Expository Writing Tutor: The Literature SAT Subject Test

Posted by The Writing Wizard on 3/8/13 9:23 AM

writing tutorHello, faithful readers! The Writing Wizard is back with more sound advice for your development as writers and thinkers.

In today’s column, we are going to take a break from our usual discussions about papers, essays, and projects, and tackle a new and delightful part of writing competence: the SAT-II Literature exam! While you might bristle at that exclamation point, I use it in all seriousness—all aspects of writing are fun, even a standardized test.

Now, you likely have two questions on your mind:

1) How is the SAT-II Lit test related to writing, since it’s just a multiple choice exam?

And  2) What kind of a twisted individual are you, Writing Wizard, to call the SAT’s fun???

My answer to question 1 will help you make sense of my answer to question 2, so we’ll start with the basics: 

Any piece of writing, even in a format very far from the literary, still has to convey information to be effective, and the conveyance of information is, among other things, a kind of story. So whether you are writing a technical manual for a piece of machinery, a sixth-grade book report, or a graduate school admissions essay, you are still involved with a narrative that is being constructed from its component parts. When we think about writing, then, we have to think about construction—how pieces of information fit together in order to form a coherent narrative—and intention—why those pieces of information are assembled in the first place.

All of the writing that we do takes these notions of construction and intention into consideration; sometimes we spend a lot of time working through them, and sometimes that thinking happens automatically.

The SAT-II Literature exam is, if nothing else, a gigantic inquiry into these two notions.

Time and again, the test asks students a series of questions more or less along the lines of “Why did the author of this text do x and y in the text?” “How does x connect to the objectives of this text?” “Where do you see y literary device in this text?” “Why did the author write this text?” and so on. Almost all of the questions involve a consideration of either construction or intention. In the heads of the test-makers, asking these sorts of questions to high school students is a way to get apprentice writers to think critically about how writing is created, organized, and assembled. The test-makers believe that this exercise, far from being a useless and elaborate torture device, will actually help young writers strengthen their writing practices while also expand their close-reading abilities.

So, is it true? Will the SAT-II Lit exam make you a better writer and a better reader? I think so, but not completely straightforwardly.

Here’s why: the tests are designed to deceive you. The test-makers work very hard to make simple questions look much trickier on the page, and they deliberately twist language to obfuscate what they are looking for. The result is that students have to work very hard to separate the content from the noise and get to the bottom of what the question is really asking. This process, of learning to discern among complex signs, definitely turns students into better writers. But that improvement comes at a price: you have to outsmart the test-makers at their own game. You have to learn their strategies of obfuscation in order to trump them; you have to get the better of them. For me, that’s the fun part—I’m a problem solver at heart, so I love spotting a trap and jumping right over it: “Take that, ETS!” followed by a maniacal laugh and a quick filling-in of the correct bubble.

Hopefully, by now you believe me that the SAT-II Lit test is good for you and might even be fun. So you are probably terribly curious about when I’m going to start explaining what these traps and tricks are that the test-makers are spending countless hours refining to try and thwart your success. In the next few blog posts, we’ll be picking apart different types of SAT-II Lit questions to show you where the traps are and teach you how to avoid them.

For now, though, I will share with you three fundamental rules to live by while completing your standardized test preparation, and taking, the SAT-II Literature exam:

1. The answer, my friend, is in the excerpted passage. When you are asked a series of questions about a passage taken from a longer work, the questions are always answerable just from the passage provided. At first glance it may seem like you need to have read more of the work, or have general literary knowledge to answer the question, but this is an illusion: the questions can always be answered with the material provided. 

2. In a two-part question, make sure BOTH parts have evidence in the text. A question might ask you to describe the tone/mood/feel of a passage using two sets of adjectives. So you might have a list of multiple-choice answers that look like this:

Dr. Smith’s admonishment of Maggie is ________ while her reply is _______________ :

  1. measured…anxious
  2. ecstatic…ironic
  3. comic…cynical

And so on. Make sure that for whichever answer you choose, you can point to specific moments in the text for EACH of the two adjectives. This does not mean that they have to be simultaneously present, as in the same word, sentence, or paragraph, but make sure that you have evidence of both tones/moods/feels before you start filling in that bubble. Just because you find a sentence that sounds “measured” doesn’t mean that you’ll find another one a few lines later that is “anxious.” These questions usually throw in some opposing terms to confuse you. Be careful and locate BOTH emotions in the passage before making your selection. 

3. Read the questions first. Before you plunge right in and read that 50-line passage about narwhal hunting in 1840’s Alaska, save yourself some time and energy by reading the questions first. Once you have a sense of which details are going to be important for answering the questions, and what kinds of things you’re going to be asked about later (literary devices, character elements, rhythm, vocabulary, mode and tone…), you can begin reading in a strategic way. Doing this will allow you to read faster and smarter, and by the time you get to the questions, you’ll already know what to expect.

Stay tuned for more good counsel from the Writing Wizard and his brilliant associates here at the Cambridge Coaching blog, and remember: it’s FUN to outsmart the makers of this test, develop your study skills, and even more fun to grow as a writer! 

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Tags: literature SAT subject test, high school