Can the song ‘Spitball in the Eye’ improve students’ SAT scores?

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Can setting onerous vocabulary words to pop music mitigate the cacophony of groans from teenagers over studying for daunting college entrance tests? Can often cantankerous kids be cajoled into learning?

One thing’s for sure: The market for magical study tricks is ripe.

Most college-bound teens take the SAT or ACT entrance exams at some point. And anxious parents find themselves rifling bookstore shelves and combing Internet sites for the best way to channel the necessary knowledge through their teens’ sometimes less-than-focused brains.

A newer set of guides has cropped up alongside more-traditional question-and-answer-style workbooks. They promise to hoist the test taker’s verbal score in an easy and fun way, often slipping the rigorous list of vocabulary words into parts of kids’ worlds, such as their music, or short stories about first kisses and senior pranks.

“I think that there’s an enormous amount of anxiety over these exams, and the kids just aren’t reading the New York Times these days to get their vocabulary,” said Michael Moshan, a co-author of “Rock the SAT!” a study aid that combines a workbook and compact disc with original songs containing 264 vocabulary words, definitions and synonyms. “They are finding their language in other ways, like through music and the Internet.”

Moshan and his co-creators came up with catchy and often humorous tunes like “Spitball in the Eye,” “Harbinger,” “Salacious” and “Frugal with Your Love.”

“We understand teens have to expend some effort and focus to study,” he said. “But we also did want the music to teach the vocabulary in a painless way.”

But education experts aren’t convinced the efforts work. Some say that such products are often just gimmicks that only trick parents into buying them.

“I know of no research suggesting that pop-culture paraphernalia can enhance learning,” said Alfie Kohn, who lectures on education and human behavior. “Even if such techniques were effective, their objective isn’t to improve learning. It’s merely to raise scores on standardized tests.”

Moshan needs no study to prove that a snappy tune promotes memorization and understanding.

“How else would I ever have remembered the names of all 50 states in alphabetical order,” he said, launching into the classroom classic “Fifty Nifty United States,” written and composed by Ray Charles.

“Talk about the power of melody,” Moshan said. “There are songs in our head that we don’t even want to be there.”

Others bring up well-remembered ditties like the 1970s “Schoolhouse Rock” hit “Conjunction Junction” that combined cartoons and music to teach kids to use the words “and,” “but” and “or.”

Some studies have linked music to learning. But a teen target may be different from a toddler or elementary-age one.

Bowling Green State University professor Montana Miller, who monitors youth and pop culture, said teens have sensitive radar for products that might patronize or condescend to them.

“This blatant kind of marketing – very self-consciously hip’ and cool’ – may easily backfire,” she said, though she had not seen the Rock the SAT! package.

“I do know that various alcohol education programs online, using anecdotes about typical college students,’ have been ridiculed by college students here, who find them simplistic and transparently manipulative.”

Rob Rossman, lead singer and guitarist of the Cleveland indie rock quartet Elephant in the Living Room, listened to some of the 13 Rock the SAT! songs and had a tepid response.

He said the music reminded him of a mix of Christian Rock, 1990s Alternative rock and Kidz Bop, a series of CDs featuring kids screaming along with pop hits.

“The construction of the songs is fine, it is pretty poppy. I can just barely hear the words,” said Rossman. “I’m not sure I can see a lot of kids really listening to this in their spare time.”

Former high school librarian and SAT proctor Bobbie Werner tries to steer parents and teens to more-traditional study guides.

“I tell them to go to the source, get the $19.95 book put out by the College Board,” she said. “They write the test.”

In the end, she said a good score on the verbal section of standardized tests comes down to making reading routine, whether it’s magazines, novels or newspapers.

“There just aren’t any shortcuts,” Werner said. “If you are a junior and you haven’t been doing it, it won’t work. You just have to be a reader.”

CM END DISSELL

(Rachel Dissell is a reporter for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. She can be contacted at rdissell(at)plaind.com.)

2007-01-29-SAT-STUDYAIDS

AP-NY-01-29-07 1656EST

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