.

Any thoughts on this method/issue or the materials discussing strategies for this section would be greatly appreciated!  Thanks in advance!

Comments from the switched over blog:
 [info]amand_r wrote:
Jan. 5th, 2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
I used to teach SAT prep at Sylvan, and I have to say that your approach is probably the best one. I'll have to sit down and have a think about how they used to break it down, but I remember that parallelism, and subject-verb agreement were biggies. and fragments and run-ons.

What I will tell you, and take some small comfort in this as a teacher on your part, that a lot of the damage is done by the time they get to this stage, because the best way to learn grammar rules is to read (that's how you absorb syntax without having to memorise), and by the time they are taking the SATs, they can't possibly start reading enough to help, and so you HAVE to teach them the rules, which to a lot of kids is like trying to teach them speed French or something (which is essentially what they are doing.).

I suggest haptic exercises, where you do a few with him, and then have him do some by himself and then explain to you why he chose what he did. Buy talking it out loud, he might have a better response/retention.

Dammit, there's a whole strategy to guessing on the SATs that I forget. I wish I could remember, because it was sound advice.

[info]ummteacher wrote:
Jan. 5th, 2012 04:16 pm (UTC)
Merci! Yeah, we do the haptic thing. And he fights me on the reading aloud, but I insist (especially because reading too quickly is the key cause of his mistakes in the reading comprehension section). You're totally right about the reading. I am lucky because his parents had him start early and I have been feeding him lists of books that will help him. Mainly for reading comprehension but with some applications for grammar too, I've also been making him rewrite archaic sentences taken from Darwin, Jefferson, Machiavelli, Austen, Dickens, and the like according to our current preferred style of grammar. It has helped him understand gerunds, which he totally wasn't getting before, and THAT has absolutely helped on this section. I forgot to mention the parallelism thing, though. I guess that would be a #3 offense...

[info]amand_r wrote:
Jan. 5th, 2012 04:20 pm (UTC)
I remember when they redesigned the SATs back...5 years ago? I was so happy they took out the analogies, but the grammar section they added was a bit irritating. But it was broken into about five different types of grammar issues, most of which you identified.

Also important is comparisons.

[info]ummteacher wrote:
Jan. 5th, 2012 04:29 pm (UTC)
Yeah. Yay to the end of analogies (although I could get a handle on that, but how do you just up people's vocabulary. Impossible to do in any long lasting way)!

Yeah, comparisons are under 2.d, but maybe I should make that more explicit.

I'm just trying to give him some kind of strategy rather than point blank list. Here, it's just 7 things to remember with subpoints, which psychologists say we can do. But I think it really incorporates about 50 actual rules of usage...

[info]amand_r wrote:
Jan. 5th, 2012 04:30 pm (UTC)
I think your approach is reasonable. You know, given what you have to work with. Even I had trouble with some of those grammar questions. It was ridic.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

Revised Checklist:
Prioritized List of Major Issues in Correcting/Improving Sentences

  1. Is it a sentence?
    1. Specifically, check that every clause (dependent and independent) has a subject and a predicate.
    2. Make certain that compound sentences are joined appropriately with coordinating conjunctions (think "FAN BOYS"--for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so--thanks to Chuck Thomas for the mnemonic) or semicolons, not commas or other punctuation.
  2. Do things agree?
    1. Specifically, if you have a plural subject, do you have a plural verb?
    2. Do the number and case of all of your pronouns match their antecedents as they (both the antecedents in terms of number and the pronouns in terms of case) appear in the sentence?
    3. What is the tense of the sentence?  Do all of the tenses line up?
    4. Are things parallel?
    5. If you have a single modifier modifying two things (usually nouns, but sometimes something else), does it carry through correctly for both?  Be especially careful of comparisons ("than," “like,” "as ____ as" constructions, etc.).
  3. How are your modifiers?
    1. Are your modifiers in the correct places?  If they are modifying nouns, are they next to them?
    2. Do they fit--number, tense, person/thing (i.e., have you given a personal verb to an inanimate object--okay in the reading section but not here? If you have "who" is it modifying a person or if "that" is it modifying a thing?, etc.)?
  4. Are the words used correctly?
    1. Are all of the words used appropriately?  See 3 b.  This is similar, but on a more global scale. In this case, you are looking for things like "less" vs. "fewer," etc.
    2. On a finer note, is the tone correct for all of the words?  Does one jump out as inappropriate?
  5. Is the sentence, or any of its clauses, in the passive voice?
    1. FYI - This change may often cause a change in the subject of the sentence.
    2. Make certain that the sentence is still a sentence after this change is made (this often appears as a trick!).
  6. Is the sentence's meaning clear?
    1. Do all of the pronouns have clear antecedents (e.g., if there is a "she" can it only be one person, or are there two females in the sentence?, etc.)?
    2. Would a comma clarify something?  Sometimes things are running together and could be clarified a couple of different ways.  A comma is often used to separate, and you may see this in the answers.
    3. Would reordering help?  Under the couple of ways to clarify, reordering ranks high.  Keep an eye out for this in the answers.
    4. Is it excessively wordy or are the clauses split up?   
  7. A note of caution:  Differing styles use commas very differently, and in looking over these sample tests, I see VERY few questions in which commas are the crux of the issue with these exceptions:
    1. Without the help of a coordinating conjunction following it, a comma cannot join two independent clauses; only a semicolon can do that.
    2. Introductory gerund phrases and dependent clauses require commas after them.
    3. Most styles now state that dependent clauses beginning with "which" require a comma (restrictive/unrestrictive set aside for the purposes of the test).  ETS seems to be following this rule.

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