Thursday, March 24, 2011

Words to Live By (or at least study)

My life has lately been a flurry of helping other people take standardized exams (SAT, PSAT, SSAT, ACT, AP English exams. SAT subject tests and even the LSAT), and if there is one thing I know for dang sure it is this: wide readers ace these exams because reading--and only reading--gives students exposure to more words.

It's all about the vocab, after all. Most of the Verbal questions on these tests are actually veiled vocabulary questions.

The Writing multiple-choice questions can be answered easily by students who have naturally absorbed the rules of good writing through reading.

Example #1 (pretty easy for educated adults; not that easy for a weak reader who is 16 or 17 years old):  Hoping to reverse the final call in the game, advocates for the defeated champions submitted a statement claiming that the game had been run by ________ referees.
A) venal
B) incorruptible
C) illustrious
D) prodigious
E) veracious

Obviously, students need to know these words--or at least they need to know if the words are good/bad, or positive/negative. Clearly, a negative word is needed here, and the only negative word is venal.


Example #2 (slightly harder--still manageable for well read people, but I have yet to find a tutee who can easily answer this question, probably because the words are old-fashioned in some cases):
Some airport concourses are so heavily laden with people and luggage that even the most _____ travelers find them virtually _________.
A) cumbersome....cluttered
B) spry....unnavigable
C) weary....byzantine
D) seasoned....unsullied
E) active....passable

I won't get into the tricks typically employed in the double sentence completion questions (the writers like to make one word on either end work, while the other doesn't, just to confuse students). That's a strategy discussion for another day. So, what's the answer?

It's B.


(Both examples quoted from my absolute favorite SAT prep book, "Outsmarting the SAT" by Elizabeth King).


The SAT, like any of these exams, is full of questions that use challenging vocabulary words as possible answers. If students are unfamiliar with those words then they are up a creek when it comes to answering, aren't they?

Yes, students can get handy lists of vocab words to study before the big standardized exams. This may help a bit  (it will definitely help more than NOT studying vocabulary).

But, after a certain point, if a student hasn't really, truly been a reader until very recently, he or she will never do as well as the kid that has always liked books, the student who has always read everything.

I was that sort of kid. I would read medicine bottles, any old magazine I could find (on any subject). I liked novels, yes, but my favorite book as a child was--I kid you not--a joint replacement textbook, albeit one written for a younger audience. 

I also loved reading about Switzerland for some reason, and this came on the heels of Johanna Spyri's Heidi...as I told one of my tutees recently, "The mark of a good student is that she will get inspired by a certain idea she reads about, and then seek out and read everything else she can find on tangentially related subjects."

That's what I did with Switzerland. The aforementioned classic novel Heidi and a kindergarten report on climate in Switzerland led me to a few years of reading about cheesemaking, tuberculosis sanitariums and even yogurt testing as a possible career. (What can I say? When I was younger, I thought that sounded amazing. I really like yogurt.)

People who like to read will always jump at the chance to read more. But why wouldn't a student like to read?

Reading is a relaxing or exciting or inspiring escape. Once a child gets a taste of how delicious reading can be, she will want to read more.

Having a parent who is always reading serves as a great motivator. Read to your kids and in front of your kids. Show your kids that reading is a delight.

The best thing anyone can do for children is to give them a great book and keep supplying them with books, enabling the book habit. Establish a book habit early on for your kids; make the library or bookstore a treat to visit.

I work with a student now who will literally reach for his ever-present book if I even stop talking for one and a half seconds. This child is super smart, and he reads constantly. He has to read. He blows my mind in terms of how much he knows. 

We were speaking yesterday--I work with him only to provide him with more intellectual stimulation and enrichment--about the trifecta of crises in Japan (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear facility catastrophes), and he impressed me to no end because he already knew, at his very tender age, about Strontium 90 and the periodic table of elements, and all sorts of other things that he was only aware of because he reads.

This is what a difference reading can make. An elementary school child can know more than most adults. It helps to start young, sure, but the point is this: Just start reading. Read every day.

A recent educational study in England ended with the recommendation that kids read 50 books a year. That works out roughly to a book a week.

I've been saying that my whole life (and it takes a formal study for people to actually consider it, right?)...read a book a week, at least. 

I tell all my tutoring students to also read a few magazines a week. Start with one news article a day; work up from there. It's easy to fit in reading while using exercise machines, or while lying in a bathtub. Read in the car (unless you're driving; in which case, listen to an audiobook or NPR). 

Fit more reading into your life and you'll increase your exposure to words and inevitably become a smarter person, a more accomplished student, and a higher-scoring test-taker.

I'll leave you with the hints I always give my students: Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlet Letter contains dozens of words that regularly find their way onto the SAT.  (The vocab in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, another classic 19th-century novel, is largely the same.)

Students should also make their own vocabulary flashcards--this helps sear new words into the memory by incorporating kinesthesia with visual learning. The act of researching the best and shortest definition and thinking about word tricks and related words helps, too.

See my previous posting on word study here (one of my favorite postings): http://prettyfreaky.blogspot.com/2010/09/you-say-you-know-what-that-word-means.html

Aim to learn 20 new words a week! That's in addition to the one book (at least) you should be reading, along with the news magazines.

You say there isn't time? Make the time. Your life (and your test scores) will be enriched immeasurably. 

It's worth the time it takes to do this.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hope Can Stir the Near Dead: AN AMERICAN RADICAL

Here's my latest book review on the IRB. Click the link to check it out!



The Internet Review of Books: An American Radical:

AN AMERICAN RADICAL: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country
By Susan Rosenberg

Reviewed by Elizabeth Collins

Monday, March 7, 2011

If You Get an 800 on an SAT Unit, Does That Mean It Was Perfect? No.

I finally watched "The Social Network" yesterday after hearing countless good things about the film.

I'd been worried that it would be sort of boring, and dark (as in low lighting of scenes--I hate that, for some reason; it makes me tense), with lots of unrealistically clever chatter reminiscent of "The West Wing," and no real action of consequence.

See here for snippets of trailers and stills: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1285016/

I was basically right about the film, although I actually did enjoy some of the unrealistically clever chatter...particularly when the Zuckerberg character fought back (in depositions) against the Winklevoss twins and their stodgy lawyer. 

I still don't see why the Winklevii deserved a massive settlement; I really don't. But hey--their daddy had a firm lawyer on retainer, and easy access to such tends to make people more litigious.

Still, I am glad I saw "The Social Network,"  if only to be able now to debunk the myth of the "perfect" SAT score.

In the opening scene, Mark Zuckerberg's girlfriend (played by the adorable Rooney Mara) asks him if it's really true that his 800s on the SAT unit sections meant he got no questions wrong.

The Zuckerberg character demurs for a while, but when he realizes that the gf thinks he's an ass and wants nothing more to do with him, he hastily mutters something like, "Yes, I got nothing wrong."

BZZZT! Incorrect.

The SAT scoring system is absurdly complicated, but I will do my best to explain it a bit.

  • An 800 on any unit of the SAT (whether it is Math, Verbal or Writing) means that the student who earned this score was generally around the top 1% of test-takers in that particular pool. Yet, as a recent commentator noted, a student must have a 99.7% to get an 800 in Writing, and a bit higher for Critical Reading, while some SAT subject tests award 800s for scores around 92% or even lower (as in Math). T
  • Experimental sections are ALWAYS in the mix somewhere. Those are not counted.
  • The SAT is also curved. (The curving equations are quite complex; I will spare you the actual algorithm, which varies according to the "pool" of test-takers.)
  • There are "raw scores" earned which later translate into the scores we know and love (or loathe), as in a raw score of 74 questions answered correctly out of 78=780. Similarly, a raw score of, say, 75 out of 78 could earn the test-taker an 800.
  • More people get 800s in Math, so you must actually be perfect to get a Math 800 (the competition is stiffer).

All of this sounds niggling, but even the slight variations make a difference.

Questions left blank do not result in deductions of any kind (neither do blanks earn students any points).

Fair? Hah. Depends who is asking.

Complicated? Yes.

I am just about to take the SAT again. All serious teachers of SAT prep take the exam regularly (I am a serious SAT/ACT tutor. Feel free to contact me if you or your students need help.)

So now the question is: what score did I get last time? What do I think I'll get this time?

Let me put it this way: Zuckerberg and I have something in common, but I usually tell people I got a 780, just to be nice.

I know what I'm doing, and I know how to take this exam. I know its tricks; I don't let myself get trapped by it.  Still, my score can vary.

I know that June, for me, is an especially lovely time for 800s...and January can be colder. Some people will disagree with me on this. Whatever. People love to argue with me that scores are not curved, but unless you have some concrete proof--and I actually think they must be curved, because it's not all that fair to judge a kid from Mississippi against a kid from Massachusetts, given the differences in schools. Argue with me again if you want (or don't).

I will give you an example of how scores fluctuate: a recent test I took seemed pretty hard to me (and I am used to the exam). I worried that I didn't do that well, but I got an 800 on Critical Reading with one wrong. Another recent Writing test seemed much easier. Maybe I did not take it seriously enough (I made some stupid errors--little things I just didn't see): I got a 760, and I was kicking myself. How does that happen? The point is: each exam is different, as is a student's physical response to the exam. Performance constantly varies.

My parting words today will be these: don't wait until the last minute to get ready for the SAT. 

I have students right now who are preparing YEARS in advance; I have students preparing one week in advance.

Which students have the better chance of success? That's a pretty easy question to answer.

More practice=more success.

Bonne chance.  Read as much as possible. Study tons of vocabulary and don't believe the hype.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Insights, Indeed: Karen Heller Is A True Heroine Today

Sometimes, I cannot even stand living in the midst of so many loud and nasty creeps who seem to seize every opportunity to decry basic humanitarian morals...all in the name of either money or because I guess they just don't understand the actual issues (as in working class people who vote against their own interests, because they have been brainwashed or duped).

Most days, I won't bother to read the local papers because the reader comments are so disgusting; it's probably the same people over and over, however, complaining about our president and basically being blowhards.

This has been going on for years; it is nothing new. I remember holding signs with my kids (before the 2004 election; we were pro-Kerry) and someone's grandfather shooting us the finger as he drove by, his elderly wife cowering in shame in the passenger seat. 

Some other guy called me the c-word and spit at me, in front of my kids. For holding a Kerry sign and calling for the end of war.

Tremendous examples of civility, aren't they?

Today, though, I was so happy to read Karen Heller's piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Quietly or loudly, governors make bad moves," in which she deftly skewers Chris Christie of NJ and Tom Corbett of PA for twisting the issues and riling up misguided hatred of precisely the wrong sides and people.

http://www.philly.com/philly/news/columnists/117476423.html

As Heller writes, Chris Christie has been busy "...pursuing the nastiest, vilest, most overcompensated form of humanity. Bankers?  Mobsters?  No, teachers...How Christie managed to gain traction attacking the very talent that draws so many residents to the state remains dumbfounding."

Christie apparently loves to talk loudly and is in everyone's face and all over the news all the time.

New PA Governor Tom Corbett, however, says nothing. He is a cipher (and, as Heller points out, reminds one of the North Korean regime in some ways).

That doesn't mean that Corbett isn't wreaking his own quieter havoc. We can be sure the bad news will eventually come out--indeed, AdultBasic health care just died on his watch. Why? As Heller explained, "It cost the state a pittance to run."

No, instead of AdultBasic, low income Pennsylvanians who aren't poor enough for Medicaid and not old enough for Medicare can now pay four times as much for worse care. That makes perfect financial sense! (yes, I am being sarcastic.) 

Fiscally, ethically--cutting AdultBasic in favor of privately run cheap-but-still-expensive plans is precisely the wrong decision. "Poor health is something we all pay for," Heller writes, "just as poor schools become an untenable cost because they create an unprepared, underemployed, and uninsured workforce."

Thank you, Karen Heller, for pointing out that Christie and Corbett are demonstrating a lack of compassion and humanity, all in the name of budget cutting, and that "attacking teachers [and] allowing basic, inexpensive health coverage to expire is beyond troubling."

I hope to read more of your wise words. In the meantime, tune out the loud complaints of the critics on the comment boards. You're probably used to it by now, although it is truly disheartening to realize how wrong so many people are, how they just don't understand why helping each other helps us all.