As high school English teachers, we do our best to prepare students to thrive in college (if that is the path they select). We teach grammar, vocabulary, critical reading, and analytical writing. We structure our classes to guide and scaffold students then gently move them to independent thought. But as we work hard to give students the skills needed for higher education, sometimes we neglect the skills students will need to just get in the door of their chosen university. Here are some tips to help your students prepare for the most updated version of the essay portion of the SAT (updated March 2016):
College acceptance is more competitive than ever and whether we agree with the policy or not, the SAT is a huge factor in the selection process. A few years ago, I set out to teach my juniors how to do well on the SAT essay and I am happy to say that I am very proud of the results. Below is a basic overview of the SAT essay and the 3 keys to success that I teach my students.
Basics of the SAT essay:
- Students are given 50 minutes to write the essay
- Students are asked to do a text analysis explaining how an author builds an argument to persuade an audience
- NOT based in personal experience
Texts will change, but the question will be the same from one test date to another. According to The College Board, we can expect something like the following question:
As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses
- evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
- reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
- stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.
Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage. Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience.
I love these changes because they line up much more closely with my curriculum and style.
With all these changes, here's how I'm approaching SAT essay preparation in my classroom now:
- Read quality writing. The college board says that the texts will be taken from published works that "examine ideas, debates, or trends in the arts and sciences, or civic, cultural, or political life." According to the rubric, a "successful essay shows that you understood the passage, including the interplay of central ideas and important details. It also shows an effective use of textual evidence." In order to do this type of work, I think students need to be engaged in quality reading. Personally, I hate many of the snippets of writing found in my anthology. When students only read a tiny excerpt from Things Fall Apart, they miss the important cultural and political interplay, which makes it almost impossible to do the above outlined task. So strategy #1 is to get students reading and discussing the highest quality, accessible works. Although I prefer novels and complete informational texts, we will try to judge our reading list also by student engagement and depth of potential critical thinking.
- Practice claim naming. In almost all fiction and informational texts, we will get in the habit of naming the author's claim and supporting evidence. We will do this in discussion, writing, and online forum hw.
- Make evidence the priority. It is so easy for me to get moving too quickly, trying to get through grammar, literature, writing, and vocabulary, which can make me rush through the long (and sometimes pain-staking) process of letting students unravel and name the evidence to support the claims.
- Teach style and persuasive devices. A trend I notice year after year is that students can read effectively and feel the author pulling them toward a purpose, but they lack the words to describe the author's techniques effectively. Luckily, instruction on the language of persuasion and style is one of the things I love about Simply Novel resources, which allow me to teach my favorite literature alongside the terminology needed to clearly identify the author's purpose.
- Take the pressure off the timing through practice. I do not believe that we should focus our time worrying about tests over teaching students skills to be successful citizens. However, I think we can do double duty by giving students meaningful, on-demand, critical thinking assessments based on engaging texts, which just so happen to also prepare them for an important college entrance test. In my classroom context and curriculum, I feel comfortable giving 2-4 timed essays (50 minutes) based on texts that are applicable to my American literature class for juniors.
Do you teach the SAT essay? Do you have any tips or questions for me or any other teacher out there? Join the discussion in the comments below.