Update on revised SAT books for the digital test, 12/1/22

Update: As of the beginning of December 2022, I have completed drafts of new editions of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar (6th edition) and The Critical Reader (5th edition).
While the books retain many key elements, they have been substantially overhauled and are now fully aligned with the digital exam—based on the four practice tests released by the College Board—and will be available for purchase for international test-takers  in some capacity by late December or January 2023.
Both books will be in something very close to their final form; the only major difference will be in the number of exercises (particularly in certain chapters of the Reading book) and the presence of detailed explanations for every question in the end-of-chapter exercises, which are likely to be too time-consuming to produce in full for both books by the end of the year.
Also, full disclosure: there will only be time for the books to undergo one round of proofing, so there may be a few lingering typos (this is the unfortunate price for getting them out so quickly).
Otherwise, as in previous editions, each guide contains a full chapter devoted to each question type; numerous worked, in-chapter examples with step-by-step explanations; and numerous strategies for simplifying questions and zeroing in on key information.
I’ve worked incredibly hard on the revisions over the last couple of months, and I feel confident that they will provide thorough preparation for students taking the digital test in March.
I expect finalized versions that have detailed explanations for the end-of-chapter exercises and that have undergone multiple rounds of proofing to be available sometime in the spring of 2023. Current sophomores who are preparing for the digital PSAT next fall should have plenty of time to work with them over the summer.
I appreciate everyone’s patience and will be posting previews of both books as soon as possible.
Important: update on new Critical Reader book editions for the digital SAT

Important: update on new Critical Reader book editions for the digital SAT

I apologize for not having posted an update sooner, but I’v had an unusual number of projects to juggle over the last several months and have only been able to begin serious work on the updated SAT books in the last few weeks. I understand, however, that everyone is very anxious for information regarding the new exam as well as eager to work out a prep plan, and that the earlier international rollout of the digital test has made things challenging for current eleventh graders living outside the U.S. So I’ll do my best here to outline my own timeline regarding book releases here and to provide some interim options for prep materials.

First, the basics. Yes, I will revising my SAT reading and grammar books to reflect the content and structure of the digital test. They updated versions will be completely new editions: 5th edition of The Critical Reader, 6th edition of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar.

The essential content and structure of the books will not change, although they will likely be somewhat slimmed down to reflect the shorter, more focused digital reading and writing sections (two sections, 27 questions each, with performance on the first section determining the difficulty of the questions seen on the second).

I am tentatively aiming to make the books available on Amazon in February 2023 so that they can be used for the international March test, although I cannot guarantee that timeline at this point. I can, however, state with a fair degree of confidence that they will be ready by the summer of 2023, for students preparing for the digital PSAT in the fall.

If the books are not ready by late winter 2023, I will do my best to make a (physical) beta version available for international students only. Depending on the number of copies involved, this may involve some additional production costs. If this ends up being the case, I will post pricing information as soon as I can.

I am also planning to rework the current grammar workbook into a combined reading-writing test book, but that will most likely not be ready until summer or fall 2023.

Where things stand as of now (late September 2022):

As you may be aware, this past summer the College Board released a document with test specifications and sample exam questions for the digital test.

Working from that blueprint, I managed to put together drafts of all the major chapters in the updated Critical Reader, and my initial impressions were confirmed by the full digital practice exam released by the College Board several days ago. As a result, my future work will consist of reworking/reformatting old exercises and explanations to practice questions in previous editions, as well as writing some new ones. (Note: if you want to view the new exam, you will need to create a College Board account and download the Bluebook app.)

Because fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions have been revived, I will also be reintegrating a fair amount of material from the original (2012-13) edition of The Critical Reader.

In terms of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar: a substantial portion of the punctuation and grammar content will remain essentially the same. (There are really only so many ways one can test commas, dashes, and colons!) However, the Diction and Register chapter will be removed, as those question types will no longer appear on the exam. In addition, I will be adding new material covering “note-taking” questions (essentially a form of supporting-detail question; see RW #12, https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/digital-sat-sample-questions.pdf) and will be reworking numerous sample questions and exercises to cover the new “one passage-one question” format.

In the meantime: 

If you are looking to get a jump on ways to prepare for the digital SAT now, my recommendations are as follows.

If you want to use the current (4th) edition of The Critical Reader, focus on vocabulary-in-context, main ideas, inferences, reading for function, extended reasoning, and graphs. Although the format of the new test will be different, the actual concepts tested are essentially the same. Although literal comprehension questions will not appear on the new exam, I would also suggest at least reading through that section: difficulties in this area will make it hard to answer questions that involve more advanced reasoning.  You do not need to worry about paired “evidence” questions at all.

For vocabulary, you may also want to use the original (pre-2016 exam) Sentence Completion Workbook or, if you are very motivated, even GRE Vocabulary in Practice, focusing on one-blank completions only. Fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions on the digital SAT may appear in the context of a short passage (as they do on the GRE) rather than a single sentence (as was the case on the pre-2016 SAT), so there will be considerable overlap between easier one-blank GRE vocabulary questions and dSAT ones. Remember that “hard” words may appear in the passages as well as the answer choices, and that these can involve alternate meanings of common terms.

If you want to practice with short passages and sentence completions, you may also find it helpful to purchase the first edition of The Critical Reader, which features many such passages, in addition to a chapter on sentence completions. Because this version does not include graph questions, you should not practice with it exclusively.

For Writing, you can use the current (5th) edition of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar,  focusing heavily on the chapters on transitions and punctuation, and skipping the material on diction and register. Aside from the fact that each dSAT Writing question will accompany a different passage, the actual concepts tested will be effectively identical, and the current book should leave you extremely well prepared for the exam.

If you do want a trove of single passages accompanied by one question, you can of course also use the Question of the Day archive.

For authentic SAT questions, you may want to work with short passages and sentence completions from pre-2016 exams. You can probably order an old Official Guide for very little money on Amazon, and I would assume that there are still many old tests floating around the internet as well.

And as always, I recommend spending 10-15 minutes a day reading a reasonably serious adult periodical such as the New York TimesThe EconomistThe AtlanticScientific American, and making a list of the words you don’t know. It does not matter how short dSAT passages are if you are missing key vocabulary or have difficulty following a person’s argument!

The bottom is line is that if you’re among the first cohorts to take the new exam, you may need to piece prep materials together for the next few months; however, given what is available for the previous and current versions of the SAT, you can still prep very effectively.

I will be posting updates as my work on the books progresses, so please stay tuned!

Launching Tuesday, September 6, 2022: Idiom of the Day email program (Free!)

Launching Tuesday, September 6, 2022: Idiom of the Day email program (Free!)

After some unexpected delays, the Critical Reader Idiom of the Day email program is scheduled to launch on September 6, 2022.  It is generally geared toward helping IELTS candidates prepare for the Speaking and Writing portion of the exam, but anyone who wants to improve their knowledge of idiomatic English is welcome to sign up.

The program is entirely free; to join, just enter your address below.


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New! free daily idiom email program for ESL students

New! free daily idiom email program for ESL students

The Critical Reader is excited to announce the sometime in the next few weeks (exact date TBA), we will be launching a free daily email idiom program for English learners.

If you would like to sign up, please enter your email in the form below. (Note that you must use the form to register; comments for this post have been disabled.) 

Subscribe

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The focus will be on words and phrases that can be used in IELTS Writing and Speaking, but the content will also be broadly relevant to other popular tests, including TOEFL, PTE, and (especially) CELPIP. And if you’re just looking to improve your English in general, you’re of course welcome to join as well.

Every day, members will receive an email with a new expression + definition, along with a sample sentence clearly illustrating its use. Both informal and formal language will be covered and labelled appropriately.

This program does not focus on the clichés commonly taught in ESL classes or on social media (e.g., A piece of cakeonce in a blue moon) but rather on common, contemporary phrases and collocations that can help your speaking or writing sound more natural.

In addition, if there are any expressions you find particularly confusing or would like to have a better understanding of how to use, please feel free to let us know, and we will do our best to incorporate them into the program.

Why you can’t punctuate “but” and “however” the same way

Why you can’t punctuate “but” and “however” the same way

Although but and however have the same meaning, they are punctuated differently when used to join complete sentences:

  • but follows a comma and is not followed by any punctuation
  • however follows a period or semicolon and is followed by a comma

For example:

Correct: An increasing number of people at the company bike or take public transit to work, but many employees still prefer to drive.

Incorrect: An increasing number of people at the company bike or take public transit to work. But, many employees still prefer to drive.

Correct: An increasing number of people at the company bike or take public transit to work. However, many employees still prefer to drive.

Correct: An increasing number of people at the company bike or take public transit to work; however, many employees still prefer to drive.

Incorrect: An increasing number of people at the company bike or take public transit to work, however, many employees still prefer to drive.

 

On the surface, the fact that these two words must be punctuated differently might seem odd—the kind of persnickety little rule that tends to give grammar a bad name. However, it actually exists for a reason. (more…)

The shortest answer isn’t always right—but “shorter is better” is still a good rule to follow

The shortest answer isn’t always right—but “shorter is better” is still a good rule to follow

I recently encountered someone who, after many years of hearing tutors advise students to “pick the shortest” answer on ACT English and SAT Writing, decided to see how often that option actually was correct. After going through a bunch of ACTs, she discovered that the shortest answer was in fact correct only a relatively small percentage of the time. She was quite incensed about this fact, and took it as evidence that students should not be encouraged to select their answers based on length.

Now, for a tutor who advises a blunt, just-pick-the-shortest-answer-if-you’re-not-sure approach, this is a reasonable criticism.

Otherwise, however, I think it misses the point.

Fundamentally, “shorter is better” is a general guideline; it is not intended to be an ironclad rule for choosing answers. If the shortest answer were indeed always correct, even just on rhetoric questions, then SAT and ACT grammar would be far too easy to game, and many more students would receive high scores than is actually the case. (more…)

Now available, my full Tests and the Rest interview: helping struggling teens improve reading skills

Now available, my full Tests and the Rest interview: helping struggling teens improve reading skills

At the beginning of March, I spoke with Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin at the Tests and the Rest podcast about some of the issues involved in helping struggling teenage readers prepare for standardized tests. The interview was originally scheduled for 25 minutes, but our conversation picked up so much steam that Amy and Mike decided to keep going and turn the interview into a two-parter.

The first part aired a few weeks ago, but I’ve been so busy that I actually forgot to post it (whoops!), but now that the second part has aired, I really don’t have an excuse.

Listen to Part 1, and Part 2. (more…)

IELTS vs. CELPIP Writing: a comparison

IELTS vs. CELPIP Writing: a comparison

I’ve recently encountered a number of essays that were written for the CELPIP but that seemed to have been produced by candidates who appeared to have switched from the IELTS (GT) and were still writing essays geared more to that test, or to have been advised by people who did not fully understand how the two tests differ.

To be sure, there is significant overlap between IELTS and CELPIP writing, particularly in terms of Task 1 (formal, semi-formal, or informal letter in both cases; approximately 20 minutes for IELTS, 27 minutes for CELPIP). However, there are real differences when it comes to Task 2. Candidates who are either trying to decide which exam to take, or switching from one to the other, must understand the expectations and criteria for each. (more…)

5 tips for helping struggling teenage readers

5 tips for helping struggling teenage readers

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed (for the third time!) by Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin on their podcast Tests and the Rest. During the course of what ended up being a marathon conversation about how to help struggling older readers—Amy and Mike ended up having to split our discussion into two parts!—we covered a wide range of topics, and it was only after we had finished that I realized I hadn’t gotten in quite as many practical tips as I would have liked. So obviously I had to post my top ones here instead. And if you’re interested in the full webinar (covering the basics of what’s come to be known as “the science of reading” and walking you through a full, age-appropriate phonics program for teenage readers), you can find it at video.thecriticalreader.com.

1) Have students put their finger on the page and follow along with the text as they read

I’ve written about this in a number of posts over the years, but this is one strategy I truly cannot emphasize enough. For students who habitually remove their eyes from the page, it is absolutely crucial to improving comprehension. You cannot understand what a text literally says if you’re not looking at the words!

To the greatest extent possible, the student’s finger should be under the word they are reading at any given time—it should not lag behind, trail off, or suddenly jump ahead. Hand-eye coordination: it’s not just for sports. (more…)

The new digital SAT: more questions than answers

The new digital SAT: more questions than answers

If you’re someone with any sort of interest or stake in the college admissions process, you’ve probably heard that the SAT is going digital in the next couple of years. If you or your children will be preparing for the SAT when the test changes, or you work with students who will be prepping during that time, you’re probably wondering how everything is going to play out. And if you use Critical Reader guides, or are planning to use them, you’ll obviously want some idea of whether you should do your best with the current material or wait for updates.

So, to start with the basics.

First, yes, I will be revising my books to reflect the updated test. Unfortunately, however, I can’t begin that process until I see official practice material that reflects the exact structure and content of the digital version, and the only sample currently provided by the College Board doesn’t fit the bill. They seem to have taken an old exam and plugged it into the new software so that it is possible to see how things are literally formatted on the screen, but not how the new sections and test are actually structured, the number and types of questions, etc. Disappointing, but not particularly surprising.

According to the CB, more accurate practice material will be available in the summer or fall of 2022, so I’m essentially stuck until then. As always, I’ll post updates when I have a better idea of when things might be available, but at this point, I just don’t have a clear sense of how extensive the revisions will need to be. That said, I will do my utmost to have new editions available by Fall 2023. (more…)

When is an IELTS Enquiry on Results worth requesting?

When is an IELTS Enquiry on Results worth requesting?

It’s not exactly a secret that many IELTS candidates are unpleasantly surprised when they receive their Writing scores; it’s not uncommon for marks in this area of the test to be a full band, or even a band-and-a-half, lower than in the other three sections. Very often, they wonder whether there has been some kind of mistake, and one of their first question is usually whether it’s worth it for them to request an Enquiry on Results (EOR) and have their essay re-marked.

As I’ve written about before, one of the overlooked challenges of the IELTS Writing test is that it is always administered third, after Listening and Reading. By that point, most test-takers are already starting to get tired from the intense concentration required in the previous sections, and shifting into writing mode can be very difficult. If a normally strong writer does take a little while to warm up, it is entirely possible that the beginning of their Task 1 response will not in fact be representative of their overall skill level.

In other cases, a test-taker may get through Task 1 without a problem and then crash at the beginning of Task 2, only to recover partway through their essay. By that time, however, the damage may have already been done. (more…)

20 top intermediate/advanced ESL mistakes (and how to fix them)

20 top intermediate/advanced ESL mistakes (and how to fix them)

Even if you’ve studied English for years and are very proficient in the language overall, you might still have trouble with some of the constructions covered in this post. Because they are so common, learning to use them correctly will immediately make your English sound more natural and fluent.

1. One of the + plural noun

The emphasis is on the group that one belongs to.

Correct: One of the things I like most about my city is the beautiful architecture.   

Incorrect: One of the thing I like most about my city is the beautiful architecture.  

Another common mistake involving one of the is to use the “base” form of an adjective rather than the superlative form (most + adjective or adjective-est). While this construction is technically acceptable, it is not something that native speakers say. The  point is to emphasize that something belongs to an extreme group.

Correct: Skiing is one of the most popular winter sports.

Avoid: Skiing is one of the popular winter sports.

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What is a “complex” sentence?

What is a “complex” sentence?

Of all the misunderstood grammar terms in the English language, “complex sentence” is perhaps the one that occupies the very top spot.

The problem essentially results from the fact that the word complex has one meaning (very complicated) in everyday language, but a very different meaning in formal grammatical terms.

Not realizing this, most students assume that being asked to write complex sentences means that they are supposed to write sentences that are extremely long and stuffed with all sorts of high-level constructions when that is not at all the case. (more…)

How to write an overview paragraph for Academic Training Task 1

How to write an overview paragraph for Academic Training Task 1

One of the biggest and most common traps that IELTS candidates fall into when writing Task 1 Academic Training essays involves spending too much time citing specific figures while overlooking the bigger picture that graphic(s) are used to convey.

To be clear: Your goal in Task 1 is essentially to tell a “story” about the graphic(s) so that a reader can quickly understand a general trend or phenomenon, not just provide a series of specific details and statistics. To that end, you must identify the overall takeaway and present it to the reader in a condensed way (no more than a sentence or two) so that the figures you cite can be understood in context of the larger idea.

Although the IELTS Band descriptors may not spell out the point of Task 1 quite so explicitly, they are perfectly clear about what is required to score Band 7 in Task Achievement: successful candidates must have a paragraph that presents a clear overview of main trends, differences or stages.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about an overview paragraph is that it should consist of a general description in words and by definition should not include details, i.e., specific numbers. Imagine that you are describing the graph to a child—your explanation should be that clear and easy to comprehend. (more…)

Should you make up evidence in your IELTS essays?

Should you make up evidence in your IELTS essays?

The short answer: No. Just don’t do it.

The longer answer: If your English is strong enough for you to convincingly insert made-up statistics into your essays, then it is probably unnecessary for you to do so. Basically, if you write at a solid Band 7.5/8+ level; have experience citing statistics in English in your writing for work or school; and want to have some fun with the test, then by all means, go ahead and make up a study or two. If you are among the other 97% or so of test-takers, focus on improving your grammar, vocabulary, organization, and ability to explain your ideas clearly.

I suspect that for most test-takers who decide to invent statistics or other types of research, the thought process goes something like this:

Research from prestigious universities looks very impressive, so if I make up a study from, say, Oxford or Harvard, then that’ll make my argument really strong. And a common number like 75% will look fake, so I’ll make up something really random like, I don’t know, 68.3% because that’ll seem more convincing. (more…)

Colleges are going test-optional… Do you still need to take the SAT or ACT?

Colleges are going test-optional… Do you still need to take the SAT or ACT?

Given the number of colleges that are going, and now staying, test optional, it’s reasonable for students to wonder whether they still really need to sit for a standardized test. I suspect that there’s a fair amount of confusion surrounding this issue, particularly among students who have limited access to knowledgeable admissions guidance. Given that, this piece is intended to provide some general guidelines for when traditional standardized testing is, and is not, necessary.

So, do you need to take the SAT or the ACT?

The short answer: probably.

The long answer: probably, but it depends.

If you are only planning to apply to schools in the University of California system (which no longer considers SAT/ACT scores), and there is effectively no chance that you will later decide to apply elsewhere, then no, you do not need to take the SAT or the ACT.

If you are applying to less-selective test-optional schools (>50% acceptance rate) and can comfortably afford to attend without financial aid, then the choice of whether to take the SAT or ACT is up to you (particularly if you have strong grades and good AP scores).

If you are so staunchly opposed to standardized testing that taking the SAT or the ACT would represent an intolerable violation of your deepest-held principles, then you do not need to take one of those tests (although if you fall into that category, you presumably would have applied only to test-optional schools pre-pandemic anyway).

If you do not fall into one of those categories, then yes, it is a good idea to take the SAT or the ACT, or—a less good idea—both. (And for the record, I am not just saying this because I’m the author of a series of SAT and ACT books. Really.) (more…)

4 Canadian universities American students should know about

4 Canadian universities American students should know about

During my post-college/pre-tutoring admin stints in two Ivy League humanities departments, I became heavily involved in the administrative side of graduate admissions and consequently developed a familiarity with many reputable undergraduate programs located outside the U.S.

Over the years, I’ve come to take this knowledge for granted, but I became newly aware of it recently while listening to Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin of Tests and the Rest’s interview with Brandon Miller, an immigration consultant who has helped many American students study in Canada at the post-secondary level. Although the discussion was extremely informative from a logistical and financial perspective—I actually had no idea that U.S. federal loans could be applied to Canadian institutions—there were a handful of schools and programs that I would have liked to hear (more) about, hence the inspiration for this post.

So that said, these are four Canadian universities/university programs that, in my experience, often fly under American applicants’ radar but that deserve a serious look from anyone considering attending college outside the United States.  (more…)

12 skills you need for Band 7+ in IELTS Writing

12 skills you need for Band 7+ in IELTS Writing

Note: you can download this post as a pdf.

This guide covers 12 of the skills whose mastery generally corresponds to a score of Band 7 or above in IELTS Writing. It is by no means comprehensive—writing well in English involves far more than what can reasonably be covered here—but I have done my best to select the top concepts that IELTS candidates find particularly challenging, and that apply at a general structural level regardless of the topic or type of question involved.

To be clear: you do not need to be able to do every single thing on this list flawlessly in order to earn a Band 7 score. There is some room for error. But you must be able to do most of them, and do them consistently, in order to produce responses that contain mostly error-free sentences; remain clear and on-topic throughout; and are sufficiently cohesive and coherent.

Also, please note: The list below assumes that you know how to use standard spacing, punctuation, and capitalization. If you have difficulty with those aspects of English, you need to work on them first (more…)