Category Archives: SAT

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.

Nine tips I’ve learned from teaching the writing parts of the SAT and ACT

  1. A rewritten phrase or clause with the word “being” in it is almost always wrong. Perplexed student writing
  2. Shorter versions of rewritten grammar are usually the correct answers.  If in doubt, choose the shortest or second shortest answer.
  3. Hard to spot run-on sentences often have a comma in the middle of the sentence followed by a subject pronoun.   The comma needs to be  a period, or a semicolon.  Or you need to put a coordinating conjunction after the comma.
  4. If you have one dash, you need two dashes unless the sentence ends where the second dash would be.
  5. In lists or series, the important words must be the same part of speech such as all nouns, all verbs, all infinitives, or all gerunds.
  6. “It’s” means it is. “Its” means something belongs to it.  Its’ is not a word.
  7. “They’re” means they are. “Their” means something belongs to them.  “There” means over there or that something exists.  All three begin with “the.”  Thier is not a word.
  8. Commas come before coordinating conjunctions, not after unless what follows the conjunction is nonessential information.
  9. Third person singular verbs (the kind you use with “he,” “she,” or “it” as the subject) in the present tense end in an “s.”

SAT essay: Should you write a separate summary or weave it together with the persuasive techniques?

Should you separate the summary from the analysis when you write your SAT essay?

I recommend you separate your summary and analysis.  Here’s why:  it’s easier.

You want to be sure to include a complete summary in your response as well as a complete analysis of the persuasive techniques used in the prompt.  If you write the summary as a separate paragraph, you are sure you have supplied a complete summary.  If you weave the summary and analysis together, you might leave part of your summary unsaid.

Weaving all the elements into your response in an integrated way might be possible.  But more likely, your summary or your analysis will suffer.  It will be clearer to you as you write that you are covering what you need to if you isolate the two important elements, the summary and the analysis.

Weaving everything together is a more elegant way to write, but it is also a more difficult way to write.  The exam is stressful enough without adding another layer of difficulty.  Unless you have received perfect scores on AP lang or AP lit, I would not attempt it.

There is not one perfect way of writing your response.  Rather, there are several good ways.  Focus your time on the analysis part of your response; that is the part whose score is usually lowest.  Focusing on that part of the essay can improve your score the most.

What are persuasive techniques used in the SAT essay prompt?

Most students writing the SAT essay find summarizing the persuasive essay prompt to be easier than explaining why the prompt persuades.  But analyzing and explaining the prompt is an important part of your essay response.  It is an area where you can pull ahead if you know how to do it.

There are many reasons why a prompt might be persuasive.  Let’s list some of them here.

____ academic vocabulary:  precise, domain specific words

____ allusions, especially to the Bible or Shakespeare

____ analogies

____ anecdotes

____ attacking, undermining other opinions / counterarguments

____ clarity

____ colloquial language

____ current events references

____ examples, spot-on and easy to understand

____ experts, authorities in agreement with the author

____ facts, lots of facts

____ figures of speech

____ historical references

____ humor

____ inclusive language, including the reader with words like “we” and “us”

____ logical presentation such as using cause/effect, sequential information, chronological information, ranking of info

____ personal experience, education, or work of the author

____ primary source references

____ repetition

____ rhetorical questions

____ sensory language such as vivid images, sounds, smells, textures and tastes

____ statistics

When you analyze why the essay prompt is persuasive, you must identify several of the above techniques which the author uses.  You must give one or more examples of the techniques you identify.  And you must explain why using each technique persuades readers to the author’s point of view.

More of that in future blogs.

Start your SAT essay with a one-sentence summary

If you write the SAT essay, you need to do three things well:

  • summarize the essay prompt to prove you understand it;
  • analyze how the author persuades readers; and
  • write your response in excellent, stylish English.

When you write a summary for the SAT essay response, I recommend you start with a one-sentence summary of the whole essay prompt.  Why?  Doing so proves you know what the essay is all about, what the gist of the essay is.  In the few sentences which follow, you can elaborate by stating the supporting main ideas.

For example, suppose you were to write a one-sentence summary of the US Declaration of Independence.  The first section of that document introduces the idea that the colonies are breaking away from Great Britain and that the world deserves to know why.  The second section identifies the legitimacy of such a break by any people who think their government is not supporting their rights.  The third section names the many grievances the colonial people have against King George III and his government.  The last section declares the independence of the 13 colonies.

How to put that all in one sentence?  How about this:

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to tell the world why the colonies were breaking away from their long established relationship with Great Britain and were declaring their independence, and why they had the right to separate.

All the important information is in this one sentence:  the author, the name of the piece of writing, and the major ideas of the document.

Let’s try another.  How about summarizing Romeo and Juliet in one sentence?   In Italy hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare has two teenagers meet, fall in love, and marry despite a feud between their families, leading to a tragic ending for the young lovers.

Or how about To Kill a Mockingbird?  Author Harper Lee has a precocious white girl, her brother, and their friend taunt a reclusive neighbor while the children’s father defends an innocent black man on trial for his life in 1930’s rural, bigoted Alabama.

In each of these one-sentence summaries, almost all details are left out.  Leaving out major details can be hard for some children.  Even teenagers sometimes can’t figure out what is most important.  That is why writing one-sentence summaries takes practice.

You will have one major help:  the thesis is given to you.  In the paragraph following the essay prompt, the thesis is named.  Many times you can wrap your summary around its ideas.