What can we learn from the grammar part of the SAT to help with writing?

The SAT is a test used to determine whether a student is well prepared for college-level work. Part of the SAT tests students on grammar by asking students to replace poorly worded sentences with error-free ones or to pick out the erroneously used word/s from several choices.

boy writing on a window bench

The SAT uses the same kinds of errors over and over. If high school students have trouble with these kinds of errors, younger children are likely to also.   Students need direct instruction on these kinds of errors.Children are not likely to recognize these errors or know how to fix them without instruction.
Some of the errors I see on almost every SAT include:

  • Run-on sentences and sentence fragments. Often, one clause is started, but it is interrupted by a second clause and the the first clause is not finished. Or a fragment is so long it seems to be a sentence. Students need to recognize that every clause needs a subject and a verb.
  • Subject-verb agreement. This means that a singular subject should be paired with a singular verb, or a plural subject should be paired with a plural verb. For example, “Her homework is done” (both subject and verb are singular) or “Each of the children does well” (Each is the subject, so it is paired with a singular verb, does).
  • Third person singular present tense and present perfect tense verbs. Such present tense verbs usually have an “s” at the end. Some irregular present tense verbs have an “es” such as “goes” and “does.” Present perfect third person verbs use “has” as the helping verb, not “have.”
  • Pronoun-antecedent agreement. This means that when a pronoun is used, it must agree in number and in gender with the noun it replaces. For example, “I saw the girl. She [the girl] was walking toward me [I].” Problems arise when the pronoun is not near its antecedent noun or when there are intervening words (or clauses). Children who struggle with pronoun-antecedents might have inference problems. I have also encountered many ESL students who mix up “he” and “she” and “him” and “her.”
  • Verb tense problems. In general, paragraphs are written in the same verb tense, but there are good reasons to use more than one verb tense. However, the writer can’t change tenses willy-nilly.
  • Dangling participles. Sentences which start with “Hearing the door open” should be followed immediately with the person who is doing the hearing.
  • Parallel structure. This means two or more ideas in the same sentence should be worded using similar grammar. In the sentence, “I like skipping rope and to play soccer,” the sentence should be rewritten to say either “skipping rope and playing soccer” or “to skip rope and to play soccer.” These are simple examples, but the SAT usually uses examples which are more difficult to discern.
  • Each, every, any, nothing, none, everything, and anything are singular pronouns and take singular verbs. I tell students to mentally insert the word “one” after these words to remind them that these words take a singular verb.
  • Verb/prepositions pairs. Some verbs are always followed by certain prepositions. This can be hard because some verbs when used one way take one preposition, but when used another way take a different preposition. Hearing these pairings used correctly for years is enough for most students to figure them out, but for other students, these pairings must be memorized.
  • Words which sound similar. Since their meanings differ, they cannot be substituted one for the other. And some words which sound the same can be spelled differently depending on the meaning. They cannot be substituted either.
  • Apostrophes. Possessive nouns use apostrophes but possessive pronouns do not. Once children learn about apostrophes, they confuse simple plurals which don’t need apostrophes with possessive plurals. Lots of practice is needed for correct use of apostrophes to sink in.
  • Their, there, they’re; it’s, its; and too, to, two befuddle students. Like apostrophes, learning when to use these words takes lots of practice.

Why is it important to master grammar? Spell check can find some of these errors, but not all. Or it can suggest what words are probably in error without suggesting a way to fix them. You need to be able to find your errors.

But more importantly, when we write, we are trying to impress someone with our ideas. The grammar should be invisible. If grammar draws attention to itself because of errors, you have lost some of your power to impress others. For children, that could mean a lower grade on an essay, but for an adult, that could mean being rejected by a university or by a potential client.

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