Update: new SAT books will be available this week

Update: new SAT books will be available this week

Because of some minor issues involving cover formatting, the release of the new editions of The Critical Reader and The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar has been delayed until this week (9/16). The books should appear on Amazon by Friday at the very latest, and possibly by mid-week. An announcement will be posted when the books are available.

How to Use a Dash

How to Use a Dash

Dashes are a form of punctuation that is pretty much guaranteed to show up on both the ACT® English Test and the multiple-choice SAT® Writing Test. Because they tend to be used more frequently in British than in American English, they are typically the least familiar type of punctuation for many students. That said, they are relatively straightforward.

Dashes are tested in three ways. The first is extremely common, the second less common, and the third rare.


1) To set off a non-essential clause (2 Dashes = 2 Commas)

In this case, dashes are used exactly like commas to indicate non-essential information that can be removed without affecting the basic meaning of a sentence. If you have one dash, you need the other dash. It cannot be omitted or replaced by a comma or by any other punctuation mark. This is the most important rule regarding dashes that you need to know.

Incorrect: John Lockewhose writings strongly influenced The Declaration of Independence, was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.

Correct: John Lockewhose writings strongly influenced The Declaration of Independencewas one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.

You can assume that almost every ACT, and most SATs, will contain at least one question testing dashes this way.


2) To introduce an explanation or a list (Dash = Colon)

In this case, a full, stand-alone sentence must come before the dash. The information that follows the dash does not have to be a full sentence (although it’s perfectly fine if it is).

Correct: John Locke was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth centuryhis writings strongly influenced The Declaration of Independence.

The information after the dash explains why Locke was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.


3) To create a dramatic pause

Finally, dashes can be used to create a break in a thought–they force the reader to stop for a fraction of a second before continuing on to whatever idea comes next. They are used to create a slight sense of drama or suspense.

Grammatically, this use is more or less interchangeable with #2: a full, standalone sentence must come before the dash, but either a sentence or a fragment can follow.

Correct: A number of John Locke’s ideas influenced The Declaration of Independenceparticularly those concerning government, labor, and revolution.

To reiterate, this usage is not tested often, and you should simply be aware that it is acceptable.

Interview with a tutor: Tanya Lesser

Interview with a tutor: Tanya Lesser


Tanya has been tutoring for 25 years. In college, she first pursued a major in math/science;  however, she missed the humanities and made the switch to history.  She also trained to teach and tutor the GRE and  SAT CR and M for the Princeton Review.

After earning an education degree and a teaching certification, she pursued a 10 year career teaching reading, interpretation and writing in social studies classes, including AP US History.  She continued to tutor math on the side and in Ridgewood, she worked as a teacher’s aide in Chemistry, Geometry and Alg 2 classes.

Tanya and her husband moved to Ridgewood (her hometown) with their two children and  started The Ridgewood Tutor in 2012. She took official SATs at local high schools and earned an 800 in CR, a 790 in Math, and an 800 in Writing over the two times she took the test in 2015.

Strong scores don’t always necessarily translate into good teaching–that’s where those ten years of teaching have helped her develop the necessary planning skills.  She has organized lessons for the SATs, ACTs and GREs from wonderful resource material that she hand-picked after much trial and error.

Educational/certification details: National Board Certified and state certified in social studies education by NJ and NY,  she also holds a Masters Degree in Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Good to know: Tanya gives presentations featuring SAT and ACT tips several times during the year at the Ridgewood Library. Check out the home page of this site for upcoming presentations, or follow her twitter feed (which also features general college prep retweets).

Tell us about your company.

My all-subject test prep programs are unique among one-tutor small test prep businesses.  I’ve been tutoring for 25 years, and The Ridgewood Tutor LLC was created in 2012.

As an adult,  I took official SATs at local high schools and earned an 800 in CR, a 790 in Math, and an 800 in Writing over the two times I took the test in 2015.  I earned a 36 on the ACT in 2018.

Educational/certification details:  State certified in social studies education by NJ and NY,  I also have a Masters Degree in Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University.  I earned National Board Certification as a public school educator.  I taught Social Studies and privately tutored math in middle and high school for ten years.

How did you get started in tutoring, and what your favorite part about it?

I actually started tutoring while I was a high school student.  In Social Studies, I was seated next to a friend who was often lost during a lesson; I would re-explain a teacher’s spoken or written lesson to him, and then feel relief as he started finally taking notes.  I knew already that teaching was a rewarding field.  Officially, I started tutoring when I took a job for the Princeton Review while I was attending college.

What do your students find most challenging, and how do you help them overcome it?

The students are stressed about decoding the language of the tests, especially that of the math word problems and reading questions of the SAT.

I help them see what the most important parts of a sentence are- where we can quickly grab the core meaning of the sentence. In reading, I help them rephrase the SAT questions so that they have verbalized what specifically they are looking for.  If they just search for those 1-2 specific terms, they can locate the answer zone.

On the ACT, students always stress about timing first.  One sure way to improve one’s timing is by practicing the questions through workbooks that break up the preparation into “question types”.  Once students feel confident that they know how to handle those types, they automatically move faster through a section on the test.

For the ACT and SAT math section, I encourage them to train themselves to move quickly through the easier math problems and to be aware of their strengths as they choose an order of difficulty for the 2nd half of the test.  I let them know that, while the curve does vary, it’s possible to get a 30 on the ACT math section by getting 49-50 questions out of 60 correct.  So I encourage students to leave those that are personally most difficult for them for last.

What’s the biggest improvement you’ve ever seen a student make?

I’ve had a few students make a 7 point improvement on the ACT from a proctored practice test to official test. On the 2400 point SAT, a student went up 700 points from test to test as well.

What changes, if any, have you seen in the test-prep process since you began tutoring?

Interesting question! A few things come to mind. First, more parents are asking me to have students take both tests to learn which the student prefers, which is great.  It used to be that parents didn’t trust that all schools consider the ACT equal to the SAT.  Next,  I’ve also had tutoring requests for younger and younger students over the years.  Last summer I worked on an SAT with an upcoming 7th grader for the first time. And finally,

I’ve also seen an increase in clients requesting tutoring for the graduate school exams like the GRE and GMAT. For example, I used to have just one GRE student per week; now I have four per week.

What’s your most important piece of advice for students? For parents?

For students and parents: don’t fall for the “I’m just not a good test-taker” idea if your scores are on the lower side.  It really just takes practice, practice, practice.  The tests are not written by your teachers, and you need to learn their language.  Once you do, since they repeat their question types over and over, you’ll be all set!  Get a good workbook (like those from Erica Meltzer) and practice away.


And hang on tight, there will be an end to this college application madness!


Announcement: updated editions of the SAT reading & grammar books, and the ACT English book, are coming in September

Announcement: updated editions of the SAT reading & grammar books, and the ACT English book, are coming in September

Announcement: I realize this is coming on the late side (long story involving proofreaders, How to Write for Class, and the Random House permissions office), but I am planning to release updated editions of my SAT reading and grammar books, as well as my ACT English book. 

Now, before you get your knickers all in twist over which editions to buy, here’s what you need to know:  (more…)

“How to Write for Class: A Student’s Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Style” is now available!

“How to Write for Class: A Student’s Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Style” is now available!

I’m happy to announce that my first foray into non-test-prep grammar is finally available on Amazon and The Critical Reader.

How to Write for Class: A Student’s Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Style is a comprehensive guide to the concepts students need to know to write effectively for school. Although there is some overlap with the SAT and ACT grammar books (and tutors/parents who remember the pre-2016 version of the SAT grammar book will see some familiar material), it is not aligned with any particular test and covers certain concepts in significantly more depth. Rather than treat grammar as a series of rules to be memorized, it emphasizes the logic behind the English language as well as the relationship between grammar and meaning, and provides answers to burning questions such as “why can’t you end a sentence with a preposition?” (spoiler alert: you can).

The approach taken in the book is also based on the observation that students often find it challenging to apply rules studied in isolation, or in terms of overly-simplified examples, to the more complex sentences they want to include in their own writing. As a result, How to Write for Class makes use of numerous examples from actual student papers, and walks students through the process of constructing the type of sophisticated but grammatically coherent statements that will raise their academic writing to the next level.

Click here to read a preview.

Whole language and the art of “making meaning”

Whole language and the art of “making meaning”

I found myself stuck at home sick today, and unable to do pretty much anything other than lie flat on my back on the couch, I inevitably ended up trawling the internet and somehow found myself on Retrospective Miscue, a blog run by various members of the whole language community (including Yetta Goodman, wife/collaborator of Ken Goodman, the founder of whole language and one of the figures discussed in the article by Marilyn Jäger Adams I posted about recently.)

As I read through the posts, I couldn’t help but notice what seemed like a rather idiosyncratic connotation of the term “making meaning,” and it occurred to me that what scientists and, well, most educated adults understand by it is fundamentally different from what the whole-language crowd—or a certain segment thereof—mean. The two groups are not simply having a theoretical debate; they’re living in two separate universes, one of which is based in reality and the other of which is not. (more…)

Yes, the GMAT does test “so that” vs. “so as to”

Yes, the GMAT does test “so that” vs. “so as to”

Thank you to Soph Lundeberg at Soph-wise Tutoring in San Diego for calling this to my attention.

Soph wrote:

The following Magoosh blog claims the GMAT will not test “so as to” versus “so that,” and furthermore, the two are idiomatically acceptable.



The solution for #150 is on page 302. Erica’s solution says “All of other options are idiomatically unacceptable” but does not have any further explanation for why A, “so as to escape,” is wrong, whereas the longer construction, “so that she could escape” is correct. If two constructions are acceptable, “shorter = better”, right? 


I checked the Magoosh blog post, which claimed that the GMAT would never ask test-takers to choose between “so that” and “so as to,” and something really did not sit quite right about it.” There was just no way I would have bothered to put “so that” and “so as to” head to head in a question unless I’d actually seen the GMAC do so first. (more…)

What does it mean to understand words “in context”?

What does it mean to understand words “in context”?

In the course of my recent research on the phonics debate, I came across an idea that in retrospect should have seemed obvious but that nevertheless seemed entirely surprising when I encountered it—namely, that a reliance on context clues is a strategy employed primarily by poor readers.

Consequently, when schools teach young children to use context clues as a decoding aid, they are actually encouraging them to behave like weak readers. Strong readers, in contrast, rely primarily on the letters themselves to figure out what words are written.

According to Louise Spear-Swerling, professor of Special Education at Southern Connecticut State University:

Skilled readers do not need to rely on pictures or sentence context in word identification, because they can read most words automatically, and they have the phonics skills to decode occasional unknown words rapidly. Rather, it is the unskilled readers who tend to be dependent on context to compensate for poor word identification. Furthermore, many struggling readers are disposed to guess at words rather than to look carefully at them, a tendency that may be reinforced by frequent encouragement to use context. Almost every teacher of struggling readers has seen the common pattern in which a child who is trying to read a word (say, the word brown) gives the word only a cursory glance and then offers a series of wild guesses based on the first letter: “Black? Book? Box?” (The guesses are often accompanied by more attention to the expression on the face of the teacher than to the print, as the child waits for this expression to change to indicate a correct guess.) (more…)

Caveats and misgivings (not all vocabulary can be learned in context)

Caveats and misgivings (not all vocabulary can be learned in context)

As I was categorizing the reading questions from the new tests in the 2020 edition of the Official SAT Guide, I noticed something a little odd about question #47 from the October 2017 exam.

The question, which accompanies a passage about the search for new types of antibiotics, reads as follows:


In line 79, “caveats” most nearly means

A) exceptions
B) restrictions
C) misgivings
D) explanations


Now, the answer, C), was correct in the most technical sense. Among the answer choices, “misgivings” obviously made the most logical sense when it was plugged into the passage, and it was perfectly consistent with the list of drawbacks the author provided in regard to a particular drug.

But when I thought about it, something about the question kept nagging at me. (more…)

The three-cueing system and its misuses (or: the biggest problem in reading you’ve never heard of)

The three-cueing system and its misuses (or: the biggest problem in reading you’ve never heard of)

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference on the science of reading held by John Gabrieli’s lab at MIT. It was, if nothing else, an eye-opening experience—not always in good ways, but certainly in ways that laid bare the problems involved in implementing broad changes to how reading is taught in the United States.

At the reception after the conference, I happened to be introduced to Nancy Duggan, one of the founders of the Massachusetts chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, an organization that advocates for screening and support for dyslexic students. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned one of the stranger reading problems I’d seen among my students—namely, that they had trouble making their eyes follow a line of text from left to right. Instead, their gaze seemed to dart randomly around the page. “Oh,” Nancy said promptly, “that’s the three-cueing system. Kids are supposed to look at just the beginning of the word and then look at the pictures for context clues.”

I was vaguely familiar with the term, but I had never made the connection between it and the reading difficulties I had witnessed in teenagers. I also confess that I did not know that children were actually taught to read in quite this bizarre a manner, or that the three-cueing system had anything to do with it. (more…)

The LaGuardia protests and the privatization of the public school curriculum

The LaGuardia protests and the privatization of the public school curriculum

If you live in the New York City area, you might have heard about the recent student protests against cuts to the arts programs at LaGuardia High School (aka the “Fame” school).

I don’t normally focus on local news, but in this case, I think the real story is much larger than what’s getting reported; in fact, I think that it’s getting overlooked entirely. I happen to have some insider knowledge of the school (colleagues, former students), and although it’s unique in many regards, some of the changes it’s undergone are actually reflective of a much larger trend involving the creeping privatization of public education.

In case you haven’t been following the events, here are the basics: (more…)

Commas and subordinate clauses

Commas and subordinate clauses

Considering that a large part of my job revolves around grammar, I’m somewhat more laid-back about certain rules than one might expect. Or rather, like most people who traffic professionally in the English language, I have a set of rather idiosyncratic preferences that may or may not align with what most people imagine a member of the grammar police would take people to task over.

If, for example, someone assures me that they would never, ever end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive, my response is, well, “meh.”

One of my biggest pet peeves, however, involves dependent clauses—specifically, ones begun by subordinating conjunctions—and commas. Or rather, the lack thereof. (more…)

The Critical Reader Conversation with Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

The Critical Reader Conversation with Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

Photo credit: Tricia Koning Photography 


For this interview, we are happy to present Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein Graff, professors at the University of Illinois-Chicago. They are the authors of They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, one of the most widely used college composition texts in the United States. In addition, their work has had an incalculable influence on both the original version of The Critical Reader and the AP Language and Composition edition of that book. We are enormously grateful for their participation in this series.


Gerald Graff, a Professor of English and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago adn 2008 President of the Modern Language Association of America, has had a major impact on teachers through such books as Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education, and, most recently, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.

Cathy Birkenstein, who first developed the templates used in They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, is a Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She received her PhD in American literature and is currently working on a study of Booker T. Washington. Together Gerald and Cathy teach courses in composition and conduct campus workshops on writing. They live with their son, Aaron, in Chicago.



How did you come to write They Say/I Say? Did it develop organically from your teaching over an extended period, or were there specific incidents that inspired you to write it?

It was more of a slow process that developed over time in the 1990S as we compared our experiences as college teachers. What struck us most vividly at this time was our students’ widespread confusion over how to write an academic paper. To us, this confusion seemed largely unnecessary since, in our view, academic writing follows a rather conventional, elemental pattern that students could readily learn. As we thought about our own struggles with writing, and about what successful writers do, we came to believe that, despite its many moving parts, academic writing has one big constant: the move of entering a conversation, which is usually done by summarizing what other people have said or are saying about your subject and then using that summary to launch your own view, whether to agree, disagree, or some combination of both. (more…)

The College Board puts a number on adversity

The College Board puts a number on adversity

Over the last few days, chatter about the release of the College Board’s new “adversity index”—a number designed to encapsulate the amount of socioeconomic disadvantage applicants have faced—has finally eclipsed talk of the college admissions scandal (well, mostly).

As the NY Times reports:

The College Board announced on Thursday that it will include a new rating, which is widely being referred to as an “adversity score,” of between 1 and 100 on students’ test results. An average score is 50, and higher numbers mean more disadvantage. The score will be calculated using 15 factors, including the relative quality of the student’s high school and the crime rate and poverty level of the student’s neighborhood.

I think I may be the only person having this reaction, but honestly, I think that this is a whole lot of fuss over what is in some ways a nothingburger. Not a complete nothingburger, mind you—there are some genuinely concerning implications—but also a smaller deal than many people are making it out to be. (more…)

“Sight words” are not just “little words”

“Sight words” are not just “little words”

Dipping my toe gingerly into the “whole language vs. phonics” debate again. I was scrolling through my Instagram feed the other day when I came across an image that made me stop and do a double take (and not in a good way):

Now, I’m admittedly not an expert in reading pedagogy for young children, but even I can tell that there’s something wrong with this picture.

It seems obvious that is should be treated as a sight word because, well, it’s one of the most common words in the entire language and because it follows a semi-irregular phonetic pattern that most beginning readers won’t have mastered.

Had is a different story altogether. Yes, it’s short, and yes, it’s super common, but the differences end there. There are a lot of words that end in -ad and that follow the exact same phonetic pattern:


To name just a handful.

If teachers are actually requiring students to memorize had without ensuring that they master its component sounds, they are passing up an opportunity to help children identify scads (!) of common words—on their own, even without obvious context clues.

To me that just seems like common sense.

Now, to be fair, in a blog post for Scholastic, veteran kindergarten teacher Brian K. Smith makes the point that a teacher might choose to initially treat certain more complex phonetically regular words as sight words in order to help students read slightly more challenging texts. He advises, however, that teachers make clear to students when they are doing so, and why, because otherwise:

Telling students they simply need to memorize these words can create misconceptions and mistrust. For students who struggle with reading, these misconceptions can create even more misunderstanding of the code that words follow.

That strikes me as an entirely reasonable approach, one that an experienced teacher can adapt to the particulars of the students involved. But that is a best-case scenario, managed by someone who knows how to look at the whole picture and head off problems before they begin. Suffice it to say that an increasingly small number of teachers have the expertise for this kind of global thinking.

Moreover, in this case the logic doesn’t hold up: had is far too simple to get treated as a sight word for the sake of pushing students ahead. Furthermore, -ad is a such a high-frequency ending that children probably aren’t at the point where they can really read books independently at all until they know it.

I actually wonder if there’s a sort of categorization problem going on here with teachers, similar to something I used to observe in my ACT students.

Let me explain: one of the most commonly tested errors on the ACT involves the incorrect placement of a comma before a preposition. In order to identify this error securely—as opposed to just thinking “that sounds weird” or “you don’t need to pause there”—it is of course necessary to know what a preposition is.

I didn’t learn much grammar in elementary school, but one of the few things I did learn was what prepositions were: “location” or “time” words. To figure out whether a word was a preposition, we were encouraged to place it before the tree, e.g., in the treeon the tree, around the tree, etc. Using that little trick, I was able to form an abstract category called “prepositions” and easily determine whether new words fit into it, without ever having to memorize long lists of words individually.

When I started tutoring, however, I quickly discovered that many of my students (though not all) had an inordinate amount of difficulty with that task: they did not seem able to form a general category for prepositions. As a result, I was forced to spend ridiculous amount of time drilling them on individual prepositions.

I really disliked doing this, and it struck me as a hideously inefficient way to teach, but because they could not reliably apply a big-picture, conceptual understanding of prepositions to terms we hadn’t explicitly discussed, or had discussed in another context, it was the only way I could get them to correctly answer questions involving commas and prepositions. (Luckily, most such questions involved only 10-12 or so common examples. But still.)

The difficulty, from what I could eventually gather, lay in the length of the words. Prepositions were usually short, but then again, so were other kinds of words, like, say, conjunctions. You could say to the tree, but you could also say and the tree. So why wasn’t and a preposition? To make matters worse, some prepositions also doubled as conjunctions. Trying to recall an abstract categorization like “position” when differentiating between to and and was too much of a strain on their working memories, given how many other new concepts they were also trying to digest.

Essentially, they had difficulty distinguishing between appearance and function.

I suspect that something roughly comparable may be going on with teachers and sight words.

One website I looked at pointed out, for example, that “oftentimes the terms sight words and high-frequency words are used interchangeably.”

If that’s in fact the case—and I’m going to assume it is—then there’s a real conceptual muddle being promoted. Essentially, “short and common” is being confused with “phonetically irregular.” But those are two completely different things.

In any case, if new teachers are writing in to random education websites asking what sight words are, then it’s fair to assume that there’s a lot of really, really poor training going on. (Balanced Literacy in practice, not theory.) And if teachers are selling/buying sight-word worksheets with had on Teachers Pay Teachers, that’s a very concerning sign. Curious about this, I checked with Richard McManus of The Fluency Factory, and he confirmed that yes, things are actually are that bad.

One of the things I eventually learned to do as a tutor was to focus on concepts that could be transferred to the greatest number of other questions, and to more or less ignore those that applied only to the particular question at hand.

For example, I spent a huge amount of time going over questions that tested things like subject-verb and pronoun agreement (concepts that, once mastered, could be used to answer many new questions) and almost no time on questions that tested things like idioms (you either know them or you don’t, and there’s no way to transfer the knowledge).

I would also regularly ask students to explain to me how else a question might have been asked, the point being that could be tested in many possible ways and that they were responsible for understanding the underlying ideas well enough to apply them regardless.

When I trained tutors, however, I almost invariably noticed that they had a tendency to get caught up (over-)explaining questions with very low general applicability. The result was that they wasted a lot of time on material that could not be transferred to other situations, or explained answers in ways that did not emphasize their applicability to other questions. The entire discussion remained focus only on the particular question at hand.

I confess that watching this drove me positively up the wall.

It would not surprise me in the least if novice kindergarten/first-grade teachers—and probably some more experienced ones as well—were falling into a similar trap. They’re looking at individual common words but not thinking about what else students can get out of learning them.

So, words that are short and common may be phonetically irregular, like one or door were, but they may also be perfectly regular, like sad or mad. However, it may not even occur to an inexperienced teacher that the question when determining what should count as a sight word should not be, “Is this word short and common”? but rather, “Will learning this word help students learn lots of other words”? (Or, more simply, “Is this word phonetically regular with lots of rhymes”?) They may not even realize that the question needs to be asked.

And if they don’t, children are essentially being asked to treat phonetically regular words—easily decodable words—the way my former students treated prepositions: as discrete, isolated units, disconnected from the larger universe of sounds and words.

What exactly is Summit Learning? (And why can’t billionaires pay for their own materials?)

A couple of days ago (4/21/19), the New York Times ran an article about a Kansas community’s rebellion against the Summit Learning platform, a controversial ed-tech initiative funded in large part by the Chan-Zuckerberg foundation.

Normally, I try to hold myself at as much of a distance as possible from the ed-tech world, but in this case, I seem to have acquired an inadvertent stake in things: last school year, while looking at my analytics (see, I’m data-driven!), I suddenly noticed that I was receiving regular traffic from summit.org and that, moreover, the number of daily referrals from that site corresponded almost exactly to the number of hits on my “how to use a dash” post.

Obviously, a link to the piece had been incorporated into the Summit platform.

When I first discovered this, my curiosity was piqued, and so I spent some time on the main Summit website trying to figure out where my blog was linked to. (Is it just me, or is the ransom-note motif not positively creepy?) Predictably, aside from a handful of vague, weak sample lessons that could be downloaded, I was unable to access anything more substantive. Still, I assumed that more real lessons—even really poorly constructed ones—had to exist…right? At that point, I didn’t really have the time or the inclination to investigate further.

Then, as I was reading the Times article, I came across this:




I recently came across an Atlantic article by the child psychologist Erica Christakis, in which she discusses a concept she terms “adultification”—that is, the attribution of adult traits and behaviors and ways of thinking to children. On its surface, the article—which focuses on active shooter drills in elementary schools, of all things—seems very far removed from things like test prep and college admissions; however, as I read through the piece, I couldn’t help but notice a link. I think Christakis really nails this phenomenon in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere. As she writes: (more…)