Standardized Test Prep: Advice from a Literature tutor for the SAT II

Posted by Manoah Finston on 6/6/13 9:01 AM

Hello faithful readers! The Writing Wizard is back with more guidance on how to crack the SAT-II Literature Subject Test. In my last post, I took you through a poem by John Crowe Ransom and then helped you deconstruct a literary analysis question based on that poem. Let’s return to the poem and attempt another question.

literature tutor nycBe warned, however, that we’re not going to get through the whole question in just one post. I’m going to break the question up into two separate installments. Why, you ask? Well, I just love suspense, don’t you? Beyond the thrill of a good cliff-hanger, however, I’m doing this because I want to spend as much time on the question language as I do on the answer language. As you’ll soon see, success on this test involves reading every single word with the heightened attention of close reading.

So, let’s begin by refreshing our memories about the poem, “Blue Girls”:

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward 
Under the towers of your seminary, 
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary 
Without believing a word. 

Tie the white fillets then about your hair 
And think no more of what will come to pass 
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass 
And chattering on the air. 

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail; 
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish 
Beauty which all our power shall never establish, 
It is so frail. 

For I could tell you a story which is true; 
I know a woman with a terrible tongue, 
Blear eyes fallen from blue, 
All her perfections tarnished -- yet it is not long 
Since she was lovelier than any of you. 



Let’s turn to a question a little bit trickier than the question that we looked at in my last post.

As before, any good literature tutor will tell you to have your pencils ready to mark up the poem as we do another reading of it, and let’s also be prepared to mark up the question. As an SAT tutor, one of the biggest mistakes that students can make is to start answering a question without fully understanding it. This might seem silly at first, since the questions traditionally use simple language and are never very long. But don’t be misled by their apparent simplicity. While giving the appearance of asking a straightforward question, the prompts are often extremely subtle, and even deliberately obtuse on occasion. The test-makers are interested in evaluating the critical reading skills of the test-takers, and that transfers especially to the questions. To be successful on this test, you must approach the questions with the same level of critical attention that you bring to the literary passages. To see what I mean, let’s turn to a new question, and for the moment, let’s avoid looking at the answers:

The poem is primarily concerned with…

Two crucial remarks to make before we even begin. When you see a question phrased like this, your pencil should underline or circle the word “primarily” before you do anything else. You should also then mark the words “concerned with” in a different way. These three words make the question work, and their comprehension is crucial for arriving at the right answer. Let’s consider “concerned with” first. It is important to remember that “concerned with” does not mean “about.” Many students assume that they are synonymous, and that the question is simply asking what the poem means or what the poem is saying or what the poem is supposed to imply. Instead, “concerned with” implies an attention to theme. To be “concerned with” something is to bring particular attention to it, to give it time and space in our thoughts and lives—it is a preoccupation. And in literature, this preoccupation plays itself out in the thematics of the text, that is, in the ideas or notions that the text emphasizes, reflects upon and returns to. It is not the same as what the text is about, although they are almost always related. So when you come across the words “concerned with,” you should consider making a small annotation next to the question to remind you that you are being asked about theme and not, strictly speaking, about meaning.

To return to the word “primarily,” this is just as crucial as “concerned with.” We know that “primarily” is a ranking word, and that we use it to indicate the most important or the most frequent or prominent element in a series. If you go to a restaurant that serves primarily French cuisine, you might think again about ordering the fried rice. If you are applying to a college that is primarily known for its engineering and pre-med programs, you might want to think harder about whether their English classes will be good enough for a major. These examples remind us that “primarily” doesn’t mean only, just firstly. The word implies other choices, other elements in a series, but directs our attention to the biggest part of the whole. This is capital for the SAT-II Literature test and the SAT-I because you will see this word pop up quite a lot. In the context of the question, the word “primarily” is telling you, essentially, that there are a number of different themes and things going on in the poem, and that your job is to identify the theme that is the most prominent, the most frequently referenced, the one that takes up the most time and space—that is, the main thrust of the text. 

With the answers still covered, you can bet that more than one of the answer options will make sense. This is why questions of this nature are hard. The test-makers are almost invariably going to give you a few choices that all sound right. And they won’t exactly be wrong in doing this, because indeed, this poem has more than one thing happening in it, and more than one meaning and theme. Your job, however, is to zero in on the most prominent theme. In answering the question, you have to be sure that you are answering not just part of the question, but the whole question. A student in a hurry, or a student not properly trained, or who hasn't done any standardized test preparation for this exam, will read the question and will assume that it is asking “what is a theme that you see in this poem?” or even “what is this poem talking about?” This is incorrect. The question, in full, is rather asking you “what is the predominant theme addressed throughout this poem?”

At this point, you should try to answer the above question for yourself without looking at the answers, just relying on your own reading of the poem. Don’t spend too long on this—it involves jotting a few words down in the test booklet next to the question that can serve, in just a moment, as a helpful tool for further deliberation. OK—we know what the question is asking, and we’ve read the poem at least once, so let’s see which answer possibilities we are given:

2. The poem is primarily concerned with

     (A) the importance of beauty

     (B) the lesson to be learned from the past

     (C) the fleeting nature of youth

     (D) telling a story for the girls’ benefit

     (E) the permanence of death

Think these over, dear readers, and in a few days, I’ll be back with the explanation and analysis for the right answer. Get crackin’!

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Tags: literature SAT subject test