Teaching timed writing: Beyond the SAT
In 2005, the College Board added an essay portion to the SAT, causing panic among parents and students alike. Writing, an admitted weakness among many homeschooling families, had become a required element of this benchmark college entrance exam.
The SAT essay has come under fire in recent years. It seems scorers were more concerned with how students developed their points than whether those arguments were developed logically—or even truthfully. So as of 2016, the SAT essay is not only revised, it is now optional.
Does this mean you can breathe a sigh of relief and set timed writing aside? Absolutely not. For even though timed essays seem synonymous with college entrance exams, there is actually a more valid reason for teaching timed writing during your teens’ high school years: college itself.
College-bound students have the most to gain from learning to write timed essays. Most courses will require timed writing of various lengths for tests, midterms, and finals. Exams can be scary! But if you’ve prepared your students well and given them lots of experience practicing against the clock, the process will become more intuitive and they’ll be able to tackle timed essays with courage.
Begin with Basic Essay Skills
High schoolers need to know how to plan, organize, and write a solid essay. Before you dip your toes in the waters of timed writing, spend plenty of time teaching general essay skills. Start with a widely accepted model: introduction, body (developing three main points), and conclusion. Once students feel comfortable developing a simple essay and supporting each point with details, they’ll have more confidence to write timed essays.
Teach these essay-writing basics, which apply to both timed and untimed writing:
- Understand what the prompt is asking. Read it carefully and highlight key words.
- Choose your position.
- Write an outline.
- Write a thesis statement that makes your claim.
- Stay on topic. Back up claims with evidence and examples.
- Write concisely. Avoid repeating yourself.
- Use good grammar and punctuation.
- Review and revise.
Essay Prompts and Key Words
Students should feel comfortable arguing, explaining, or analyzing a point. So along with teaching basic essay structure, introduce different kinds of essays. This prepares them to respond to a variety of prompts.
Essay questions include “key words” that give clues about the kind of writing that’s expected. Here are three common essay types and sample key words to watch for:
- Argumentative essays defend a position on a topic. Key words include justify, prove, agree or disagree, argue for or against, should you or should you not, why or why not.
- Expository essays inform or explain. Key words include define, describe, demonstrate, tell how, illustrate, explain, outline the steps needed, compare or contrast, distinguish between, show cause and effect.
- Analytical essays examine information or literature. (The new SAT essays are analytical.) Key words include interpret, examine, evaluate, give reasons, propose a solution, discuss strengths and weaknesses.
Timed writing can make students feel rushed. If in their haste they misread key words, they may not answer the prompt correctly—which will seriously impact their grade.
While the new SAT essay provides students with informational passages to read, an in-class timed essay will require them to know the material in advance. If using a textbook for history, literature, or science, look for essay questions at the end of each chapter. You can also come up with your own. Any subject you’re studying can offer an excellent launching place for an interesting essay—timed or untimed.
When developing your own questions, incorporate some of the key words mentioned earlier to stimulate critical thinking. For example:
- Argumentative: Do you agree or disagree that the New Deal was successful in solving the major problems of the Great Depression?
- Expository: Explain how photosynthesis happens. Or, what steps can be taken to restore citizens’ confidence in the political process? Who should legislate these steps?
- Analytical: What were the positive and negative outcomes of British colonialism in India?
Sometimes professors will include several essay questions to choose from. You can try this too! Giving choices frees your teen to write about the topic he feels most prepared for, making the practice session less stressful. Here are two possible prompts that could follow an ocean study:
- Argumentative: Should the United States support the protection of coral reefs by developing artificial reefs to replace those that are in decline? Why or why not?
- Expository: Discuss the causes and effects of marine pollution.
Prepare for Timed Writing
Once students can identify key words and develop and polish essays in a pressure-free setting, they are ready to begin writing against the clock. During this training period, your goal is to build confidence, familiarity, and ease through regular practice. Give plenty of grace!
Topic-specific timed essays require advance preparation. Share these tips with students:
- Don’t procrastinate. Take time to study, review notes, and skim key passages.
- Memorize important names, dates, and facts. The more details you tuck away, the easier it will be to solidly support your arguments.
- If an exam is “open book,” you still need to study so you don’t lose time on test day. Make note cards with page numbers and quotes. Bookmark pages. Use a highlighter or sticky notes to mark key passages.
To give hands-on experience, assign subject-related timed writing at least twice a month. Use these early timed essays to walk your teen through an essay and teach him to pace himself. Demonstrate how to break the process down, allowing a certain number of minutes for planning, writing, and proofreading.
- 3-5 minutes to brainstorm, outline, write the thesis
- 15-17 minutes to write the essay
- 5 minutes to proofread
- 10 minutes to brainstorm, outline, write the thesis
- 30-35 minutes to write the essay
- 5-10 minutes to proofread
Remember when your child learned to ride a bike? He started with training wheels. Then you supported and ran behind the bike until he could pedal down the street unaided.
Teaching timed writing is a lot like this. In the beginning, expect to give lots of help through prompting (“You have 10 minutes to plan. Go!”); a note card that breaks down the time for each step; and a clock. After a number of practice essays, remove supports one by one till your teen can pace himself by the clock alone.
Don’t put off teaching this important skill. Train your high schoolers in time management, planning, writing, and reviewing. Before you know it, they’ll be ready to face whatever essay tests come their way.
Copyright, 2016. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, 2016 Print Annual. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.