Focus on Your Students’ Grammar (SAT Series Week 4)
The Illinois April 5th state-mandated SAT is now 2 weeks away. With all Illinois public school students sitting for that SAT, we want to offer a series of insights along the way to help you prepare. This week’s focus: how good is your students’ grasp of grammar? Or, how well do your students grasp grammar?
Even the two questions above raise an important grammar question—what’s the difference between “good” and “well”? That’s easy, right? “Good” is an adjective, and “well” is an adverb. But hold on: can’t you say, “I am good,” and “I am well”? In the second case, “well” is an adjective meaning “healthy.” And hold on again: can’t you say, like James Brown famously did, “I feel good,” and isn’t “feel” a verb? Oh well, maybe we should just call the whole thing off? Is proper written grammar hopelessly confusing?
Writing off grammar is not really an option for students taking the SAT, preparing for college-level curriculum, or, for that matter, anyone who wants to avoid costly mistakes in life. This point has been made especially clear in a very expensive class-action lawsuit amounting to $10M in overtime pay a dairy company in Portland, ME owes its workers—all because of the importance of one little, missing comma.
The lack of an Oxford comma in the following state law absolutely impacts its intended meaning, which was to state that overtime pay does NOT apply to the following:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.
The key question: does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three food types that follow, or does it mean to exempt only packing for the shipping or distribution of them?
Attorneys for the truck drivers argued that because of that missing comma before “or,” only packing for was exempt from overtime pay but not the actual work of distribution, which amounted to $10M of overtime pay the company owes its drivers. Well, there it is: we can’t exactly write off grammar, can we?
The SAT’s Evidence-based Reading & Writing section features 44 passage-based grammar questions dispersed among 4 passages, each of which is 400-450 words in length. These questions cover a host of relevant grammar rules that college-bound writers must know: everything from commas to logical transitions to proper diction and idioms has a home on the SAT.
While standardized testing can be a controversial topic, most of us – parents and educators alike – feel that mastery of proper written standards of English is not. What’s more, it’s a tremendous opportunity to feed two birds with one seed. Any of the grammar rules relevant to SAT performance are undoubtedly relevant to better performance on essay composition in your students’ high school classes. The rules assessed on the SAT are rules that matter greatly to clear, logical written expression, the standards of excellent writing your faculty expects.
So, one exercise your students could do before the April 5th SAT is to locate the last 3 or 4 English and Social Studies essays they have written, and you can use these to host a writing clinic. Students could show examples from their own writing that were flawed and correct them, offer feedback to a peer in peer review, and come away with a review of some of the most important rules that help improve the clarity and correctness of their writing. Reviewing and mastering these most obvious and most frequently occurring grammar problems as a class—especially when addressed in context of student writing—will lift both boats: SAT scores and student writing.
In the end, your students will do well on the grammar portion of the SAT, and that’s a good thing! Good luck!