When tutoring SAT English you should refrain from these pitfalls…

While there are many factors to consider when choosing a tutor, there are a handful of warning signs that should cause you to run in the opposite direction. As a “second-round” tutor whose students often worked with one or more tutors before me, I had ample opportunity to learn about all manners of ineffective teaching.

I’d like to cover one of the biggest red flags here.

So, the number one thing that an SAT or ACT tutor should NOT say when teaching grammar is (drumroll, please)… “Just use your ear.”

(Or: “Just try to hear if it sounds right.” Or, when commas are involved: “Does it feel like you need a pause there?” Or any equivalent statement.)

For the record, there is an exception: idiom questions must be answered by ear because there is no other way to answer them.

But as a general rule, anyone who encourages students to rely on their ears at the expense of actually learning the grammatical rules tested is not qualified to be tutoring these tests, or at least the English/Writing sections.

First, that statement is based on the assumption that students are capable of identifying correct answers by ear — but if that were the case, those students probably wouldn’t need tutoring in the first place!

Second, although English is obviously more subjective than math, the reality is that standardized test grammar is closer to the latter than it is to the former. The SAT and the ACT cover a specific set of grammatical concepts, which are consistently tested in more or less the same format. Some of these concepts may be more flexible in real life, but these tests are not concerned with real-world exceptions and nuances.

The exact context in which concepts are presented will of course change, and concepts might be combined in slightly novel ways, but for the most part, things are quite straightforward. If you’ve assimilated the rules thoroughly and understand how to apply them, you get the questions right; if you haven’t, you don’t.

Commas, for example, are correctly used in three primary instances: before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or but) to join two independent clauses; to set off non-essential clauses that can be removed from a sentence without affecting its essential meaning; and between the items in a list.

Sometimes, it may seem natural to insert a pause in these situations, but that is ultimately irrelevant. The issue is not whether a pause make sense, but whether a comma is grammatically required.

Even students who are exceptionally well-read and who can rely on their ears in most situations can almost always benefit from studying the logic behind questions they understand intuitively.

It is exceedingly unlikely that any tutor would ever encourage a student to think of answers to math questions in terms of whether they seemed natural (“Does five feel like a right answer to you?”), yet this attitude is surprisingly common when grammar is concerned.

Part of the problem is that tutors who are natural high-scorers may themselves not be fully aware of why right answers are right and wrong answers are wrong; people who are able to successfully rely on their ears are often unaware of just how much understanding they take for granted.

Regardless of the reason, this approach is also extraordinarily unhelpful and likely to result in considerable frustration, scores that improve only marginally if at all, and possibly months (and months) of wasted time and money.


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