Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Early SAT Prep 3: Writing

Those of us who took the SAT years and years ago only dealt with two subjects: math and verbal.  Today's student face three: math, critical reading, and writing.  Many parents dismiss the writing section because they feel only the other two sections really matter.  While this was probably true when the writing section was first introduced, it's less true now that it's a well established section.  In addition, even if a college focuses on math and critical reading, a glaring low score in writing is sure to attract their attention.  You would do well to prepare your child for all three sections and let colleges focus where they will.

Before I start with specific advice, I'd like to tell a little story about a student I tutored this year.  I was tutoring her in AP history, because she had trouble keeping up with the fast pace of her AP class.  She had straight A's in her AP English class, however, so I assumed she was a strong writer.  When I helped her revise a history paper, I discovered I was sadly mistaken.  Nearly every sentence was a run-on sentence.  Some sentences actually lasted 5 or 6 lines!  Her paper wandered around her topic at random.  I could not discern a coherent argument.  While some paragraphs were nicely written, they didn't connect into a cohesive whole.  I sat there and wondered, "How is this an AP English paper?"

The fact is, that English teachers today have way too much to teach in a 50 minute period.  Great literature, critical reading, vocabulary, grammar, composition, poetry, and more.  It's too much!  I love literature, but I'd never want to be an English teacher.  Since their time is spread so thin, most English teachers can only help their students with the basics.  They teach the 5 paragraph essay format, which focuses on writing a thesis, introduction, body examples, and conclusion.  If they're lucky, they'll have time to address a few critical grammar problems as well. 

Strong writers are not created in 50 minute classes.  Here are some ways you can support your child's writing development:

1.  Read, Read, Read
Just like small children absorb the language they hear and then utilize it in their own speech, writers internalize what they have read.  Exposing your child early and often to well-written literature is essential to developing the inner ear: the ability to hear what sounds right and what doesn't.  Now, kids love and adore all sorts of terrible series books, and that's okay.  Just make sure your child is also hearing and reading vibrant, descriptive writing as well.

2.  Learn the Rules
Grammar is one area that continuously gets shortchanged in public high schools.  Strong readers will learn many of the rules by ear and naturally apply them to their own writing.  But most student need some explicit instruction.  The SAT writing section contains two grammar sections that ask students to identify and correct errors like run-on sentences, misused colons, subject-verb agreement, and improper pronoun cases.  You may be thinking, "What??"  Trust me, so are your kids.  There are many great homeschool grammar programs out their to choose from.  I recommend First Language Lessons for the Well Trained Mind for young children.  Make sure grammar work doesn't end in middle school, however.  There are more advanced grammar rules that students still need to master well into high school.

3.  Argue With Your Kids
Yeah, like you needed a reminder to do that!  Americans love to argue, but have you ever noticed how few do it well?  Occasionally debate issues with your kids.  Make sure they stick to the topic, don't change sides, and support their argument with strong examples.  All these skills are necessary for good persuasive writing.  Learning a bit about the classic art of rhetoric wouldn't hurt either.

4.  Teach Transitions
I've noticed that schools tend to teach that essays are made up of individual paragraphs each focused around a topic sentence.  That's a great start.  But students often don't realize that those individual paragraphs need to be careful woven into a cohesive essay.  Teach your kids that the topic shouldn't shift abruptly at the end of a paragraph.  For example, an essay arguing that creativity is the most important human quality might contain a paragraph about Einstein and another about Da Vinci.  The paragraph about Da Vinci shouldn't simply start with "Da Vinci was highly creative in many areas of his life..."  Instead, there should be a smooth transition from one paragraph to the other like, "Einstein was a great creative genius of the 20th century.  Similarly, Da Vinci was the creative genius of his time.."  Or whatever, but you see the point.

6.  Be Descriptive
There is a world of difference between decent writing and good writing.  And the difference mainly lies in style.  Which sounds better, "Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights," or "Martin Luther King Jr. fought passionately for civil rights"?  One small descriptive word can make a whole lot of difference.  Great writers know this and describe everything they discuss.  Make sure your child have a strong vocabulary full of adjectives and uses them regularly.  You can use them too in your daily discussions!

I could make a million more suggestions, but this blog post is already wordy enough.  (Hey, it's about writing!)  One great comprehensive writing program I love it 6 Trait Writing.  It can be used for any level and teaches students to edit their own work.  Self-editing is crucially important for college students and adults!  There's not always going to be a parent or concerned teacher looking over their shoulders to help them improve.


  1. I LOVE your SAT posts! I think they should have their own page at the top of your blog. :)

  2. It was wonderful reading your blog. As you said many parents dismiss writing section in SAT as they feel only the other two sections really matter. According to me all the three sections that is math, critical reading, and writing are equally important. And I completely agree as 50 Min class is not enough to learn literature,critical reading,vocabulary,grammar,composition,poetry and all. I really like the tips which you have provided for child's writing development. Its really inspiring and I suggest every child to read this blog.
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