The Digital SAT’s Grammar Questions: A Deep Dive

Since the turn of the millennium, the College Board has changed the SAT multiple times: 2005, 2016, and upcoming in 2024 (though students will get the chance to test the waters with the PSAT in fall 2023). In every version, the exam features a grammar component. However, even if the grammar rules tested remain the same, the way in which questions are delivered changes how students should approach them. Mastering the new format of the digital SAT will be the key to success.

Why Test Grammar?

Many college instructors I speak with inform me that their students struggle with grammar. They lament needing to sacrifice classroom time to provide writing instruction instead of focusing on the course’s topic. Errors in punctuation usage top the list. Sometimes, students toss commas onto their pages like confetti.

Students should know, however, that a grasp of grammar helps beyond college. A well-written cover letter can change someone’s life by earning them an interview for a dream job. An employee who composes grammatically correct emails appears more competent to their colleagues. While grammar can be tedious to learn, once it is mastered, it becomes a lifetime skill. 

The SAT is invested in making sure students are ready for college, which means grammar is a concern. This can be to students’ benefit, though, as grammar questions are predictable. Once students know what a comma does, they are set for every comma question. Students who have studied for the paper-and-pencil SAT can tell you how they eventually feel like every grammar section is identical. Will this repetitive nature remain when the test becomes digital? Read on!

What’s Changing?

Currently, the SAT features a distinct grammar and structure section: Writing and Language. When the test shifts to the digital format in 2024, grammar questions will intermingle with reading comprehension questions in the new “Reading and Writing” section. In this portion, grammar will make up about 50% of the questions. In addition to examining grammar rules, the digital SAT will present questions centered around editing and effective expression. Questions testing clarity already appear on the current exam, but the College Board predicts these questions will make up close to half of the grammar questions—about a quarter of the English section overall. This marks a slight increase in how often such questions will appear compared to their frequency on the current exam.

Length of passages will get a makeover, too. The paper-and-pencil version of the test features long grammar passages, with each passage containing eleven questions. On the digital exam, each grammar question comes with its own short paragraph. This will remove questions that require a student to rearrange paragraphs of an entire passage. However, questions concerning rearrangement of an individual sentence in a paragraph are still possible.

Removing long passages will please students who do not like to view a passage with a bird’s eye, manipulating parts of it so the flow of an essay works. On the flip side, a new short paragraph for each question will force students to do a mental reset on every question, instead of reading a series of eleven questions that relate to a common topic.

A notable change lies in the structure of the answer choices. Currently, grammar questions offer students three options for fixing an underlined mistake, with a fourth choice that states “No Change,” indicating that there is no error in the original underlined portion of text. In contrast, the released digital SAT sample questions do not feature a “No Change” option. Of course, this could be a fluke particular to the sample questions, which likely do not present the full span of question and answer types on the digital test. But if the No Change option is genuinely gone, the change would be beneficial.. In the past, students have either talked themselves into picking No Change more often than they should or have avoided it, feeling the test would not be likely to make No Change a correct choice. If the choice does remain absent, then students may stop sabotaging themselves with over-analysis.

What Will Remain the Same?

From all appearances, the grammar and editing concepts tested will be similar to those tested by the current SAT. The frequency of concepts may change, and I suspect editing/rewriting questions will become more frequent, but so far, it does not appear that there will be new concepts tested.

This is good news. Any student who has prepared for the SAT or ACT can recite the grammar and editing concepts off the top of their head: punctuation, subject-verb agreement, pronoun confusion, misplaced modifiers, comma splices, and clarity decisions. The latter, which requires students to make judgments on the most effective way a sentence can be written, tends to be intimidating for high schoolers. In a sense, they are being asked to act as editors; the SAT wants students to know how to construct sentences that are both clear and concise.

Other times, instead of changing a whole sentence, students will decide which transition word best guides the reader to a new idea. Long a bane for test takers, transition questions will be just as prevalent on the digital SAT.

Let’s look at a sample question to see what students should expect.

Sample Question

In 1963, the BBC science-fiction drama Doctor Who premiered, airing episodes twice a week. Despite having a low budget, Doctor Who could scare viewers and draw them into an alien world, its black and white broadcast masking some of the flimsier sets and props. ________, in 1970, Doctor Who began screening in color, and the show’s low budget was at risk of becoming apparent, causing the BBC to spend more money on its most popular science-fiction show.

Which of the following transition words best completes this passage?

  1. Therefore
  2. Thus
  3. However
  4. Certainly

Answer: C

This is a classic transition question. None of these choices are grammatically incorrect; instead, the intended message is the issue. The word in the blank must signal  a shift to the opposite of the previous sentence, which was about how Doctor Who’s effects looked realistic, as what comes next specifies that the use of color could make effects suffer. A transition word that indicates the opposite is necessary when a paragraph discusses the reverse of what came before.

However, there is a trick here, too. Choices A and B mean the same: they both indicate cause and effect is occurring. If the two choices mean the same, then neither can be correct, as the SAT does not allow you to pick two correct answers. Noticing when there’s repetition among choices can be a valuable skill when it comes to narrowing down answers.

The Takeaway

Grammar skills will remain a prominent component of the SAT. As the concepts remain largely the same, students will not have to vary their approach as much as they will with reading comprehension questions. It is, however, important to note that additional information will become available over the next year, when the College Board will release materials clarifying which concepts will be most important on the digital exam. Method Learning will always provide you with updated information as soon as the College Board releases it. In the interim, students will find studying current SAT grammar topics helpful both for the digital test and life in general.

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