Answering OSSLT Short Writing Tasks, Part 3

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In recent posts I’ve focused on the different kinds of questions students may be asked on the OSSLT short writing tasks. Keep in mind that for all the short answer tasks you should write complete sentences and paragraphs.

To answer some questions, you need to refer only to the text for supporting details; for others, you need to supply your own knowledge or opinion; and for others still, you have to draw on both.

Here’s an example of the fifth kind of question:

5. Explain whether this archaeological find settles the historical question about who invented pasta. Use specific details from the selection and your own ideas to support your answer.

Note that in tasks like this, the question is only implied — there’s no question mark. First, then, you need to identify what the question is asking you to do. To do this, try rephrasing the task in the form of a question: Does this archaeological find settle the historical question about who invented pasta?

Ah. So it’s a yes or no question. (You would already have come to this conclusion if you thought about what the word “whether” means — it indicates a choice between alternatives.)

What else is the question asking? The verb — explain — tells you what to do. Explain what? Explain if or how the archaeological find settles (or doesn’t settle) the question of who invented pasta. You know from answering other questions that explain means to use supporting details to prove or expand on your answer which, in this case, will be yes or no.

One reason this question is complex is that the answer doesn’t lie in the selection alone. You need to draw on your own knowledge and ideas — first to figure out what the question is asking, and then to arrive at a satisfactory answer. The answer could be yes or it could be no. In either case, you must pick relevant details from the selection and combine them with your own knowledge and ideas to come up with a reasonable response.

In other words, you need to assess the evidence (details in the selection) and draw from your own knowledge and ideas to decide on an answer (yes or no). You also need to evaluate whether the answer you’ve come up with is realistic and reasonable (does the evidence, combined with my ideas, support my answer?). And before any of this thinking takes place, you need to analyze the task to find out just what it is asking you to do. It is a complicated process.

Take the time to pick these questions apart, word by word. Identify the words you know, and do your best to figure out the ones you don’t. (You’ll find tips for how to do this in the links below.) Make sure you know what the question is asking you to do. Finally, make sure you write enough.

Good luck!

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