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Teaching Strategies to Prepare for the SAT Essay

Jacqui Murray

Seven million students took the SAT test last year. While it traditionally is an assessment tool for college-bound seniors, more and more high schools are choosing it as an exit exam for graduating seniors (such as these changes in Ohio and the State of Washington). Driven in part by the educational imperative to minimize student testing, what’s a better solution than a test already heavily vetted as being inclusive and cross-cultural that many students are familiar with? In this article, I'll focus on teaching strategies to prepare for the SAT essay portion. General preparation teaching strategies include:

  • Practice good writing with every school essay students write.
  • Use academic-specific vocabulary whenever possible.
  • Take practice tests.
  • Read a lot -- and let that inform your writing.

Here are three different teaching strategies to prepare for the essay portion:

  • Khan Academy -- work on the students' unique writing problems experienced in their PSAT or earlier SATs.
  • Revision Assistant -- practice writing over a long term and receive targeted feedback to improve skill.
  • Mindsnacks SAT vocabulary -- develop depth in academic vocabulary that improves not only student writing but their understanding of what they're reading.

Teaching Strategies: Khan Academy SAT Reading and Writing Practice

Free, web-based or mobile device

In a partnership with the College Board, Khan Academy offers free personalized SAT practice. This includes more than 50 short videos (each between two and 22 minutes) on different aspects of writing, including narrative and argumentative style, modifiers, verb tense and mood, pronouns, noun agreements, frequently confused words, and more. Students can dig deeper into challenging writing concepts and ask questions in the forums. When ready, students take one or more of six full-length practice exams that include the optional essay – two of which are automatically scored using Turnitin's Scoring Engine.

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Khan Academy can also access prior student SAT and PSAT scores (with student permission), find the weak areas, and create a personalized plan for addressing those. If students haven't yet taken the PSAT/SAT, KA will put them through a detailed assessment, rank their skills, and then provide videos and exercise to drill the weakest subjects. As their mastery increases, so too does the difficulty level. As with many Khan Academy programs, this one is student-directed, student-driven, scalable to varied needs, and easily differentiated for student learning style.

Turnitin Revision Assistant

Education account, desktop or mobile device

Though Khan Academy will prepare students for the SAT essay, it requires considerable self-discipline by the teenager to sit down, do the drills, work out the problems, and complete multiple practice tests. For many, it's better to prepare year-round by practicing good writing and then use Khan Academy as a final step. This repetitive practice is best delivered in partnership with classroom teachers.

What better tool than the one Khan Academy uses to score their writing exercises: Turnitin's Revision Assistant. Here's how it works:

  • The teacher shares out a grade- or topic-specific prompt (chosen from three categories: Argumentative, narrative, and informative, and aligned with Common Core, SAT, ACT, or a variety of other state standards) through the program dashboard. They can include additional resources, comments, and/or a rubric that highlights the writing skills being addressed with this exercise.
  • Students find the prompt in their student dashboard and complete the essay.
  • As they work, Revision Assistant provides focused feedback on student writing.
  • When students complete the assignment, they submit it to the teacher (with an optional comment).
  • The teacher reviews and grades it as fits the class environment (Revision Assistant does not assign a grade).
  • The teacher can track each student submittal and download a spreadsheet of area-specific progress for the class.

Revision Assistant has an intuitive interface, a clean, non-cluttered canvas, easy-to-use dashboards for both teachers and students, and no advertising. The learning curve is shallow for both teachers and students -- and easily accomplished with minimal guidance, though Turnitin offers a variety of instructional videos to cover salient points. The goal is to aid students in recognizing their weaknesses and build on their strengths.

Revision Assistant can be a stand-alone authentic essay writing practice program or used as part of a multilayered effort, in conjunction with Khan Academy and the third option below, Mindsnacks SAT Vocabulary.

Mindsnacks SAT Vocabulary

Freemium, iOS

A big part of succeeding on the SAT essay is knowing how to use the right word and when it is best-suited for the conversation. With the Mindsnacks app for SAT vocabulary, students learn the spelling, pronunciation, definitions, synonyms, and antonyms of SAT-level words. With nine games, 25 lessons, and 500 words (in the full version), students want to learn despite the sophistication of words like obsequious and compunction. A unique algorithm adapts to individual performance, selectively repeating material from the word lists that the student struggled with in past lessons. Learning is delivered via popular gaming tools such as playful characters, bright canvases, and positive reinforcement. High scores can be shared in the optional Game Center social network.  The student dashboard shows what lesson they are currently playing, how many words they have mastered, and the number of lessons finished.

Common Sense Media gives Mindsnacks SAT Vocabulary a 4/5 star rating, saying, "Variety is key in charmingly effective SAT vocab app." I agree. This is a fun and effective app for learning critical SAT vocabulary.

***

If you're looking for sites to prepare for all portions of the SAT, here are good options:

  1. PWM Essay Test Prep -- a good collection of questions and prep resources, some free, some fee.
  2. College Board -- includes free full-length SAT practice tests.
  3. Prep Factory -- a free tool for preparation.
  4. Quizlet -- hundreds of free SAT vocabulary prep flashcards.
  5. StudyBlue – More than 500 free study resources that cover SAT prep.
  6. Veritas Prep -- free and fee tips, videos and more.

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of more than 100 ed-tech resources, including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in ed-tech, CSG Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on ed-tech topics, and a frequent contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.