They say/I say (or: the point of Critical Reading)

If you look in the Official College Board Guide, 2nd edition (aka the Blue Book), you’ll see that the sample essays in the front of the book are written in response to a prompt that asks whether there is always a “however” (i.e. are there always two sides to every argument?)

It recently occurred to me that the College Board’s choice of that particular prompt for inclusion in the Official Guide was not an accident; on the contrary, it’s a sort of “clue” to the test, an inside joke if you will. And in classic College Board style, it’s laid bare, in plain sight, for everyone to see, thereby virtually guaranteeing that almost everyone will overlook it completely.

Let me back up a bit. When I took the SAT in high school, one of the Critical Reading strategies I devised for myself was, whenever necessary, to write a quick summary of the argument of that the author of a passage was both for and against. So if, for example, a question asked how a particular author would be likely to view the “advocates” of a particular idea (let’s say string theory, just for grins), I would write something like this:

Author: ST = AMAZING! (string theory is amazing)

Advocates: ST = WRONG! (string theory is wrong)

Therefore, author disagrees w/advocates, answer = smthg bad

It never struck as anything but utterly logical to keep track of the various arguments that way. As a matter of fact, I took the process of identifying and summarizing various points of view so much for granted that it never really occurred to me that keeping track of all those different points of view was actually was more of less the point of the test. Of course I knew it at some level, but not in a way that led me to address it quite so explicitly as a tutor. I assumed that it was sufficient to tell my students that they needed to keep track of the various points of view; not until about a year ago did it truly dawn on me that my students couldn’t keep track of those points of view. They were having trouble with things like main point because they couldn’t distinguish between authors’ opinion and “other people’s” opinions, and therefore I needed to explain some very basic things upfront:

1) Many SAT passages contain more than one point of view.

2) The fact that an author discusses an idea does not necessarily mean that the author agrees with that idea.

3) Passages contain more than one point of view because authors who write for adults often spend a lot of time “conversing” with people — sometimes imaginary people — who hold opposing opinions. Authors are essentially writing in response to those “other people.”

4) There are specific words and phrases that a reader can use to identify when an author is talking about his or her own ideas vs. someone else’s ideas.

5) The fact that authors discuss other people’s ideas does not make them “ambivalent” or mean that they do not have ideas of their own.

6) It is also possible for authors to agree with part of someone else’s idea and disagree with other parts. Again, this does not mean that the author is ambivalent.

In other words, there’s always a “however,” and if the author of Passage 1 doesn’t give it to you, the author of Passage 2 almost certainly will.

Not surprisingly, I have Catherine Johnson to thank for this realization. A while back, she posted an excerpt from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book, They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing on her blog, and reading it was a revelation for me. I’d already touched on “they say/I say” model in a very old post (SAT Passages and “Deep Structure”), but Graff and Birkenstein’s book explained the concept in a far more direct, detailed, and explicit manner. It also took absolutely nothing about students’ knowledge for granted.

I’d already written a first draft of The Critical Reader at that point, but when I read that excerpt, something clicked and I thought, “that’s it — that’s actually the point of Critical Reading. THAT’S what the College Board is trying to get at.” To be sure, Critical Reading tests a number of other things, but I think that this is one of the most — if not the most — important. If you understand the strategies that authors use to suggest agreement and disagreement with arguments, you can sometimes understand almost everything about a passage — it’s content, its structure, its themes — just from reading a few key lines. “They Say/I Say” provided me with the thread that bound the book together. It also provided the very important link between reading on the SAT and reading in the real world (or at least in college) — a link that some critics of the SAT (!) insist rather stridently does not exist.

Then, in a colossal “duh” moment a couple of days ago, it occurred to me that the point of the quote before the essay prompt is to provide students with the option of using the “they say/I say” format in their essays (if they so wish) — it’s just that the students have so little experience with that format (if they even know it exists) that it never even occurs to them to use it!

Just how little experience students have with it became clear, incidentally, when I was working with students on the synthesis essay for the AP French exam. As is the case for AP Comp, students are given three sources and expected to compose a thesis-driven essay, integrating the sources into their writing. There’s no way to earn a high score without using all of the sources, and since the sources cover all sides of the argument (pro, contra, neutral), at least one source will contradict the student’s position. So basically, the point of the exercise is to force them to integrate opposing viewpoints into their writing.

As I discussed the essay with my students, however, I made two intriguing discoveries:

1) They did not really understand that the essay was thesis-driven and that it was ok for them to express their own opinions.

They equated having to include multiple side of an argument with not having an opinion. They were stunned — and relieved — to discover that it was ok for them to actually write what they thought instead of simply summarizing what all the various sources said. Incidentally, their teacher had told them that more than once, but I think the concept was too foreign for them to fully grasp.

2) They did not know how to integrate other people’s words and ideas into their own arguments in anything resembling a fluid manner.

Instead of writing things like “As Sorbonne Professor Jean-Pierre Fourrier convincingly argued in a May 2009 article that appeared in Le Monde, the encroachment of English into the French language is nothing new,” they would write something like this: “Jean-Pierre Fourrier, a professor at the Sorbonne, says ‘the encroachment of English into the French language is nothing new’ (Source 1).”

When I showed one of students (a very smart girl and a strong writer) how to do the former, she was thrown off guard. “Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know that.” “Of course you didn’t know that,” I said matter-of-factly. “No one taught you how to do it. So I’m teaching you now.”

That was another lightbulb moment for me. The thought had drifted across my consciousness before, but it hadn’t quite pushed its way to the surface. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. Students who haven’t been taught how to make use of certain strategies explicitly in their own writing are therefore unlikely to recognize those strategies in other people’s writing. Ergo, when an author interweaves his or her opinions with someone else’s opinions in the same passage or paragraph, sometimes even in the same sentence, students have limited means of distinguishing between the two points of view.

I think that this is something that should be covered very explicitly and thoroughly in AP Comp class, but something tells me that it isn’t. I certainly didn’t learn it in high school; instead, I picked it up in college by reading lots of academic articles and simply copying what professional scholars did.

So what’s the solution? It is in part, I think, They Say/I Say — or something like it (note the very subtle plug for The Critical Reder here;). I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it again: the only way to prepare for a college-level test is to read things meant for college students, which They Say/I Say certainly is. So if you’re taking the SAT next Saturday and are reading this in the hopes of picking up some last-minute miracle tips for Critical Reading, here’s my advice: read Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff’s introduction to They Say/I Say. It won’t give you any SAT-specific “tricks,” but it will explain to you clearly and bluntly, just what it is that most of the writing you’ll encounter on the SAT is trying to accomplish. Even if it doesn’t solve all your problems, but it might demystify the test a bit and make Critical Reading seem a little less weird.