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.

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.

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Admissions fraud, take 2

One of the topics Ed and I enjoy being mutually scandalized over is the fact that people are willing to pay upwards of $70K/year to send their kids to college. Even worse: a fair number of people are willing to go into debt for that amount just to underwrite four years of undergraduate education.

Go to school four years, spend 40 years paying the bill — mind blowing. 

But the admissions fraud story has reactivated our family motto. It’s always worse than you think

Never did it cross our minds that there were parents who, in order to get their children into a good college, were willing to risk going to jail.

I feel wet behind the ears.

And see:
Admissions fraud, take 1
Admissions fraud, take 2

Admissions fraud and extra time

Admissions fraud, take 1

Take 1: they should have hired me to tutor their kids.

Except for the part about bribing coaches, of course. 

I know that’s a flippant reaction, but flippant or no, it was one of the first thoughts I had.

If you want your child to have higher scores, it’s much safer to hire a good tutor than to pay people to take the test for him or her. 

And see:
Admissions fraud, take 1
Admissions fraud, take 2

Admissions fraud and extra time

How to score a 34 on ACT English

A while back, I mentioned my ACT student, the one who was scoring at the 85th percentile on English when we began work and had reached the 98th percentile just one month later.

Not long after she took the June ACT, we had good news: her practice scores held! On English, she scored 34 (out of 36).

From the 85th percentile to the 98th in 1 month.

Her June reading score, on the other hand, wasn’t as high as I think it should be. On practice tests, she was scoring 32; on the real thing, she scored 30 (89th percentile, presumably). I’m hoping she’ll reach 32 in September.

That said, her weakest reading score put her at the 66th percentile, so technically her reading gain was higher than her gain on writing.

Eureka moment

“M” made most of her gains in the second two weeks of our work together.

I’ve become a pretty effective classroom teacher, I think, at least judging by my students’ results on exit exams. But I’ve been teaching the 5-paragraph essay, not ACT/SAT reading and language, and I have a semester to work with my college students, not 4 weeks. So with M., I was feeling my way.

Two weeks in, we were pretty much exactly where we had been on Day One–and this with a highly intelligent, focused, and disciplined student. A lot of teens don’t do test-prep homework, and they can be scattered when it comes to keeping appointments. But M. did all her homework and showed up, and still we weren’t getting anywhere.

I was worried.

Then, pretty much from one day to the next, everything turned around.

On the reading front, I figured out Debbie Stier’s approach, which she developed while tutoring her daughter, and began using it religiously with M. (Debbie had actually explained her technique to me going in, but I hadn’t understood the essential feature.)

That was a game changer. M’s scores on practice sections jumped up and stayed up.

On English, I had a eureka moment: sentence slots!

Sentence slots, clauses, phrases!

I needed to stop teaching commas and start teaching grammar.

That was the breakthrough.

As soon as I began filling M. in on subjects and finite verbs, I discovered that she had no idea what a clause was. She didn’t know what phrases were, either, and had once inserted a comma in between a preposition and its object. (That’s another issue–punctuating-by-pause–that I’ll get to in another post.)

She’s a native speaker; her spoken grammar is perfect.

But nobody uses punctuation when they talk, and to use punctuation properly you have to know where clauses begin and end.

You have to know where phrases and sentence slots begin and end, too.

I’ll close with a terrific paragraph from Ed Vavra’s KISS site:

My interest in the teaching of grammar began in the 1970’s, when I was a graduate assistant at Cornell University. I taught Freshman Composition in the context of Russian literature. . . . My students were having problems with the use of semicolons, and time, and time again, I tried to explain that a semicolon is used to separate two main clauses with contrasting ideas — “He went swimming; she did the dishes.” The lessons never took, and it was not until after a semester was over, and I was discussing the problem with a student from one of my classes that I learned what the problem was. “We can’t,” she told me, “identify clauses.”

Using Europe in the Modern World for SAT/ACT tutoring

Just before Christmas, I sent a copy of Europe in the Modern World to my friend Debbie Stier — Perfect Score Project — and she’s been using it with her students ever since.

Very exciting!

So far, our exercises are working for her students (and for Debbie) the way we hoped: they explain why the right answer is right.

Debbie says that a lot of the College Board explanations are too vague to be actionable. They’re not wrong, but they don’t leave students any less likely to make the same mistake again.

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