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Gerald Bradshaw

Gerald Bradshaw

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Updated: November 19, 2013 6:14AM

Dear Mr. Bradshaw

I am the father of a 12-year-old boy who will be graduating from high school in six years. So far his academic record is rather average.

I would like your advice about how to motivate him and enhance his chances of being admitted to a top college.

Moreover, I would like to know how soon we should start working to improve his student profile.

Signed: Parent

Dear Parent,

You are right to start thinking about preparation for college while he still has the opportunity to shape his academic future. Seventh- and eighth-grade are platform years. They prepare students for the all-important ninth-grade. I will recommend what I believe is the best program he should follow for the next two years.

Critical reading and writing are two of the most challenging subjects he will face as he prepares for college. The key to success is learning how to understand what you read and how to transfer that information into understandable English. Building a large vocabulary is an important part of this.

Earning good grades in high school and scoring well on the SAT and ACT are the two most important measures that colleges use in admitting students.

Here is an example of how I tutor students to improve their critical reading and writing skills. I use the Official SAT Study Guide as my workbook. The ACT test has a similar workbook if that is the test used by your school system.

Here is one of hundreds of sample questions on sentence completion that I use to tutor critical reading, writing and building a vocabulary:

“A discerning publishing agent can _____ promising material from a mass of submissions, separating the good from the bad. Answer: (A) supplant (B) dramatize (C) finagle (D) winnow (E) overhaul.” The answer is (D) winnow. Most students miss the right answer and instead choose (B) dramatize, because it is commonly used in everyday communication. The word winnow is rarely used in ordinary conversation.

First of all, I recommend that students underline each word they are unsure of when they read the question. The word ‘discerning’ is missed by many of seventh- and eighth-graders, as are the words supplant and finagle.

Next, even if the student selects the right answer I go over each word in the statement that I suspect they are not positively sure of and have them look up the definition in a talking, online dictionary. Hearing the correct pronunciation is helpful for retention.

Next, I have the student write a sentence using the new word. I have them copy-and-paste the dictionary definition of the word and the sentence to a vocabulary list on their computer. Rather than trying to memorize infrequently used words (or a long list of words), I find the act of writing them in a sentence helps retention and improves their vocabulary. For additional retention I challenge then to use all of the unknown words in a short story.

“The discerning teacher supplanted the test and overhauled it with another one to dramatize her willingness to finagle the class into writing better essays. She was looking for the best way to winnow the top essays from her pile of papers.”

Then I have the student rewrite the statement in his or her own words so I know that he or she understands the meaning. “A discerning publisher can separate the good from the bad submissions.”

I have often spent an hour going over a single question on the Critical Read portion of the SAT. It requires the student to communicate with me, and not just regurgitate the right answer. Parents can try this one and see how difficult it is to get all the words correct.

“Despite its apparent _______, much of early Greek philosophical thought was actually marked by a kind of unconscious dogmatism that led to ______ assertions. Answer: (A) liberality...doctrinaire (B) independence...autonomous (C) intransigence…authoritative (D) fundamentalism...arrogant (E) legitimacy...ambiguous.

Using these test questions as a study tool is a great way to interact with students and improve their vocabulary and writing skills.

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