Rote creativity

Rote creativity

In July of 2015, the math teacher and author of the Truth in American Education blog Barry Garelick wrote an article in which he described the convoluted explanations to simple math problems that students were expected to produce under Common Core, the logic being that the ability to describe one’s mathematical thinking in detail was a sign of “deep understanding.”

As Barry pointed out, however, the process of describing one’s thinking became an end in itself rather a sign of actual comprehension. Essentially, students were being trained to display a set of behaviors that made it appear as if they were thinking deeply, whether or not they truly understood—a phenomenon he termed “rote understanding.”

I still think this is one of the most brilliant phrases I’ve come across in the edu-blogosphere; it perfectly captures the superficial, performative quality that is often held up as a signal of “true education” or “authentic learning.”

So with Barry as my inspiration, allow me to propose a term of my own: ladies and gentlemen, I give you “rote creativity.” (more…)

Why did Caltech drop its SAT II requirement? Well, it’s complicated…

Why did Caltech drop its SAT II requirement? Well, it’s complicated…

I was browsing through the admissions section of Inside Higher Ed recently when I came across a brief article announcing that Caltech had decided to move from requiring two SAT IIs (one math and one science) to making the exams optional. Now, over the last few years virtually every selective college—with the exception of a few engineering schools—has downgraded SAT from “required” to “recommended.” The fact that one more school is jumping on the bandwagon might not seem particularly noteworthy, just one incidence of the backlash against standardized testing.

Because the story involves Caltech in particular, however, it’s somewhat more interesting than it might at first appear. Not only because Caltech has traditionally been seen as a bastion of uncompromising rigor, but also because it’s difficult to see the move as separable from the school’s downward trajectory in the US News and World Report Ranking over the past 20 years, especially over the last decade. (more…)

If schools don’t care about facts, society won’t either

If schools don’t care about facts, society won’t either

A while back, a colleague recounted to me the following story: On the train to school one morning she found herself sitting next to a fellow teacher, one who taught AP® Government. They chatted about their classes and upcoming exams, and at one point her colleague began lamenting the fact that he was forced to make students learn facts like, say, the number of members in the House of Representatives. As he explained, his former students wrote to him with great enthusiasm about the political science courses they were taking in college. Why, he wondered, couldn’t he teach a course that generated that kind of excitement in students? Why couldn’t he just skip to the good stuff and focus on “real learning”?

I can’t say I was surprised by their conversation: I’m perfectly familiar with the trope of the teacher who proudly proclaims that it doesn’t matter whether students remember whatthey learned in his class—what really counts is the love of the subject and perhaps the habits of mind they acquired, not all those pesky little facts. But the incident stuck in my mind, and it also prompted me to finally try to put down some things that I’ve been trying to find a way to convey in less than a book-length post for a very, very long time now.

When I first discovered E.D. Hirsch’s work back about seven or eight years ago, I was already well acquainted with the deep-seated anti-intellectualism that runs through American society, but I did not fully grasp the extent to which facts themselves were maligned within the educational system.

Indeed, this is a trend that far, far predates the current political situation—by around a century, in fact; it’s just that its full consequences have not manifested themselves to quite the current extreme until recently. As Hirsch points out, certain nineteenth-century Romantic notions about education—ones stressing the primacy of “natural” experience and the dismissal of factual knowledge as contrary to true learning—have become so deeply embedded in the American school system that any alternative is literally inconceivable in many circles.

Somewhere along the line, the pushback against the teaching of rote, disconnected facts morphed into a conflation between rote, disconnected facts and factual knowledge itself; that morphed into a narrative in which the acquisition of factual knowledge was construed to be the opposite of “real learning”; and that (along with a healthy dose of bipartisan political pressure) in turn morphed into an insistence that facts not be taught at all.

Now typically, schools’ anti-knowledge bent is cast in terms of the desire to have students “go beyond the facts,” but in reality it often means that students come away with vague and airy notions about, say, “historical thinking” but have no idea whether the Enlightenment came before or after World War I.

In The Schools We Need (1996), Hirsch recounts his experience as a speaker at a school-administrators’ conference, during the course of which he became aware that the anti-knowledge sentiments he had commonly heard expressed by educators were not merely a tool for resisting curricular changes, but rather, as he puts it, “expressions of fundamental belief.”

As he describes:

In my first small-group session, an educator asked me what sorts of things I thought first graders should know. I mentioned…some fables of Aesop; some facts about Egypt, including mummies and the Nile; some elements of geography, like being able to find north, south, east, and west…as well as being able to identify the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and the seven continents. Immediately, one of the participants asked me if I really thought it was of any use whatever to a first grader to learn the seven continents. No one at the meeting was willing to defend the idea of teaching such facts to young children…

During the next several days, I traveled to two more IDEA campuses, where a large number of educational administrators were gathered, representing a good sampling of the thinking of school officials across the nation. On each campus, I encountered similar attitudes regarding the uselessness of factual knowledge and the undesirability of asking students to learn it. It was almost universally assumed that the teaching and learning of facts must occur in a fragmented, dry, and inhumane way, and that teaching such information as the names and shapes of the seven continents could only be accomplished by memorizing meaningless items disconnected from a child’s interest and experience.

In IDEA discussions, facts and information were invariably referred to as “mere,” in contrast to something better called “true knowledge.” In these educators’ minds, there existed a polarity between exciting, practically useful, morally beneficial teaching on the one hand and memorization of meaningless facts through dry, dull teaching on the other. At IDEA, I had entered an either-or world that had the flavor of a medieval morality play, in which good was set against evil. The possibility that factually rich and demanding learning of subject matter could, while requiring hard work, also be interesting, even captivating—not to mention morally beneficial and skill-enhancing—was not a concept that IDEA participants brought under discussion.

These hundreds of participants did not consider themselves to be enemies of knowledge, and might have thought it outrageous that anyone would so describe them. On the contrary, they thought of themselves as friends of “true knowledge” as distinct from “mere facts.”When I asked what they meant by “true knowledge,” some participants said that it consisted in knowing “the interrelations of things,” but they did not explain how things can be related without first being known. They also assumed that any really important factual knowledge is picked up automatically in the course of experience. (That it is not automatically picked up by American students is now well documented.)

What I think is so important about this passage is the way in which Hirsch spells out the way in which anti-fact discourse functions rhetorically—the set of clichés about learning and education that predominates in ed-world, establishing them not as conclusions that people arrive at through a process of careful observation and independent thought, but rather as a fixed discourse, an empty series of received ideas that continually get parroted more or less verbatim.

It is almost impossible to overstate the extent to which the attitude outlined in the last couple of paragraphs has been absorbed into the mainstream. Read almost any moderately serious (generally left-leaning) newspaper or magazine closely these days, and it is possible to observe an interesting dichotomy: on one hand, there are the continual wails about a populace that no longer pays attention to facts, (inevitably accompanied by calls for schools to teach critical thinking). At the same time, however, one cannot be help but be struck by the skeptical, if not outright derogatory, terms in which the direct transmission of factual knowledge is characterized (“rote learning”).

Take, for example, a 2017 Atlantic piece that bemoaned high school seniors’ lack of basic factual knowledge about slavery, then turned around and cited a teacher whose “straightforward” solution was to give students… primary source documents so that they could discover answers for themselves. (Exactly how many high-schoolers can navigate nineteenth-century vocabulary and syntax? Exactly how many high schoolers even do their reading assignments at all?) The implication, of course, was that if students encountered factual information in an “authentic” way, they would naturally remember it, and thus there would be no need for the teacher to teach it.

Or consider a May 2019 article by John Urschel, a Ph.D. candidate in math, which appeared on the NY Times op-ed page and epitomizes the type of rhetoric Hirsch describes:

Growing up, I thought math class was something to be endured, not enjoyed. I disliked memorizing formulas and taking tests, all for the dull goal of getting a good grade. In elementary school, my mind wandered so much during class that I sometimes didn’t respond when I was called on, and I resisted using the rote techniques we were taught to use to solve problems. One of my teachers told my mother that I was “slow” and should repeat a grade. 

But my problem wasn’t with math itself. In fact, I spent countless hours as a child doing logic and math puzzles on my own, and as a teenager, when a topic seemed particularly interesting, I would go to the library and read more about it.

And later on:

The mathematical research I was doing [in college] had little in common with what I did in my high school classrooms. Instead, it was closer to the math and logic puzzles I did on my own as a boy. It gave me that same sense of wonder and curiosity, and it rewarded creativity.

I am now a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and I have published several papers in mathematical journals. I still feel that childlike excitement every time I complete a proof.

I don’t doubt that Mr. Urschel was indeed bored in elementary-school math class—and I’ve certainly encountered classroom teachers who taught by rote, seeming not to really grasp the underpinnings of their own subjects—but the piece, entitled “Math Teachers Should be More Like Football Coaches,” is far more interesting for its rhetoric than for its actual content.

Are we seriously to believe that if math teachers—who, for the record, in American schools often arealso football coaches—simply sought to instill a sense of wonder and curiosity (“true learning”), then students would miraculously become as adept as Urschel became?

Students who are sufficiently motivated to go to the library and read about academic subjects at a high level for their own pleasure are by definition outliers; should their experiences really be used to dictate pedagogy for everyone? (Almost as a throwaway, Urschel credits his “boring” math teachers with giving him a solid enough foundation to be able to jump directly into higher-level work in college.)

But that is the worldview that outlets like the Times are more or less dedicated to propagating: if teachers would just stop with all the boring, rote facts and motivate students to just think creatively, then achievement would soar.

The problems, though, extend far beyond even that.

In his book Reading at the Speed of Sight, University of Wisconsin professor Mark Seidenberg highlights the role central role that constructivism has come to play in contemporary American education. Taken to the extreme, this is essentially the belief because people construct their own knowledge based on individual circumstances and experiences, nothing can be known for certain, and thus it is useless and even damaging for teachers to attempt to inculcate knowledge in their students:

Much of the air may have gone out of the Theory balloon at the Modern Language Association, but it remains influential in education because it complements existing beliefs about learning. The idea that children learn by being taught came to be seen as fundamentally flawed because learning is the process of constructing knowledge.

Seidenberg further cites Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, who in a 2013 Education Next article (ironically pro-Common Core and entitled, what else, “Twenty-first Century Teacher Education”) took ed schools sharply to task for their anti-knowledge stance:

Harking back perhaps to teacher education’s 19th-century ecclesiastical origins, [the mission of teacher education] has shifted away from the medical model of training doctors to professional formation. The function of teacher education is to launch the candidate on a lifelong path of learning, distinct from knowing, as actual knowledge is perceived as too fluid to be achievable.

The strength of this trend was further driven home to me during the summer of 2018 (yes, that’s how long I’ve been trying to finish this piece!), when a colleague alerted me to the existence of Teaching Channel.

For those unenlightened souls among you, the Teaching Channel is to Common Core and progressive pedagogy roughly what Pravda was to the Communist Party, or what Fox News is to the Republican Party. And lest you think this is some sort of obscure aberration, it was a central part of the online “professional development” that my colleague—a public school teacher—was required by the Department of Education to undergo.

I spent several days watching, transfixed, as teacher after teacher babbled on wide-eyed (don’t these people ever blink?) about the joys of group work, Socratic Seminar, and twenty-first century skills.

In what were effectively conversion narratives, teachers proclaimed that they had seen the light and come to understand that students should never be corrected or told that they are wrong, and that all discussions must be framed in terms of agreement and disagreement.

Once in a while, a teacher might cop to directly instructing students, but only,only—they made clear—because they had no choice but to do so for that particular lesson.

Invariably, they also made a show of their guilt, in a sort of public spectacle of self-abnegation.

I generally try to avoid hyperbole, but those videos were truly over the top—they felt like scenes from a re-education camp. I couldn’t help but think of them when I came across the following quote:

Thought reform, at least in its full expression, is a systematic project that makes extensive use of criticism, self-criticism, and confession, both in groups and individual interrogations. Its ambitious aims [are] not only to bring about change in people’s political views but in what Erik Erikson called their inner identity. 

It does not require a great act of imagination to wonder whether students who have spent 10+ years in classroom run by teachers who do not really believe in the importance of factual knowledge, and who eschew the notion that they might bear some responsibility for transmitting it to their students, might come to have some, shall we say, difficulty with it as well.

I was leafing through Natalie Wexler’s recent book, The Knowledge Gap, recently, and although little of what the author had to say was new to me, the section in which she described one Connecticut elementary school’s attempt to implement a knowledge-based (!) curriculum stopped me cold:

Lina Wolters’s school, Cannan Elementary, adopted [E.D. Hirsch’s program] Common Knowledge in 2013. The first year was the hardest, she says, with some teachers resisting the focus on facts. Even now, Wolters has to remind teachers it’s important to provide kids with what she calls “free information.”

It’s very hard for them to remember that knowing stuff makes you a better reader,” she says. And so I try to put it into those simple terms all the time: knowing stuff makes you a better reader.”

Assuming that you, reader, are a reasonable person, just stop and try to process that for a moment.

I mean, good lord, how on earth did we get here? Do people truly not grasp how utterly, profoundly, outrageously disturbing a statement that is? How could a situation like this even be allowed to develop? I mean, I understand on an intellectual level—I’ve read enough about the history of education in the United States —but still. Seeing it spelled out so bluntly was kind of shocking.

The more I learn about reading pedagogy in the early grades, the earlier I realize this mindset permeates the classroom from students’ earliest days in school. How else to explain the ideological rejection of the fact (not the opinion!) that letters stand for sounds, and that decoding is literally a process of matching one to the other?

How else to explain the notion that children should be encouraged to just plug in words that fit the narrative, regardless of what is actually written on the page? Students taught like this are essentially trained to ignore reality—in a sense, to believe that reality is irrelevant, only what they happen to think— from a very young age.

This is, incidentally, in part why I’ve become so fascinated by the reading wars: they seem to me a symptom of a much deeper cultural instability, one that I’m still struggling to grasp.

Now, there is obviously nothing wrong with pondering the nature of reality as a philosophical exercise—people have done so for millennia. But it is one thing to consider the limits and distortions of human perception intellectually, and another to actually attempt to live as if reality itself were suspect(red pill! red pill!).

In order to function in the world, people must put aside this kind of extreme disbelief and accept that there can be some basis for common experience.

When people stop accepting this—or are manipulated into believing that such thing is impossible—then society itself breaks down.

Let me return to Hirsch, who wrote prophetically in The Knowledge Deficit:

The very fabric of our peaceable and unified democracy is at risk when we do not know how to communicate with each other…A content-neutral, skills-oriented education concept of education has the unintended effect of…diminishing the shared content we need for communication and solidarity within the nation as a whole…People who cannot communicate with one another do not trust one another. They do not feel a sense of responsibility to the larger community. Such conflict is inevitable in a big, diverse country. But some of the polarization has less to do with ideology than which the inherent suspicion and lack of solidarity among people who fail to share a common basis of knowledge—a commonality of discourse that alone enables shared allusions and mutual comprehension.

If the situation is at all to be remedied, teachers must believe—really, truly believe, not just give lip service to—that facts themselves are important. They are not “mere facts,” they do not just represent “rote learning”; rather, they are the basis for a functional society. And teaching them to students is in no way at odds with instilling a healthy sense of skepticism or the ability to assess arguments critically. The alternative is a situation in which people continually talk past each other, or else conversations devolve into nonsense.

That is not to deny the existence of a gray area, where the lines between “x happened” and “how x is interpreted” can and does get blurred (sometimes in good faith, sometimes in bad); nor is it to deny the sheer superabundance of information floating around on the Internet; nor is it to deny that Americans come from an extraordinary range of backgrounds and have many different cultural heritages. However, to use these objections as an excuse to insist that schools should avoid the teaching of factual knowledge is a pathetic cop out.

It is impossible to know when someone is uttering blatant falsehoods unless you first know what the truth is—unless you think that there is such thing as truth. (As Hannah Arendt famously said of citizens who cannot believe anything, “With such a people, you can do what you please.” Or, as someone less eloquent put it, “It’s possible to be so open-minded your brain falls out.”)

And contrary to popular belief, there is no magical set of critical thinking strategies that will permit people to recognize nonsense when their knowledge base is ludicrously insufficient.

Indeed, if students’ main takeaway from school is that facts really don’t matter that much after all; that everything is just a matter of interpretation; that every question is open ended; and that there is no such thing as true or false, right or wrong, then it should surprise no one when society comes to disregard them as well.

A question for readers regarding the revised AP English Lang/Comp exam

A question for readers regarding the revised AP English Lang/Comp exam

Just wondering if anyone out there might know the answer to this.

From what I can glean from documentsl released by the College Board as well as various online discussions, the 2020 AP Lang/Comp test will be removing two kinds of multiple-choice questions: vocabulary in context, and something referred to as “identification.”

I cannot, however, seem to find out precisely what “identification” refers to.

My best guess is that it involves identification of rhetorical devices, but I can’t exactly remove a chapter from my AP Lang/Comp book unless I’m totally sure that the material is no longer tested!

Any AP English teachers out there (or people who know AP English teachers) who might be able to shed some light on this? I’d like to get the updated book out sooner rather than later.


Explanations to old-edition SAT/ACT grammar books are now available

Explanations to old-edition SAT/ACT grammar books are now available

Complete explanations for the end-of-chapter exercises in The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, Fifth Edition and The Complete Guide to ACT English, Third Edition, are now available online via the Books page for $4.95 each.

Click here to purchase explanations for the SAT book.

Click here to purchase explanations for the ACT book.

Please note that to access the explanations, you must return to the main item page and follow the link provided.

If you purchased one of the new editions (SAT grammar, 5th ed., ACT English, 4th ed.), this does NOT apply to you; explanations are included in the books themselves.

It’s hard to solve problems that people don’t know exist (more three-cueing)

It’s hard to solve problems that people don’t know exist (more three-cueing)

Update, 11/20: I realized after I posted this piece that the problem I discuss in this post—namely, that most people don’t know what the three-cueing system is—ironically made the piece hard to follow. So if you’re unfamiliar with three-cueing and want the full background, see this post first.

If you want the short version, it’s this: basically, the three-cueing system is derived from the observation that skilled use a variety of “clues,” including spelling, syntax, background knowledge, to draw meaning from texts. Over time, that idea became profoundly distorted into the notion that children should be discouraged from using all the letters in a word to determine what it literally says, and should instead look at only the first/last letters, along with other contextual clues—usually pictures—to identify it. I’m simplifying here, but that’s the gist.

Original Post

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague of mine attended a mandatory development workshop for AP French teachers. During a discussion of the previous year’s main essay, she learned that the average score had been exceptionally low—a 1, in fact—because so many students had confused the main verb in the prompt, s’habiller (to get dressed), with habiter (to live in or inhabit).

Now, the s’ at the beginning of the former signals a reflexive verb (in French, one literally dresses oneself), whereas habiter can never be reflexive—from a logical perspective, one cannot live in oneself, and so this construction makes no sense. (Note to anyone new to this blog: I have a college degree in French and started out tutoring that language; the English thing happened more or less by accident.)

Nevertheless, an enormous number of French AP exam-takers failed to notice either these very important linguistic clues (despite the fact that students at this level should theoretically be able to recognize reflexive constructions easily) or their commonsense implications.

Beyond that, s’habiller and habiter are such incredibly common verbs that that a student sitting for the AP exam should obviously know the difference between them.

So why did so many students mix them up?   (more…)

Regarding the 2020 AP English Lang/Comp test (yes, I will be updating my book)

Regarding the 2020 AP English Lang/Comp test (yes, I will be updating my book)

I’ve received a couple of inquiries about the updated AP English Lang/Comp exam, so I’m putting this out there now: yes, I am aware that the test is being updated for 2020, and yes, I will be revising my guide for that exam. I’m aiming to get it out by around February 2020.

In the meantime, if you are self-studying for the exam and absolutely cannot live without a book now, you can use a combination of the current AP Lang/Comp book and either The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, fourth or fifth edition OR The Complete Guide to ACT English.

The major change to the AP exam involves the introduction of SAT/ACT-style writing passages, and from the document released by the College Board, it appears that there will be a heavy focus on “is this sentence relevant?” questions. These are discussed in great detail in the grammar books. 

For practice, you can do SAT/ACT Writing passages, with a focus on the rhetoric questions. If you’re already comfortable with them, you probably won’t need to do too much more to prep.

If that’s not enough for you, I would also recommend getting the old (pre-2016) SAT official guide and doing the Fixing Paragraphs questions; since the AP exam (unlike the current SAT) will presumably continue to be written by ETS, it’s reasonable to assume the content will be extremely similar.

Although the essay-scoring rubric will be changed, the essays themselves will remain the same. If you’re a sold writer, you don’t need to worry.

The bottom line is that there’s plenty of material out there that will be directly relevant to the updated exam, even if it doesn’t have “AP English Language and Composition, 2020” stamped on it.

And finally, I feel obligated to point out that if anything, the new version of the test will if anything be easier than the old. The reading passages will be shorter and have fewer questions, and the writing passages will be written at a considerably lower level than any of the multiple-choice passages on the current exam. If the College Board wants to continue to “expand access” to the AP program—and collect even more of those $94/exam fees it’s now insisting that students pony up in October—it needs to ensure that pass rates don’t dip too low.

Follow the money, baby. Follow the money.

Picture power!

Lest anyone should have read my last few posts and concluded that my depiction of the state of American reading instruction was exaggerated in some way, I direct you to the video below. If you’ve ever wondered why so many children struggle, this pretty much says it all; you basically get to watch reading problems being created in real time.

Notice that a couple of times, children attempt to use the letters sound out words, but the teacher reminds them to focus on the pictures instead. The clear message is that sounding out words is a strategy to be avoided.

The only times she acknowledges that letters have something to do with how the words are said is when she tells children to look at the first and last letters in conjunction with the pictures; the fact that the sounds in the middle of a word also play a role in how it is said is not mentioned, ever.

This is pure three-cueing: if teachers are taught that reading is a “psycholinguistic guessing game,” then they will in turn make reading into an actual guessing game.

I have to wonder: do the children understand that the words don’t say what they say because of what the pictures show? That is, do they grasp that if you took the pictures away, or changed the pictures, the words underneath would still say the same thing? I’d bet that at least some of them would struggle with that idea.

At any rate, it isn’t hard to imagine what will happen to kids taught like this when the pictures are taken away.

And remember: this type of teaching is being held up an an example.

How can it even be allowed?


Why won’t students look at the text? Blame the three-cueing system

Why won’t students look at the text? Blame the three-cueing system

Of all the difficulties involved in tutoring SAT reading, the one that perplexed me the most was the inordinate difficulty certain students seemed to have in grasping the notion that the answers to the questions were *in the passage,* as opposed to in their head or somewhere on the other side of the room. As I wrote about in a fit of irritation many years ago, not long after I started this blog, it literally did not seem to occur to them to look back at the text, and I could not figure out how to get them to do otherwise.

That many tutoring programs treated the location of the answers as some kind of amazing secret baffled me even more. Where other than in the passage would the answer be? How was it possible that so many students seemed to struggle not just with understanding what various texts said, but with the idea that answers to reading questions were based on the specific words they contained? How could such absolutely fundamental notions of reading be so lacking that they could actually be packaged as tricks? (more…)

10 Tips for New Tutors

10 Tips for New Tutors


1) Teach real lessons; don’t just go over practice tests

Yes, the amount of time you can spend just teaching material is obviously subject to time constraints; and yes, there is a small subset of mostly high-achieving students who just need to take practice tests and go over what they missed. However, virtually all students in the low-middle score ranges are missing specific pieces of knowledge, and getting taught the material while working through actual questions that involve additional, potentially unfamiliar pieces of knowledge, is often overly taxing for their working memories—there are just too many pieces to juggle. Unless you are very pressed for time, use the student’s diagnostic to figure out what they actually need to learn, and spend some time just teaching it to them before gradually relating it to the test. Repeat for as many concepts as necessary, gradually moving to full-length sections and then tests as students become comfortably with the material.


Update: new SAT books are now available

Update: new SAT books are now available

Announcement: the new editions of The Critical Reader (4th ed.) and The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar (5th ed.) are now available. Please note that orders placed through will have longer-than-usual shipping times (expect approximately 5-7 days for delivery) for the next couple of weeks, until the new editions are stocked at our storage/shipping facility.

If you need the books urgently in the meantime, please order from Amazon: the reading book can be found here, and the grammar book here. (As of 9/20, the books do not appear to be consistently appearing at the top of Amazon searches even when the exact titles are entered, so we recommend that you use the links provided here to navigate to them.)

The ACT English book is now projected to be released by the end of next week (by 9/27). Unfortunately, there have been some delays involving the cover and proof shipping, and the book cannot be released until physical proofs have been checked.

To reiterate: if you are a student or parent who has recently purchased the current editions, you do not need to purchase the new ones as well. Tutors/companies may find it helpful to keep the updated editions on hand, however.

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).


Update: new SAT books are now available

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…)