The little words

Classic test prep works amazingly well at times.

I’m starting a new job teaching English as a second language, and, along with six other people, am being trained to pass a standardized test of teaching knowledge. (The test may be a state department requirement. Not sure.)

The training and testing material are challenging.

You’re given 20 abstract terms that all sound alike; then you take a multiple-choice test on which all the answers sound alike, too.

Plus you have to do all of this fast. After just a couple of days of training, we took a practice test; a couple of days later we took the real one.

Amazingly, I found that I could get virtually every answer correct using one of the tactics I teach for the SAT/ACT:

Look at the little words.

If the word “but” appears in an answer choice, that’s the word that tells you whether your understanding of the sentence is right or wrong–or at least keeps you from putting too much weight on the clause that comes before the “but,” which is a real hazard when you’re straining to comprehend.

Another way of putting it: if you must guess meaning (and if you’re a 16-year old taking the SAT, you must) pay extra-close attention to the “ifs,” “ands,” and “buts.”

So, as we went over our answers on the practice test, I found myself telling my peers to “look at the little words,” and they all seemed to find that approach as useful as I did.

Another moment that strikes me as related:

The test includes a section on the IPA, which I don’t know. One of my new colleagues, who had studied the IPA some years ago but whose memory was rusty, told me she’d gotten every answer right by looking at the end of each IPA spelling first, then working backwards.

She said she thought it was analogous to looking at the little words, and it is, if only because it’s a tactic that works.

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