How to Help Juniors on the ACT Writing

As an ACT tutor, I hate hearing students, teachers, or parents say any of the following about an ACT or SAT essay:
  • She's a good writer. She'll be fine.
  • They write essays all the time.
  • Yeah, I'm taking the writing test. It's just an essay, no big deal.
  • Oh, the essay section changed in 2016? Didn't know that. How different is it?

The problem is, the ACT's writing section is different enough from the writing normally done at school that I see a lot of students underperform in a way that is completely preventable. Typically "good" writers are getting scores of 6 or 8 (out of 12), when they should be getting more competitive numbers.

While it's not necessarily an 11th grade English teacher's "job" to do ACT/SAT prep or to "teach to the test", there's a problematic reality that if teachers don't get involved a little, most students won't get this knowledge and/or skills anywhere else. 

And that, my teacher friend, is worrisome.

So what's going on, and what are the easiest steps an English teacher can take to help juniors be more ready?

Here are the biggest culprits:

1. The timing is more intense than school.

It's 30 minutes total, including reading the prompt and the entire brainstorm, draft, and proofread process. That task can be daunting if students get writer's block, have test anxiety, don't understand the prompt in the heat of the moment, or struggle to wrestle their ideas into submission.

If your students haven't done timed writing in a while, are accustomed to 45 minutes, or aren't proficient at it, then they'll need help to cope. Check out my timed writing unit to help students get practice completing a cohesive draft in less time. 

2. Students don't know the (new) rubric.

When the ACT changed the writing test in 2016, the prompt style AND the rubric both changed. The assessment is no longer just a typical 5-paragraph (or so) opinion essay. Students are supposed to also:
  • acknowledge, support, or refute other viewpoints
  • provide some combination of context, implications, significance, etc.
  • recognize flaws in logic or assumptions made in a viewpoint, using it to their advantage if necessary
  • (still write a cohesive essay with a thesis and a variety of evidence, as before)

... all in 30 minutes or less. English teachers can help by at least going over the rubric in class, if not assigning an ACT-style essay that gets assessed as part of the class.

3. The linguistic bar is high.

In addition to the content characteristics described in #2, students are supposed to have decent grammar, varied sentence structures for good flow, transitions within and between paragraphs, and really great fiction or synonyms.

English teachers: if your writing rubrics or grading style don't typically address these, consider bringing it up in class, assessing for these characteristics on the next essay, or reading over a mentor text that DOES meet this bar (see #4).

4. They need to see examples.

I highly recommend that students go to this link to not only read a sample 6/6 essay, but compare it to a 4 or 5 essay to notice its differences. 

When I teach my ACT writing lessons, I do a compare/contrast activity for this reason. The stakes are high enough that it's worth going over a mentor text to see what the expectations are and debunk the idea that it's impossible to complete.

The Bottom Line

I've been tutoring the ACT long enough to recognize the differences between the old and new versions, and even without "teaching to the test", there are easy steps educators can take to help juniors stay at or above the national average and achieve their college dreams. Using even some of these tips will help students be a little more ready on test day, and a lot more grateful that they had you as a teacher.

What else should be said about the ACT's Writing section? Tell me in the comments!

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