Test prep and L2 writing


● Private or small-group test preparation for the SAT and ACT language tests (SAT:  Reading Test & Writing and Language Test; ACT: Reading Test & English Test)● Help writing, revising, and copy editing college admissions essays

● Instruction and practice writing cohesive paragraphs and papers in standard written English

Prepation for the TOEFL

● Instruction and editing for students learning to write in English as a second language 


Practice makes perfect

  1. I teach all of the test-taking knowledge, tactics, and skills students need to score well–paying special attention to methods that spare working memory, build fluency, and teach students to make informed “guesses” on passages they don’t understand.
  2. I give students enough practice to make these skills second nature.
  3. I give students timed practices to develop stamina and an internalized ‘test clock.’

Contact Catherine

..More below:
Fast test prep & tutoring
Why SAT reading is different
Rhetorical grammar: the secret sauce
How to read a passage that’s over your head
How to answer Question 11
Working memory and fluency

About me

Catherine Johnson, Ph.D., is the co-author, with John Ratey, of Shadow Syndromes and, with Temple Grandin, of Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human, both New York Times best sellers. She has written for numerous publications including Scientific American Mind and was a Contributing Editor for New Woman Magazine. She teaches and tutors developmental writing at the college level, and was trained in precision teaching and curriculum design at Morningside Academy’s Summer School Institute and in the Hochman Method at The Windward School in White Plains, New York. She is working on a book about implicit learning and the cognitive unconscious.

Fast test prep and tutoring

To prepare students as efficiently as possible–

  1. I teach students how to use “rhetorical grammar1 to work out the meaning of passages they don’t understand.
  2. I use methods from precision teaching and implicit learning.

This combination (about which, more below) produces much faster results than standard methods. My student M., for example, raised her ACT English and Reading scores dramatically in just four weeks, moving from the 85th percentile to the 98th on English, and from the 66th to the 88th in Reading — and she did this in the spring of her junior year, while studying for multiple Advanced Placement tests.

 ACT scores for “M.”  4/29/2017 6/9/2017 ACT  9/8/2017 ACT
 English  27 – 85th %  34 – 98th %  35 – 99th %
 Reading  23 – 66th %  30 – 88th %  31 – 91st %

Fees and enrollment information below — or continue reading for more detail.


Meaning is conveyed only partly (15%) by word choice and word meaning and 85% by the structural location of words.

– George Gopen, 2016


Rhetorical grammar is the secret sauce

As I use the term, “rhetorical grammar” means the way in which the structure of a sentence, as opposed to the words, conveys meaning.

Here’s an example.

Which sentence would you rather hear from your boss? 2

  • Times are hard, but you deserve a raise.
  • You deserve a raise, but times are hard.

The words are the same, but the structure is different, and so is the meaning:

  • Times are hard, but you deserve a raise: You’re getting the raise.
  • You deserve a raise, but times are hard: You’re not getting the raise.

The meaning changes because the end of a sentence is the “stress position.” It contains the speaker’s (or writer’s) most important words.

Another example.

If the sentence below is the first sentence of a paragraph, what do you expect the rest of the paragraph to be about? 3

  • Chiropractors and homeopathic physicians, who treat patients with natural remedies instead of drugs, are distrusted by medical doctors.

And what do you think this paragraph will be about?

  • Chiropractors and homeopathic physicians, who are distrusted by medical doctors, treat patients with natural remedies instead of drugs.

Readers expect the first paragraph to be critical of chiropractors and homeopathic physicians, the second to be largely positive. Same words, different order. Readers give most weight to the words at the end.

Readers also expect the main idea in a sentence to appear inside a main clause. The important idea (or ideas), they expect to appear inside a dependent or subordinate clause. In the two sentences above, the clause beginning with “who” is dependent, so readers unconsciously perceive its content as extra information, not the main point.4

That’s rhetorical grammar. Students can use it to suss out the meaning of passages they don’t understand.

Why SAT reading is different

Knowing rhetorical grammar makes any student a better writer and reader across the board.

But it’s especially important on the SAT and ACT because the reading passages on college entrance exams are nothing like the reading we do in real life.

The passages were written for much older readers.

In real life we read texts on subjects we’re interested in and know something about. That’s why we understand what we read: we know the people, places, things, and ideas the author is referring to.

Reading comprehension depends on background knowledge

Unfortunately, students taking college entrance exams do not possess the requisite background knowledge because nothing on the test was written for a 17-year old.

I sometimes tell my students: “If you were 40, this would make a lot of sense.”

It’s true!

The passages are excerpts. Students can’t extract meaning from the paragraphs that led up to the section they’re being tested on, or from the paragraphs that followed.

College entrance exams put students in the position of being late to a party meant for much older and better educated guests. The conversation is already over their heads before they walk in the door, and now they must dive in mid-stream and try to guess what they missed.

It’s not easy, and it’s not normal — it’s not the way we read under any circumstances other than the high-stakes entrance exams that gate-keep college and merit aid.

As if #1 and #2 weren’t handicap enough, entrance exams are filled with low-frequency vocabulary words, which students aren’t allowed to look up.


[T]hird graders — some identified by a reading test as good readers, some as poor — were asked to read a passage about soccer. The poor readers who knew a lot about soccer were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the game.

Dan Willingham, 2017


How to read a passage that is over your head

By definition, any text about a subject that’s new to you is “over your head” — unless it’s explicitly written for beginners.

Needless to say, nothing on the SAT or ACT is written for beginners, and nearly all of it is over the head of a high school student. So, to score well, students need a method that helps them parse meaning in material written for a well-read adult with a college degree.

Rhetorical grammar is the method.

Here’s an example, drawn from SAT Practice Test 2. (A more detailed version of this approach appears at the end of the page.)

Cursor_and___sat-practice-test-2_-_p7_8_-_for_C_K 2

Very few high school students will be intimately familiar with the nature of “recent debates about the economy,” especially given that “recent” in this case means 2013, when today’s 16-year olds were age 11. Even fewer students will be familiar with the nature of those debates as they appeared in the pages of Prospect Magazine, the source for this passage.

And, of course, many will not know what the word “efficiency” means to an economist.

Rhetorical grammar makes up for much of this missing background knowledge — enough, at least, to help them choose correct answers.

Before they read another word, students who’ve learned rhetorical grammar know four things about this passage most other students will not:

  • The thesis statement — the main idea — usually appears at the end of the 1st or 2nd paragraph.
  • The word “but” has special status as a marker of what the author believes to be true.5
  • The end of a sentence is more important, and thus more likely to contain the author’s main point, than the beginning or the middle.
  • The main point of a sentence is usually located in the main clause.

With this knowledge, it’s possible for students to choose the correct answer to the first question — Question 11 — even if they don’t understand the excerpt’s opening and don’t know where the author is headed.

Question 11 highlighted __sat-practice-test-2_-_p7_8_-_for_C_K 2

Let’s assume the student has no idea how to answer this question.

Using rhetorical grammar he or she starts by assuming that the author’s “main purpose” sentence is located at the end of paragraph 2.

Next s/he focuses on the end of the author’s main-purpose sentence, which appears in Line 10:

Line 10: we need to be clear what we are talking about

So: the author’s main purpose is to help readers be “clear on what we are talking about.”

Then, by process of elimination:

Does Choice A – consider an ethical dilemma posed by cost-benefit analysis – mention a need to be clear?


Does choice B – describe a psychology study of ethical economic behavior – mention a need to be clear?


How about choice C – argue that the free market prohibits ethical economics?


That leaves D — examine ways of evaluating the ethics of economics.

Some students will know that the phrase “examine ways of evaluating” indicates a method of being (or becoming) clear, and will choose D on that basis.

They will be right. D is the answer.

Even students who don’t know that examining ideas is a way of being clear will end up choosing D because it’s the least wrong (or most right) of the four possibilities.

Knowing where to find the author’s main idea, knowing that the end of a sentence is more important than the beginning or the middle, knowing to look for the “but’s” and the “however’s” and what to do when you find them: these tactics make all the difference.

When understanding falters, rhetorical grammar, combined with the process of elimination, leads students to the right answer.


Most sentence punctuation rules are based on the absence, the presence, and the location of the two types of clauses: independent and dependent. Obviously, then, we can’t start punctuating unless we can identify independent and dependent clauses.

A Canadian Writer’s Pocket Guide, Fourth Edition


How to ace the Language and Writing tests

Rhetorical grammar may be essential for scoring well on the Reading tests, but it’s brilliant when it comes to acing the Language and Writing tests.

Too many commas, too few commas, comma splices, the dread “At this point, the writer is considering adding the following sentence” question — rhetorical grammar reveals all.

Rhetorical grammar reveals all because what the Language and Writing tests are actually testing is students’ knowledge of rhetorical grammar. Test companies just don’t call it that.

Teaching sentences instead of commas made all the difference for my student M.


[A]nything that occupies working memory reduces your ability to think.

Daniel Kahneman, 2011


Fluency and working memory

Which brings us to the challenge college entrance exams pose to the brain.

A typical passage on the SAT contains roughly 600 words.

It has 1 main idea, 3 or 4 supporting ideas, and any number of supporting details and other bits of evidence.

Each question has 4 choices.

So, for each question, students are trying to remember a) the passage, b) the question, and c) four answer choices.

That’s too much.

On a good day, working memory holds 4 items, not ten or twenty. Those items can be small or large, but four is the limit.

And that’s on a good day, which testing day is not, at least not as our brains define a good day. Either trying to remember too many things at once, or concentrating on a difficult task, reduce working memory. On entrance exams students are doing both.

Plus the SAT and ACT are high stakes, timed, long tests. They are pretty much the definition of a “stressful academic situation.” Stressful academic situations also shrink working memory.

All of which means that the test itself limits students’ ability to think while they’re taking it. This may hurt high-performing students in particular.

This is where precision teaching and implicit learning come in.

Precision teaching, which I trained in at Morningside Academy’s Summer School Institute, involves breaking complex skills down into their component skills (and component skills down into even smaller bits called tool skills), then teaching each skill to fluency.

Fluency means: speed, accuracy, and automaticity. When we are fluent in a skill, we can perform it rapidly and accurately, without having to think about what we are doing.

Fluency is the key to a high score.

Even if the exams didn’t place such exorbitant demands on working memory, fluency in test-taking knowledge and skills would still be essential because these are timed tests, and conscious thought is slow.

The rule governing all fluent performance:

Conscious thought is slow, unconscious knowing is fast. 6

To reach high scores on timed exams, students need to spend more time knowing, less time thinking.

Becoming fluent in the right skills makes that possible.



The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.

– John Stewart Mill, 1867


Books by Catherine

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To enroll, or for further information:

Catherine Johnson

Tests covered:

Writing and Language Test
Reading test


English Test
Reading Test


How to answer Question 11, in detail

__sat-practice-test-2_-_p7_8_-_for_C_K 2 - BEST.png
Question 11 highlighted __sat-practice-test-2_-_p7_8_-_for_C_K 2.png
As soon as a student sees the words “the main purpose of the passage,” he or she should:

  1. Know that this is a main-idea question.
  2. Know that to answer a main-idea question, he or she needs to find the author’s thesis.
  3. To find the author’s thesis, look at the last sentence of each of the two opening paragraphs.
  4. Notice the location of the “but” (in line 7).
  5. Conclude that the “but” means that the final sentence of Paragraph 2 contains the main idea (the thesis).
  6. Look at the end of the main-idea sentence (in line 10).
  7. OPTIONAL BUT USEFUL: note that line 10 is an INDEPENDENT CLAUSE (“we need to be clear on what we are talking about”) and thus likely to contain the main idea.
  8. Use the process of elimination to decide which answer choice is most closely related to a need “to be clear on what we are talking about.”
  9. Answer choice A can be eliminated because “cost-benefit analysis” has not been mentioned thus far.
  10. Answer choice B can be eliminated because neither “cost-benefit analysis” nor “psychology study” have been mentioned thus far.
  11. Answer choice C can be provisionally eliminated by referring to the “but” in Line 7, which tells us that before we label market outcomes unethical, we have to do something else — namely “be clear on what we are talking about.”
  12. Answer choice D can be provisionally selected because both paragraphs and the title have mentioned the ethics of economics and because “examining ways of evaluating” could be a means of being or becoming clear.
  13. Choose D because it is ‘more right’ than A.

This sequence may look long, but with a bit of practice it quickly becomes ingrained. At that point, students have a skill they can use not only in any standardized test of reading, but in grappling with any challenging texts they encounter in the years to come.



The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.

– John Stewart Mill, 1867


1. If you’d like to know more, Martha Kolln’s “Rhetorical Grammar: A Modification Lesson” is a good place to start. Her textbook, Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects, is in its 8th edition. Another terrific source (behind a paywall, unfortunately) is Dale W. Holloway’s 1981 essay, “Semantic Grammars: How They Can Help Us Teach Writing.” George Gopen and Judith Swan’s “The Science of Scientific Writing,” which is available online, is a tour de force. Gopen’s books, along with those of Joseph Williams and William Vande Kopple, are life-altering. Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century brings linguistic analysis and tree diagrams to bear on the subject. Fascinating. 

2. Source: Little Red Schoolhouse, U. Virginia

3. Morenberg, Max and Sommers Jeff. The Writer’s Options: Lessons in Style and Arrangement. 8th ed., Pearson Longman, 2008.

4. The terms “independent clause” and “main clause” mean exactly the same thing, and ditto for the terms “dependent clause” and “subordinate clause.” A dependent clause is a subordinate clause, and a subordinate clause is a dependent clause. A main clause is an independent clause, and an independent clause is a main clause.

5. That’s why an apology should never include the word “but.” When we say “I’m sorry, but,” the “but” overrules the “I’m sorry.”

6. If you noticed that the comma in “conscious thought is slow, unconscious knowing is fast” contains a comma splice, good for you! I’ve intentionally used a comma splice to make a short sentence read more smoothly — but you don’t get to use comma splices on purpose until you’re out of college.

(I’m just kidding…but it’s true that comma splices are basically against the rules in formal writing, which includes the writing you will do in college.)

Original: Test prep in Paris

June 11 – July 6, 2018