VCLA Composition Task

Overview

The VCLA composition task asks you to take a position on an issue and write a 300- to 600-word essay that argues for that position. The test administrators want to see that you can express, organize, and support opinions and ideas.

The prompt will provide the issue (e.g., “Should soft drinks be sold in schools?”) and a summary of possible reasons pro and con. You will choose the position you want to take (pro or con), identify three points that support your position, and develop each of those points with explanation and examples.

Basically, then, the VCLA composition is the five-paragraph essay you may have learned to write in high school: it comprises an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

The test administrators recommend that you devote about 45 minutes to this task.

The composition task as a 5-paragraph essay

The model essays provided in the practice tests have these elements:

  • A short introduction that ends with a clear thesis statement that previews your three points.
  • Three body paragraphs, with each body paragraph including
    • a strong topic sentence that expresses a point in support of the thesis.
    • an explanation that develops the point and connects it to the thesis
    • an example or illustration that further develops the point
  • A short conclusion

Model essays provided in the VCLA practice tests sometimes include a paragraph that begins with a counterargument (a statement that disagrees with your thesis), followed by an explanation of why that counterargument is flawed. This is often the third body paragraph. Your essay does not need to provide such a counterargument, but it can.

Features of a well-formed composition

  • The composition expresses a main idea (thesis) that is clearly supported in the body of the composition.
  •  Paragraphs are focused on a single point, and the point of each paragraph clearly supports the thesis.
  • The main idea of each paragraph is adequately developed with explanation, details, or examples.
  • Transitions are used appropriately to indicate the logical connections among paragraphs and sentences.
  • Language and style are appropriate to the audience (provided in the prompt) and purpose (to persuade).
  • The composition uses the spelling, punctuation, capitalization, word choice, and sentence structures of Standard English.

A Process for Writing the Composition

1.     Read the prompt, then choose a position to argue for.

You will not be evaluated on the position you choose, so choose the position you can support most effectively.

2.     Brainstorm reasons for supporting your position.

You can use one or more of the reasons provided in the prompt, or you can develop your own points. When you have finished brainstorming, choose the three supporting points that you can most easily or fully develop in the composition.

3.     Compose a thesis statement that expresses your position and previews your three supporting points.

You can use more than one sentence to do this. Incorporating all of this information into one sentence may lead to awkward or difficult-to-read prose.

4.     For each of your supporting points, compose a sentence that expresses that point. These sentences will be the topic sentences of your body paragraphs.

5.     Develop each of your points with logical explanation and examples. You can do this in an outline, or you can begin drafting in paragraph form.

6.     Draft your three body paragraphs, beginning each one with a strong topic sentence and using the explanations and examples you’ve thought of.

7.     Write an introduction that ends with your thesis statement.

The part of the introduction that comes before the thesis statement could be a personal anecdote followed by a statement of the problem, as in the model essay below, or it could be a more general description of the issue and why it needs to be addressed.

8.     Write a conclusion that reinforces your position.

The conclusion should restate your thesis and main points without seeming too repetitive.

9.     Read your composition and edit for smoothness and logical connections. Check your word count, and add or omit details as needed.

Sample Composition

When I was in high school, I found it very strange to walk out of my class on health and nutrition, full of information about the benefits of fruits and vegetables, fiber, and protein, to find myself facing a row of vending machines selling soft drinks, chips, and candy. We bought things from those machines because we were hungry and rushed, and because they were there. But the foods in vending machines are associated with a rising incidence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Public schools should not allow junk-food vending machines on their premises because they contradict the educational mission and limit students’ food choices. School should be the one place where students can avoid junk food.

Introduction Personal anecdote

 

General problem

Thesis statement and preview of supporting points

The presence of junk-food vending machines in the public schools contradicts the schools’ educational mission, which increasingly is to prepare students with life skills as well as academic knowledge. For one thing, if the health class guidelines on food can be so casually ignored, what about the guidelines on drug use of sexual activity? Those messages are being undermined, too. For another, the school is an institution with authority, almost parental in nature. If a mother served her children a lunch of potato chips and root beer, she would be seen as a bad mother, particularly if her children became obese. The school with the junk-food vending machines is being similarly negligent.

Topic sentence #1

Explanation with example

 

Further explanation and example/analogy

Defenders of the vending machines say that they offer students a choice they should be free to make, but the fact is that the machines do not offer students an actual choice. First, all the foods in the machines are bad for you, so there is no choice between healthy and unhealthy foods. Even the popcorn has too much salt, and the crackers are full of saturated fats. The soft drinks contain either high-calorie, tooth-rotting sugar or artificial sweeteners that carry health hazards of their own. Second, many vending machines offer products from only one or two manufacturers, so students are a captive consumer audience for those companies. Finally, many of these foods are addictive with their salt, and fat, and sugar, so we cannot say that students are exercising unconstrained choice when they decide whether to purchase the food in these machines. The machines are less like a choice and more like a trap.

 Topic-sentence #2

Explanation with examples

 

Further explanation

 Further explanation with specifics

Schools should be one place where unhealthy foods are not available. Because eating habits are very socially based, it is hard to eat differently from people around you (ask any vegetarian or someone allergic to peanuts). If everywhere else there are people drinking cola and eating fried pork rinds, at least the school could be one place where the expectations and the norms are different, and people are drinking milk and eating apples. Schools could offer students a better diet, which they might actually like, and eventually choose on their own when not in school.

Topic sentence #3

Explanation with examples/specifics

 

Public schools, clearly, should not be in the business of entrapping their students, burdening both them and society with bad habits and costly long-term health problems. The vending machines should go. (510 words)

Conclusion

Sample Composition in Outline Form

Thesis and preview of supporting points: Public schools should not allow junk-food vending machines on their premises because they contradict schools’ educational mission and limit students’ food choices. Schools should be the one place where students can avoid junk food.

I.      The presence of junk-food vending machines in the public schools contradicts the schools’ educational mission, which increasingly is to prepare students with life skills as well as academic knowledge.

A.     If schools Ignore guidance about health and food, they undermine their own guidance on other health issues like drugs and sexual activity.

B.     Schools’ authority has a parental quality, and parents who fail to nourish their children are considered negligent.

II.     Some people say students should be offered the choice of the food in the machines, but the fact is that the machines do not offer students an actual choice.

A.     All the food in the machines is all unhealthy.

B.     The food in the machines is all from one or two manufacturers.

III.    Schools should be one place where unhealthy foods are not available.

A.     Eating is a social activity, and It is hard to eat differently than the people around you.

B.     The expectations and norms for eating in schools should be healthy. More people will eat healthfully if they are surrounded by others who do so.

How the Composition Will be Evaluated

The composition should demonstrate these skills:

  • Employ effective organizational strategies consistent with the topic and purpose of writing.
  • Incorporate effective thesis statements, topic sentences, transitions, and conclusions.
  • Establish and maintain a specific focus through supporting illustrations and examples.
  • Support an argument with effective logic.
  • Employ vocabulary consistent with the audience and purpose of the writing sample.
  • Demonstrate effective paragraph and sentence structure.
  • Demonstrate command of mechanics, grammar, and usage according to the conventions of Standard English.

These are the specific criteria the test administrators will use to score the composition; the language below has been copied verbatim from the VCLA study guide:

APPROPRIATENESS: Appropriateness is the extent to which your response addresses the topic and uses language and style appropriate to the given audience, purpose, and occasion.

ORGANIZATION: Organization is the clarity of the writing and the logical sequence of your ideas.

FOCUS AND UNITY: Focus and unity are the clarity with which you state and maintain focus on the main idea or point of view.

DEVELOPMENT: Development is the extent to which your reponse provides statements of appropriate depth, specificity, and/or accuracy.

USAGE: Usage is the extent to which your writing shows care and precision in word choice and is free of usage errors.

SENTENCE STRUCTURE: Sentence structure is the effectiveness of the sentence structure and the extent to which the sentences are free of structural errors.

MECHANICAL CONVENTIONS: Mechanical conventions are the extent to which the words are spelled correctly and your response follows the conventions of punctuation and capitalization.

Acknowledgements and Sources

Sample prompt and essay are from a VCLA Writing subtest practice test: https://www.va.nesinc.com/Content/Docs/VCLA_Writing_PracticeTest.pdf

Scoring features from the VCLA Study Guide, Section 6: https://www.va.nesinc.com/PageView.aspx?f=HTML_FRAG/VA091_092PrepMaterials.html

 Additional information drawn from email correspondence with Virginia’s Pearson liaison and from the VCLA Online Course and Preparation Tests: https://www.longsdalepub.com/courses/vcla/start/index.html (login required)