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Sun, Oct. 20

Writing skills are critical for success

If your child hopes to attend college, you need to be sure he or she has the "write stuff" for success on the SAT or ACT, both of which now include a writing section.

The section is a mandatory component of the SAT, which requires students to answer multiple choice questions in 35 minutes and write a persuasive essay in 25 minutes. The writing section is optional on the ACT because not every higher education institution requires a writing test, and because the ACT also measures a student's writing ability on its English test.

The multiple choice questions on the SAT measure a student's ability to improve sentences and paragraphs and identify errors in diction, grammar, sentence construction and subject-verb agreement. Students must also express their knowledge of a wide vocabulary and their ability to cut excess wordiness from passages. On the essay portion, they're required to develop and support a main argument or point of view with ideas that are well-organized and clearly expressed. Students earn a score of between 200 and 800 points on this section of the SAT.

In the writing section of the ACT, the test taker is presented with two sides to an issue. Students are then asked to take a position on the issue - either one of those presented or one of their own. Students must then present a well-reasoned argument in a short essay in support of that issue.

Students' scores are based on their ability to express their judgments clearly, with logical reasoning and supporting points. The ACT writing test is scored on a level of one to six, and students receive individualized feedback from the essay graders as part of their score.

So how do you help your child prepare for success on these tests? Here are some tips:

• Build expertise in the five-paragraph essay. The five-paragraph essay is frequently used as a model for strengthening students' abilities to write persuasively and clearly to support a point of view. The first paragraph should state the key argument, with the next three paragraphs (or sentences) providing supporting evidence for that point of view, and the last paragraph summarizing the key point and supporting evidence.

• Encourage writing to express feelings. Keeping a diary or journal can be a very effective way to strengthen writing skills. Writing about personal feelings, successes and disappointments can also help students resolve conflicts.

• Develop a broad vocabulary. Knowing the meanings of many words and being able to use them effectively will be useful on both the multiple choice and essay sections of these tests. The best way to develop a broad vocabulary is to read extensively from pre-school onward.

• Reinforce the role of writing and learning. As students reach middle and secondary school, homework assignments tend to require more reading and analyzing. After reading a chapter or an important section of an assignment, students should create a "notes page" summarizing the key facts and restating, in their own words, the most important points to remember. This process enhances retention and strengthens writing skills as well.

Dr. Raymond J. Huntington and Eileen Huntington are co-founders of Huntington Learning Center, which has been helping children succeed for more than 30 years.

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