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Command of Evidence

By Georgia Scurletis

Georgia is Director of Curriculum Development for the Visual Thesaurus and at Thinkmap, Inc. Before starting at Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of websites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, EDSITEment) and various school districts.

Good writers are convincing. A novelist may convince you that you are in a market in Marrakesh. A scientist may convince you of the dangers of nicotine. A lobbyist may convince you to support a bill. Regardless of the subject matter, good writers know how to develop their ideas, one detail at a time. To be a good reader, you need to be able to understand a writer’s ideas and to evaluate the details and evidence he or she has provided to communicate that message convincingly.

Effective educators have long recognized that an essential skill for college and career readiness is the ability to discern a writer’s message and how it is developed throughout a piece of writing. In order to respond critically to an idea, a reader needs to be able to grasp not only a writer’s point but also how he or she arrived at that point. Whether it’s a movie review, a political platform, a scientific hypothesis, or a sales pitch, if you can’t trace the thinking behind the argument, you can’t think critically about what you’re being “sold.”

The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the redesigned SAT will ask students to do just that — to think critically about the evidence presented in passages in science, history/social studies, and literature on the Reading Test; and science, history/social studies, humanities, and career-related topics on the Writing and Language Test. In each case, students will encounter questions that will ask them to go beyond merely showing their understanding of a writer’s point; they will have to identify and analyze the specific evidence the writer uses to support that point.

What Does This Look Like on the New SAT?

Command of evidence is a key emphasis throughout the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the new SAT. In the Writing and Language Test, students demonstrate command of evidence by taking the stance of an editor, assessing the development of a writer’s claims or points and the clarity, effectiveness, and relevance of supporting textual or quantitative evidence. In these questions, students play an active role in choosing to keep, add, revise, or delete written content to further a writer’s purpose.

In the Reading Test, students make important connections between claims and the evidence used to support them in the context of authentic, previously published texts. In some cases, students may be asked to identify and evaluate evidence to support specific claims. In other questions, students may be asked to determine which of four claims is supported by evidence in the passage.

One question format that students will regularly encounter on the new Reading Test consists of a pair of related questions: the first question asks students to demonstrate comprehension of the passage, while the second requires students to determine which portion of the passage provides the best textual evidence for the answer to the first question. Sometimes evidence in natural and social science passages will be quantitative — data derived from tables, graphs, charts, and the like; other times it will be textual evidence. However, in all cases, evidence will be drawn from materials presented to test takers and not gleaned from prior knowledge and experience or from personal opinions or reactions.

Taken as a whole, these questions will measure students’ developed ability to read and write with close attention to varied details and evidence — textual, graphical, and numerical — in order to fully and accurately grasp or shape a message.  Each of these question types requires that students return to the text to answer the question.

How Does Command of Evidence Connect to Classroom Practice?

This type of thinking, in which students are asked to return to the text to find evidence for their interpretations, is a best practice that teachers across the disciplines demonstrate on a daily basis.

The following example illustrates how a U.S. History teacher might approach teaching Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous Infamy Speech through a series of steps that calls on students to examine Roosevelt’s use of persuasive language and evidence to build his case for a declaration of war against Japan.

Determining Purpose

Since the speech was delivered on December 8, 1941 — the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — students may assume that FDR’s primary purpose was to deliver the news of the attack to the American public. However, if students closely examine the language of the speech, they will logically deduce that the speech is actually a persuasive appeal to Congress and not just a dramatic announcement of the attack.

A hook that a teacher could use to encourage students to read FDR’s appeal closely to determine its purpose, would be to juxtapose the following series of statements that appears midway through his speech with a more concise version:

Question: Why do you think FDR chose to write these four sentences:

“Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.”


instead of writing this one sentence?

Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, and Wake Island.

Posing this question leads students to recognize that FDR is breaking the commonly accepted “rule” of good writing: be concise and to the point. When students recognize that FDR has chosen to be repetitive, they can then infer his intent is not merely to report the attack but to move people to action. His repetition is a rhetorical device and underscores the relentless nature of the Japanese attacks.

Once students have deduced that FDR’s intent is to persuade or to convince, they can be directed to reread the speech and underline the one statement that most clearly identifies the goal of his persuasion, the action he wants to convince his audience — Congress — to take: 

“I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

Using FDR’s emphasis on the word attack as a kind of anchor in their analysis, students may notice that it is again used in this pivotal statement and described as unprovoked and dastardly.

Citing the Evidence

The next step is returning to the speech and citing the evidence that FDR has provided to support the claim that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was unprovoked and dastardly. This task not only compels students to learn the meanings and connotations of these words but also helps them to recognize how FDR was building up to this closing statement throughout his speech.

Annotation is an effective reading strategy that students can use as they circle back to trace the development of FDR’s argument. By writing notes in the margins of the text, students will be able to label the key facts that FDR cites to convince Congress and the American people that war is justified. Students can even use the words unprovoked and dastardly in their annotations. For example, they might write unprovoked next to the second paragraph, which begins with “The United States was at peace with that nation,” or jot down dastardly next to the sentences in which FDR comments on how the Japanese government “deliberately sought to deceive the United States” or refers to the “very many American lives” that were lost.

Putting It All Together

The new SAT honors the work of classroom teachers who are never content with reducing a powerful text to a sound bite or to a mere springboard for discussion. These teachers are continually asking their students to return to the text to find support for their interpretations and to appreciate how a writer uses language to connect and develop ideas. The recursive nature of this type of textual examination models the type of reading and thinking required on the SAT.

This type of reading and thinking is prized on the new SAT because it has so many real world applications. Someone deciding whether to go forward with an experimental trial must evaluate the supporting evidence for the scientific hypothesis that serves as the premise for the study. Similarly, a democratically elected legislature and the people it represents must carefully evaluate the evidence provided by a president before deciding whether war is justified. Demonstrating a command of evidence is not just an SAT, social studies, or ELA skill; it is a life skill.