I’ve already discussed why standardized tests are necessarily different from classroom work in the first part of this series. In today’s post, I’m going to talk about specific strategies for integrating test preparation into English classes.

For the SAT and ACT, the fundamental skills tested break down into:

  • writing mechanics (grammar and style)
  • argumentation
  • textual analysis based on evidence
  • reading speed
  • vocabulary (we have a daily vocabulary word on our Twitter feed—the words we choose come straight from past SATs)

Most of these are completely appropriate material for an English class, though reading speed and vocabulary tend to be overemphasized on standardized tests. 

When teaching writing mechanics and argumentation, keep in mind that students will need to both produce good writing and correct bad writing on a standardized test. In general, correcting bad writing will be more instructive for most students, especially because this is something students usually don’t ever get to do in English class. There’s real potential here for a fun game: divide the class into teams and have them each write 10 of the worst sentences possible, while detailing their purposeful grammatical or stylistic mistakes. The competing teams will have to diagnose and correct the sentences to win points. 

Evidence-based analysis is probably the most often-tested skill on standardized tests, partly because of the limitations of the test format. That said, it is also one of the most important skills students need to succeed in college-level courses. Too often, reading and literary analysis are dismissed as “touchy-feely” or opinion-based; students don’t recognize the empirical nature of textual analysis. Creating exercises in which claims and conclusions must be connected to sections of text can drive this point home. 

Other things to try:

  • Hold weekly vocabulary challenges.
  • Teach students how to skim text while recognizing (and marking) important points.
  • Administer pop quizzes using unfamiliar texts.
  • Give SAT or ACT test sections for homework.
  • Use multiple choice formats on quizzes and some tests.
  • Assign timed reading work regularly.
  • Teach students how to reverse outline a text.

The above suggestions stand apart (more or less) from the real learning you’ll want to encourage in English class. 

However, there are a lot of overlapping skills that can be integrated into your lesson plans. For example, highlight “knowing your audience” when teaching writing. Explain what the standardized test writing audience is and how it changes the way they should write. In addition, when working through a difficult text, bring in a new text and have students practice the type of analysis you’re currently doing on this new text. This will reinforce the concept and help them become more comfortable with analyzing new texts.

In high school, English class usually encompasses writing mechanics and reading comprehension. On a test like the SAT or ACT, however, these are discrete test sections. I suggest approaching them separately for any test preparation work you do, but pointing out the connections between them can help to reinforce important concepts. For example, when teaching students to find evidence for any answer choice when doing reading comprehension, make the connection to presenting concrete evidence for any claims they wish to make when writing an essay. Similarly, reverse outlining can be helpful for making a passage map of a text under analysis as well as for revising an essay draft.