Recognize argumentative writing on the SAT by writing better arguments

In most of the reading selections of the SAT (except for the literature selections), the passages present arguments.  But most students don’t realize this.  And because they don’t realize this, they may miss a shift in the writing from information the writer doesn’t agree with to information the writer does agree with.  And that leads to missed answers on the SAT

For example, in one reading passage from The Official SAT Study Guide 2020 edition, three paragraphs—34 lines—discuss public transportation—the number of people using it, the long waits, the overcrowding, the squalidness of it.  Paragraph 4 begins with, “It doesn’t have to be like this.”  Aha!  A shift from presenting a problem to arguing for a solution.  The next 50 lines discuss the solution.

In the same test, another passage discusses how a scientist set up an experiment to learn how bird ancestors learned to fly.  His experiment was challenged immediately by a rancher familiar with bird behavior.  The rancher’s argument led the scientist to change his experiment.  As a result, the scientist gained two kinds of knowledge about bird behavior which upset longstanding theories.

In still another passage from the same test, Talleyrand, a French diplomat argues in 1792 that denying women equal rights brings “mutual happiness” to men and women, and to society as a whole.  A companion passage by Mary Wollstonecraft, a British novelist, responds negatively to Talleyrand’s argument point by point.

How to help students recognize arguments in their reading?  One way is to teach students to write argumentatively.  And how to do that?  According to Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, authors of They Say / I Say, use templates to teach students how to write logical argumentative responses.

Their most basic template is “They say, I say.”  This means to summarize what someone else says, and then to say your response.  For example, News commentators [They] criticize President Biden’s withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.  I say. . . or. . . With Covid 19 spreading like wildfire in Florida, the governor [They] says masks cannot be mandated for students.  However, I say. . .

One fundamental point of the authors of They Say / I Say is that essays are written not in a vacuum, but rather in response to an event, a challenge, or the opinions of others.  Middle grade students learning to write essays write in response to a teacher’s prompt.  High school students are encouraged to discover their own topics but within parameters set by their teachers.  College students respond to texts, lectures and current events.  Adults respond to the world around them or to new information / arguments in their fields of study.

I Say / They Say offers good writing templates for weaving direct quotes into writing, for stating why your point of view matters, for repeating key words and phrases, for objecting to, and for using transitions.

By knowing the words and the templates to create argumentative writing, students can better recognize the words and form of arguments of others—including those whose reading passages are included in the SAT.

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