kitchen table math, the sequel: SATVerbalTutor on the SAT and phonics

Thursday, March 15, 2012

SATVerbalTutor on the SAT and phonics

One of the things I've begun to notice recently is that I can generally distinguish between kids who were taught to read using a whole language approach and those taught to read using phonics. Almost invariably, the kids who were taught using whole language have considerably more difficult breaking words apart and examining their component parts. I tend to see this much more prominently when I tutor French or Italian -- often a student will read the first couple of letters in a word and then simply guess what the rest of it says, which is an absolute disaster in French -- but I see it when I tutor the SAT as well, albeit in a more roundabout way.

For example, one Blue Book sentence completion contains the the answer choice "deferential," which is a word that most of my students are unfamiliar with. What's interesting, though, is how they react to it. Usually I ask them if they can relate it to a word they know, and typically they can't think of anything, but recently one of my students said that it looked like "different." That one threw me a little. On one hand, my student was absolutely right: "defer" and "differ" do sound similar. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with one another. And that, in turn, made me wonder about the whole idea of asking students to relate unfamiliar words to words they already know. The underlying assumption of that strategy is that students already know what parts of words they should and should not focus on, that they can distinguish between "sounds similar" and "related in meaning." And that assumption, as I've discovered, is not necessarily a valid one.
The SAT and Phonics


ChemProf said...

I saw this just the other day. A student came to me and said she didn't understand a question. As we talked it became clear she was reading "insensitive" as "intensity," because another part of the problem talked about intensity. Context clues! I found myself telling her to make sure she was reading all the letters in the word...

Anonymous said...

Yes! I just had a student who is doing well in school, but having difficulty with the SAT. Unfortunately in 8-12 weeks of test prep, it's hard to remediate something that you realize isn't just "going too quickly" or "made nervous by the SAT and tutoring."

It affects math scores too, since reading the math questions is also a study in attention to detail.

I know there are local classes for K-11 summer reading skills improvement workshops, but not sure which would be best for someone like this. It seems like it would be a really good pre-senior year and college thing to do.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

I see things like this constantly: kid is an "A" student -- and the parent makes a point of telling me how many advanced classes they're taking -- but turns out to have significant reading deficiencies. It puts you in an impossible situation: the parents have been hearing for years that the SAT is just about tricks and will basically fire you if you tell them the truth because of course their little darling is a fantastic student who "just isn't a good test-taker," but on the other hand, the kid really needs help and risks getting into trouble sooner or later if they don't get it. No one wants to see that consistently low score = skills lacking somewhere.

I've been doing test-prep for about five years, and I just recently got my first student whose test anxiety is so severe that her scores actually don't reflect what she's capable of. Everyone else... they just didn't have the skills.