.......Karen Wong, Associate Professor of English

|Homepage|.|Current Courses| .|Resources for Success| .|Skyline College|

.|Personal & Professional Background| 



When you receive an assignment, have you ever felt overwhelmed? Take heart; you're not alone. But there's no reason to give up. Having been a student most of my life, I've learned many useful reading and writing strategies that have served me well. I don't see them as a substitute for going to class or working on-on-one with your instructor and/ or tutor, but they certainly can supplement your learning.










Many of the writing courses that you take here at Skyline require that you write text-based essays. For instance, you may be asked to read various perspectives about a social issue, and then write a persuasive essay by drawing from these articles. Or you may be asked to apply a theory to a real- life scenario. Clearly, understanding the text is of utmost importance.

The following section will address a reading strategy called SQ3R-- Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review-- a study skills technique developed by Cornell University. Educational researchers found that students were better able to comprehend and retain the reading material when they used this technique. It is best used when reading chapters in textbooks and expository essays, essays that explain or argue something, not literature.

Here is how the technique works in more detail:

SURVEY: Survey the reading as a whole or by section.

Surveying provides an overview of the reading, similar to an aerial photo of a landscape. Surveying enables you to get a general idea about the essay, primarily the thesis and main supporting ideas (for a chapter, the main ideas that it will address). I refer to these parts as the essay skeleton, for they provide the basic structure to the text; for the time being, ignore the meat on the bones.

When you survey, read the title, the introduction, the conclusion (for a chapter, the summary), the subheadings which are typically in bold and/ or topic sentences.

QUESTION: Change each subheading/ topic sentence into a question.

Questioning enables you to read purposefully for answers rather than reading without direction. To question, read the title, subheadings and topic sentences, and then change them into questions. Common questions start with "why, how, what, who, when." You could write these questions in a notebook, with space for your answers. Also, include the comprehension questions that often follow essays/ chapters.

READ: Read the entire text, looking for answers to your questions and underlining them with a pencil.

Read actively for answers to your questions.

Underline with a pencil all the main ideas that support the thesis, and all the counter-opposing arguments.

RECITE: Recite the major points that support the thesis, or recite the major points under each subheading.

Now you've done all the reading! At this point, go back to the text, cover up the headings/ topic sentences, and then in your own words, recite back to yourself the information contained in each section. Being able to put something into your own words is a great way to determine whether or not you understand the material.

REVIEW: Review the reading as a whole.

The reviewing phase will give you a sense of closure. Reflect on the entire reading, thinking about what you have learned, for instance, deciding whether you agree or disagree and why.



Clearly I can't address every aspect of the writing process; that's what your writing classes are for. For the time being, I'm going to limit this section to a strategy you can use to revise your essay: checking for essay coherence.

After you've finished composing a rough draft, spend some time thinking about how your whole essay comes together. On the most basic level, you'll want to make sure that your essay has a thesis and topic sentences. The thesis and topic sentences are like streetsigns that enable your readers to navigate their way through your essay. On a more abstract level, you'll want to think about how all of these parts of the essay relate to each other.

 Below are steps that you can follow to check for essay coherence.


Step 1:

Underline your thesis, the controlling idea of your essay. Check that your thesis makes an arguable assertion, not simply describe what your essay will address.

Step 2: 

Check for paragraph coherence by "nutshelling." Read one paragraph at a time, then in the margins, in a nutshell, write in four words or less each of the paragraph's main points. If your paragraph has more than one main point, then you should consider splitting it into however number of main points that it addresses.

Step 3:

Check that each paragraph has an appropriate topic sentence. Your topic sentence should explicitly state the "nutshell," the main point of each of the body paragraphs.

Step 4:

Write down how each body paragraph is related to the thesis. If a paragraph doesn't relate, then you probably should delete it. Or you may need to further explain how that paragraph relates to your thesis.

Step 5:

Write down how each body paragraph is linked to the previous paragraph. Check that it logically follows the previous paragraph. If it doesn't, figure out an appropriate location. (click this link for organization options)

Step 6: 

Write down any changes that you are going to make, if any, for each body paragraph.



Rachel Bell, another Skyline English professor, and I designed the following handout for a workshop that is offered through the English Assistance Lab. We wanted to help students who have to take essay writing exams during midterms and finals, and also students who are transferring to universities that require an essay entrance exam. Evaluators are fairly consistent with their criteria. At the minimum, your essay should have a thesis/ controlling idea, it should be well supported, it should be well organized, and it should be carefully proofread.

We broke the presentation into five parts: (1) Important Elements of Expository Writing, (2) Time Management, (3) Prewriting, Brainstorming, and Organizing, (4) Key Words, (5) Practice Prompts.

Part 1: Important Elements of Expository Writing

One of the major skills that is being tested in a timed writing exam is your ability to write to a prompt. A prompt is simply the exam question or writing task. In order to successfully respond to a writing prompt you must do the following:

1. Read the prompt carefully (and often several times), circling key words.

2. Understand what it is asking.

3. Identify how many parts there are to the question.

4. Stay focused on a consistent central idea while answering the prompt.

Thesis statement: In a timed exam, your thesis will generally be your answer to the prompt. You will want to make this answer immediately clear to your reader, so it is best to put your thesis statement, which is your central idea stated in a sentence, in your introductory paragraph.

Controlling Idea: The thesis usually contains a key word or controlling idea that limits its focus and reveals the writer's attitude toward the topic. When you answer the exam prompt, you will be revealing your attitude toward the topic. For example, if you were asked what your favorite spare time activity is and why, you could answer "backpacking," but this answer alone doesn't reveal your attitude toward it. In the sentence, "I enjoy backpacking in my spare time because it is both challenging and relaxing," the descriptive words "challenging" and "relaxing" reveal the writer's attitude toward the topic and establish what the essay will now focus on proving: why backpacking is challenging and relaxing.

In order to write a focused and unified essay, you must stay directly focused on the topic and controlling idea presented in the thesis statement. Do not stray from your thesis statement.



Select an appropriate number of supporting points, depending both on your argument and your allotted writing time, and present them in a clear order, so the essay proceeds smoothly and logically from one point to the next. Be sure to put your main supporting points into separate paragraphs, so there is a clear beginning, middle and end as opposed to a long, uninterrupted block of text. Here are some common methods of organization:


* Order of climax: When ideas are presented in the order of climax, they build toward a conclusion and save the most dramatic examples for the end.

* Order of complexity: Ideas are ordered from simple to complex

* Order of familiarity: Ideas are ordered from most familiar to least

* Order of audience appeal: Points are ordered from "safe" ideas to challenging ones

* Order of Comparison/ Contrast: Whether a comparison-contrast essay stresses similarities or differences, it may be patterned in one of two ways:


(1) Block Style: Look at one subject entirely and then compare it to another by using the same points of comparison. For example:

I. Domino's Pizza

a. Price

b. Quality

II. Round Table Pizza

a. Price

b. Quality


(2) Point by Point: Look at the two subjects together, comparing one aspect at a time. For example:


I. Price

a. Domino's Pizza

b. Round Table Pizza

II. Quality

a. Domino's Pizza

b. Round Table Pizza



Generally, each of your body paragraphs should contain a topic sentence which directly supports your thesis statement and also contains a generalization in need of support. In order to provide that support, ask yourself, "How do I know that this is true?" Your answer will suggest how to develop the paragraph.

Evidence: In order to construct a well supported and convincing argument, you will need to flesh out the ideas presented in your topic sentences. Avoid a series of skimpy paragraphs which generally lack development. Provide concrete and specific detail for each supporting point in the form of examples, anecdotes, illustrations, facts, personal knowledge, personal experiences, etc.

For example, in the thesis statement, "I enjoy backpacking in my spare time because it is both challenging and relaxing," perhaps your first supporting point will be how you enjoy the physical challenge backpacking provides. A possible topic sentence could then read, "Because I was born with asthma, I've always been afraid of strenuous physical activity, but when I started improving at backpacking, I realized that I could overcome this limiting fear." Now a strong essay would go on to provide a concrete example of when the writer came to this realization. Was it reaching the top of El Capitan for the first time without an asthma attack? Was it after suffering an attack and then carrying on ten miles in the rain to successfully reach his/her destination? Be as specific and detailed as possible in your support. If you can't develop a supporting point with evidence, then it's probably best to replace that point with a stronger one.



In a timed writing situation, you will not have a lot of time to spend worrying over the spelling of a word or the placement of a comma. Do not, for example, give yourself writer's block and waste precious time by agonizing over the spelling of "'pterodactyl." However, you also don't want to turn in a piece of writing that contains excessive grammatical, punctuation, and/or spelling errors. Therefore, set time aside at the end to proofread your essay. Here are some quick editing and revising suggestions:


(1) Double space so when you proofread and want to cross out confusing sentences or misspellings or add left out words or examples, you will have room and won't risk confusing your reader.

(2) Read carefully to catch confusing sentences, errors in subject-verb agreement, verb tenses, run- together- sentences, etc., and look for opportunities to join sentences.

(3) If you discover a place where more concrete detail is needed, add examples and evidence as needed, using the spaces between lines you left or use the margins.

(4) If you want to review general grammar principles before a written exam to build your own confidence, both Diane Hacker and Lynne Troyka have written useful handbooks on this subject. You may also want to checkout some of the websites reviewed by Jeff Westfall, another English instructor at Skyline.


Part 2: Time Management

 Since taking a timed writing exam puts you in the situation of having a limited amount of time to create a focused, organized, well supported essay, you better have a clear plan of how you will use your allotted time before beginning the exam.

Suggested breakdown of time for a one-hour exam:

 10 min. Prewriting:

(1) Read the prompt carefully, circling key words.

(2) Cluster or list to determine your main supporting points and strongest evidence; be sure you have a working thesis and topic sentences.

40 min. Write the essay:

(4) Write your essay following the outline.

(5) Skip lines in case you want to make some changes when you're proofreading after you complete the essay.

10 min. Proofreading:

(6) Proofread your essay carefully adding missed evidence, catching misspellings, putting in left out words, revising confusing sentences, joining sentences where appropriate, etc.


Part 3: Prewriting, Brainstorming, and Organizing

Before you jump into writing a timed essay, it is a good idea to know exactly where you are going with your argument, so you don't risk digressing off topic (which is very easy to do in a hurried timed writing situation). To ensure that you have strong and focused support of your thesis statement, set aside some time, after you carefully read the prompt and before you begin writing, to create a rough plan. Here are two helpful methods that are commonly used to select and organize possible supporting points.

Clustering: One technique to help you generate and organize ideas is called clustering. Clustering provides you a sort of informal map. To cluster your ideas, start out with a topic or question and draw a circle around it. Then connect related ideas to that circle and continue in that way. Clustering provides a mental picture of the ideas you generate. As a result, it can help you organize your material as you think of it. You can also eliminate supporting points that you can't find strong evidence to support.

List: Another method used to organize your ideas is called listing. This is the most informal kind of outline in which you jot down your main points and possible supporting examples and detail. This kind of outline is for you only, and you don't need to worry about making it more comprehensive if it does the job for you. Many students find this kind of outline helpful in taking essay examinations because it is brief enough to occupy a very small space, and it doesn't take much time to produce.


Part 4: Key Words

When you read the prompt, pay close attention to how the essay question is phrased. Are you asked to compare and contrast or simply to describe? It is very important to focus on the exact assigned task and to address all parts of the prompt. If you don't answer the question asked, you will probably receive little or no credit for your work. Here are important terms to look for:

* Describe: Write about the subject so the reader can easily visualize it; tell how it looks or happened. Use adjectives, adverbs and descriptive language to paint a mental image for you reader.

* Compare: Analyze the similarities and the differences between two or more items.

* Contrast: Look only at the differences between two or more items.

* Explain: Give the meaning of something often answering the question "why"?

* Discuss: A more open-ended approach asking the writer to provide a broader range of possibilities.

* Argue: (or present a point of view or take a position) Usually requires the writer to take only one point of view (either pro or con) and substantiate that position. Don't be concerned about taking the "right" or "wrong" position; just support a position soundly and consistently.

* Analyze: Break the subject (an object, event, or concept) down into parts, and explain the various parts.

* Criticize/Critique: Point out both the positive and negative aspects of the topic.

* Evaluate: Give your opinion of the value of the subject; discuss its strengths and weaknesses.

* Illustrate: Make the point or idea by giving examples.

* Trace: Tell about an event or process in chronological order.

* Prove: Show that something is true by giving facts or logical reasons.

* State: Give the main points in a brief, clear form.


Part 5: Practice Prompts

Prompt: Certain things are not taught in the classroom, such as how to get along with others, how to rely on yourself, or how to manage money. Describe something you learned outside of school, how you learned it, and discuss its importance in your life.

Prompt: Choose a specific event or situation from your elementary school years. It might involve school, home, or some other aspect of your life that you remember. It might be a single moment of crisis or a more extended situation. Whatever you choose, let it be something that seemed of considerable importance to you at the time. Discuss it, and then put it in perspective through mature reflection.

SFSU Transfer Students: The JEPET is the essay exam that you will take upon enrolling as a transfer student at San Francisco State. Access this website for further information, including a sample prompt.



The following information is excerpted from William Armstrong's useful article, "Learning to Listen," which was published in "The Professional Journal of the American Federation of Teachers" (Winter 1997-98). My comments, meanwhile, are in the brackets.

Suggestions for Better Listening in Class

1) Only by demanding of yourself the most unswerving concentration and discipline can you [focus] your mind on the [speaker's ideas]. This can be accomplished if [you] think around the topic-- "listening between the lines" as it is sometimes called. It consists of anticipating the teacher's next point, summarizing what has been said, questioning in silence the accuracy or importance of what is being taught, putting the teacher's thoughts into one's own words, and trying to discern the test or examination questions that will be formed from this material. If you can train yourself to do this you will: (1) [increase your comprehension and retention of the assigned reading material]; and (2) you can give a more thoughtful [response] either in the give and take of class discussion or on a written test.

2) The student who listens is the student who learns, because listening, above everything else, makes the task of acquiring knowledge easier. The wise student listens with both eyes and ears, hearing what the teacher is saying and, at the same time, watching closely when the teacher is writing on the board or [providing visuals]. When directions are given they are written down quickly...When the teacher says: "this is important"--"it is essential that you know this"-- "you will need this later," [you should write those ideas in your notebook because that material will enable you to better understand the course content, or it may appear later in an exam of some sort.]

3) Listen to other students when they speak. Hear what they say, note the good points, [build on their comments, pose questions that will encourage them to clarify or elaborate on interesting points. In short, engage in a dialogue.]

4) Check every tendency toward mind-wandering. The brain, the ear, the eye must be working together if you are to hear what is being said...[Taking notes] is one of the best ways of training yourself to listen. In order to write, you must force yourself to listen.

5) Test each statement as you hear it. If you do not understand a point, ask for an explanation then or after the class. [If the instructor is midway through an explanation, scribble your question or comment into your notebook so that you can ask the question after s/he finishes. That way you can focus on the rest of his/her explanation without forgetting your own question and/or comment.]


 All commercial rights are reserved. The materials I've created may be used for educational purposes if you give me credit and get into contact with me. To contact me, send comments or suggestions to Karen Wong at wongk@smccd.edu