Jill’s Gems: Timed Essay Writing

Jul 24, 2017 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team


It’s the height of summer. Summertime conjures thoughts of lazy days spent escaping the heat in the community swimming pool, binge reading a favorite book series in the icy cold air conditioning of the local library, and the tinkling music of the approaching ice cream truck as it cruises the neighborhood.

One thought that may not immediately come to mind, though, is the reality that many students who are approaching SAT and ACT testing are also spending the summer polishing up their timed essay writing skills. Beyond these tests, why is it beneficial to practice this skill? Jill Pike, IEW Accomplished Instructor and author, recently answered this question in a forum post. Here is her response:

A timed writing exam is a thinking test, not a writing test. The old SAT timed essay was an argumentative prompt. Students got twenty-five minutes to respond to a question that could be answered with a yes or a no.

This structure reminds me of the impromptu section of speech and debate. In that competition, students get two minutes to prepare a five minute speech about whatever topic they are assigned. It might be a word, a phrase, or a question. Since it takes about twenty minutes to write down enough words to say in five minutes, this timed essay is an impromptu response in written form.

It is also a useful tool for professors because it gives them a good picture of how well a student understands a subject. In writing their response to the prompt, students have to answer quickly and off the top of their head. It is measuring how well they can think about the subject.

It does take practice. To prepare for an impromptu writing prompt, students need to practice on a plethora of prompts. It is helpful if they work with a mentor that can model the brainstorming necessary to come up with ideas to discuss.

Thus, I think it is invaluable for students to practice timed essays for the purpose of honing thinking skills. It can be done at the dinner table as you have a lively discussion about a specified topic. It can happen in a co-op class, too.

The goal isn't a polished speech, but complete sentences and clear thoughts are expected. In the same way, this essay form isn't a polished essay, but the mechanics of grammar and spelling should be pretty strong. If they aren’t, it’s clear the student is not practiced in writing.

That is the key: PRACTICE.

The art of in-depth, thoughtful discussions is fading, and the ability to write in complete sentences at length instead of a quick text is also at risk. In some ways I am glad that the old SAT essay revived the need to practice thinking and writing skills.

The new SAT essay is now literary analysis. In some ways it is easier than the old because the source material is provided—all the student has to do is analyze it. That too is a learned skill and one worth practicing. With all the fake news out there, practice the SAT prompt on any article or newscast you see!

Summertime is a great time to work with your high school students on their timed writing skills. Check out the recently updated High School Essay Intensive for solid instruction and plenty of practice opportunities. By starting now, you will have plenty of time to polish your student’s writing skills in preparation for the fall test dates.

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