Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Increase Your Reading Comp and Writing Skills


To increase reading comprehension skills and to become a better writer, wide reading is key. I suggest current events reading—especially the sort found in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, etc.  These articles are usually rich in vocabulary words and in idiomatic expressions, and in general are great short passage reading practice. Aim to read one article a day, or an entire quality magazine a week.

Keep a running list of vocabulary words you see in your reading but don’t know. Even if you think you know a word, remember that if you can’t quickly define it (with a short definition, perhaps just one synonym), then you don’t really know it.

I suggest making your own vocabulary flashcards.  Write the word on one side of an index card and write a very brief definition on the other side. Keep definitions brief (I typically choose an apt synonym) so that they are easier to remember. Whenever possible, choose a definition that rhymes with or has same starting letters as the vocabulary word. This also helps with retention (it’s a mnemonic device, of sorts).

Store-bought flashcards are only useful in that they help you focus on certain words. I would still suggest re-writing them. Anything you want to memorize, you need to write down!

Increasing your vocabulary will help you with both reading and with writing scores.

After reading, make it a habit to always ask two questions:

What was the PURPOSE of what I just read? (i.e., why was it written; to whom was it written—who is the intended audience? Answering that question helps you understand what the author is trying to argue, and how the author hopes to persuade his/her reader).

What was the TONE of what I just read? Tone is author’s attitude. At least try to figure out if the tone is positive or negative. Is the author critical of an idea or topic, or positive about it? Words used in the piece you read (note whether there are many negative vocabulary words, or many positive ones, and make it a habit to circle vocabulary words as you read) will give you a clue about the tone.

The reason why it’s important to stop for a minute and figure out Purpose and Tone is because critical reading questions are usually focused on these specific issues--particularly on standardized tests. Training yourself to anticipate these questions is more than half the battle when it comes to scoring well on reading tests.

Understanding THEME is also very important. A theme is any big idea you are left thinking about after reading. Start making it a habit to try to articulate themes (points, big messages) in the pieces you read.

As you read, keep the reading active (not passive) by holding a pen or pencil in your hand. Take notes. Keep busy. Holding a pen and taking notes keeps you focused, and as you do this, you will start to anticipate questions and can mark passages accordingly—at least on paper tests. Even if you are reading online, keep a notebook by your side and take notes!

For writing sections of tests

Top-scoring writing generally has a few traits in common:

Varied sentence structure (syntax). This primarily means NOT starting more than one sentence in the same way. Make it a habit to check your work and ensure that you are varying sentence beginnings. Syntactical variation also means mixing long and short sentences—and, in particular, not having too many very long (run-on) sentences and not having too many short, choppy sentences. The way to figure out what your habit is (run-on or choppy) is to start reading your work aloud, or at least sub-vocalizing when you check your work. If you can’t say a sentence without taking a breath, it’s too long.

Another trick that helps get a top score is to begin a sentence in an unusual, sophisticated way, such as this:  “Embittered by his humiliating defeat, John made sure he did not lose again.”  Most other writers (especially young students) would not write this sort of sentence, so you will look good if you do. (*Wide reading will also help familiarize you with more sophisticated sentence structure.)

Remember, that FIRST IMPRESSIONS are key when it comes to earning a good writing score. This means that your first sentence should really grab attention. (I typically leave a blank space in my timed essays so I can go back and add a great opening line…which usually does not occur to me until after I am all warmed up and have written the rest of the essay).

FINAL IMPRESSIONS (last lines) are also critical.  You always want to end with a  memorable final thought. I find that rhetorical questions work well as last lines, as do strong statements or quotes.


When it comes to GRAMMAR on standardized tests:

The most commonly tested issues are subject-verb agreement, pronoun agreement, misplaced modifiers or dangling participles, lack of parallelism, and verb tense consistency, as well as commonly confused words (homophones) and irregular verbs.

Oftentimes, when it comes to grammar questions, we can “hear” the error. We do not necessarily need to be able to name what the issue is; a wide reader will just know it’s wrong.  That said, anticipating the sorts of issues tested can also help you prepare. More on this later...


Some good Web sites for self-study are:


Pronoun agreement quiz

Subject-verb agreement quiz

Critical reading checklist/worksheet

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Get a Top Score on the SAT. I Share Some Tips.

I have long been putting off writing a book about my SAT prep and other hints for School/World Domination (joking--I mean, doing your best in academia and in life), but here's a tiny taste of what's to come. 

For me, this is somewhat tedious work because it's all in my head. Putting fingers to keyboard, when I am so insanely busy, is hard. But I know this is a public service.

Here goes (a brief taste, only):

Essential Grammar Skills that are tested on P/SAT

in Writing multiple-choice section

By Elizabeth Collins

Keep in mind that the CollegeBoard has a limited bag of tricks when it comes to grammar issues that are tested on the SAT. Scores go way, way up on writing multiple choice (that means, not the essay, which only counts for 30%) when students prepare in the following ways:

Subject-Verb agreement
ALWAYS put an S over the subject and a V over the verb in order to force yourself to pay attention to these important sentence components. It might seem very fifth grade, but the P/SAT tries to distract you with a long, rambling comment in between s and v. Put a pencil line through the distractor. Make sure subject and verb agree! This is mostly a singular/plural issue (or vice versa). It counts for about a third of all the questions, maybe 25%

Pronouns
The P/SAT tries about four different ways to “get” you on pronouns, and this subject, too, is worth about a third on writing m/c. Let us count the ways the P/SAT tries to test you when it comes to pronouns:
1) Pronoun agreement. Just as you will now mark S and V over subjects and verbs, you will now make it your routine to CIRCLE pronouns; then, go back and check the subject. It is singular or plural? Is it singular that seems plural, or vice versa? Do not be fooled! Check for trap words such as “Each” or “Everybody” that demand a singular pronoun in the sentence!
2) Make sure pronoun and antecedent agree.
3) Pay attention to pronoun case. You need to know that “This is she” is correct when you are answering the phone, for example, and you need to understand when to use “me” instead of “I.” Also, understand what the deal is with the pronoun “one.” Hint: the key is an almost absurd consistency!
4) Beware the Vague Pronoun! If the pronoun doesn’t have a clear antecedent, it is incorrect.

Verb Tenses
These can get tricky when the tenses change in a sentence. If the tenses are meant to change, there will be clues in the sentence (example, “Last year…”) Pay attention to verbs and make sure the tense works!

Easy to Hear Errors
You will feel good because you’ll just know most of these things are incorrect. Don’t get complacent, however. The P/SAT still has a bunch of evil tricks in store for you.

  • ·      Misplaced modifiers
  • ·      Dangling Participles and Misplaced Participles. No, you don’t even need to know what the problem is; you just need to know that there is a problem. Don’t panic. These are pretty obvious.
  • ·      Parallelism—all verbs must be of same format or the last one that is different does not fit. Example: “My favorite sports are running, skating, and I like to swim.” NO! That last part should be “swimming.”

Slightly Tougher—good readers are rewarded here!
  • Incorrect words (homophones, homonyms, irregular verbs used incorrectly). There are literally long lists of all the words people regularly mix up on the P/SAT and in real life.  Print them out. Make sure you are familiar with them!
  • Idioms (always prepositional—be sure you know what just doesn’t sound right). This is a tough skill to teach; you either grow up with it or you don’t—generally speaking.

The Toughest (in my opinion):
  • Faulty comparisons.  Some of these are just super hard because they make sense to us subconsciously, and because we don’t want to be all stodgy Warriner’s types ,and we worry that our sentence would be repetitive if we actually wrote it correctly.

Example:  I like the sound of the piano more than the cello.
This is incorrect, because it should read: I like the sound of the piano more than the sound of the cello. Be careful when anything is being compared; ensure that the comparison is both parallel and very clear. Other ways comparisons are tested:
  • ·      Fewer/less.  A warning: when the P/SAT uses “less” it’s supposed to be “fewer.”
  • ·      More/Most.  Use the former when comparing two things or people; use the latter when you are talking about more than two.
  • ·      Better/Best  two/more (same as above)