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Strategies to Build Test-Taking Skills and Confidence

Strategies to Build Test-Taking Skills and Confidence

Tests are a genre unto themselves. Think about it. Did you ever pick up a copy of the newspaper and have to answer 10 questions about the lead article or take a quiz on a Thanksgiving dinner recipe? Unlikely. 

The last time you had to read and answer a list of questions was probably to renew your driver’s license or take the SATs. The only time adults must answer a list of questions at the end of a section is when we take a test.

Why Teach the Genre of Test Reading?

For kids, test reading has taken on greater importance than ever before. 

Frankly, we are concerned about the ever-increasing amount of time and energy spent on test preparation. We remain convinced that the best way to get better at reading, including test reading, is by reading widely and extensively every day and receiving explicit instruction in reading strategies. 

But taking a test requires some skills and strategies that are quite distinct from the ongoing reading we do every day. So right before the annual state test, we teach the genre of test reading.
 Strategies to Build Test-Taking Skills and Confidence


As the test draws near, increase the daily allotted time for independent reading. This will build kids’ stamina for the reading required on the test. But even more importantly, it will build their reading confidence and capability.

How to Teach the Genre of Test Reading

We begin to prepare the kids to take the test about three or four weeks ahead of the test date.

During this time, we model the thinking we do when taking a test. We show how we peel back the layers of our own test thinking process. We teach format, pacing, key words for recognizing a variety of test questions, and general guidelines for reading through a test and choosing correct answers and writing constructed responses.

We walk a fine line when it comes to using our background knowledge as we take standardized tests. A great deal of prior knowledge and exposure to a wide range of topics gives the test-taker a leg up. However, we teach kids not to rely too heavily on what they already know because they need to draw on the text for their answers.

As we prepare kids to take the test, our mini lessons focus on modeling our thinking about how we approach test reading. 

We engage the kids in guided practice for a variety of test-taking strategies that will help them feel more comfortable and prepared. But our reading workshops or literacy block don’t come to a halt. 

Our test reading lessons are mini lessons—and when we’re finished with our modeling and guided practice, kids continue reading in a wide range of texts in their own choosing.

As the test draws near, increase the daily allotted time for independent reading. This will build kids’ stamina for the reading required on the test. But even more importantly, it will build their reading confidence and capability.

Test Reading Tips

Remembering David Pearson’s advice, “Never send a test out to do a curriculum’s job,” (Pearson, 2005) we don’t stop our ongoing explicit reading instruction and practice in the weeks before a high-stakes test. 

Building strong readers is still the best test preparation. We recognize, however, that in addition to thoughtful reading instruction, it makes sense to practice test reading and responding with short passages that are similar to those the kids will encounter on the test. 

So here are some practical ways to build kids’ confidence as they face the test as well as some test-taking strategies that will help them navigate the test.

1) Practice

  • Build students’ confidence through thoughtful practice – Seize every opportunity during regular instruction to point out that the thinking kids are doing is exactly what they’ll need on the upcoming tests. Provide additional opportunities for kids to practice under authentic test conditions; the more they practice, the more relaxed they will feel on the day of the test.
  • Promote a “can-do” attitude – Ask kids to share their answers and defend their thinking on their test prep responses. Invite them to share the strategies they used to get the right answer. This will build their confidence for when they actually take the test.
  •  “Beat the Test” – Turn the test reading and test-taking experience into a challenge, a competition of sorts to “best the test.” Get kids fired up about the prospect of “psyching out” the test.
  • Justify answers – During test practice, teach kids to explain and justify their answers. Encourage them to spend time thinking about and articulating why they answered a question a certain way.

2) Know the test format

  • Learn the vocabulary of questioning – Share the different types of questions that are found in test items. Make sure that kids understand what each question is asking them to do.
  • Become familiar with the online format and/or printed test materials.  – Practice reviewing and completing online tests or filling out sample answer sheets before kids take the test. Most states offer online practice tests and released tests for teachers to use with their students.
  • Work within time constraints – If your test is timed, have kids practice test items in a timed situation. 
  • Know test rules – Know in advance what designated test supports kids can use while taking the test. For example, some states allow students to have blank graphic organizers or blank paper, highlighters, and colored pencils to monitor their thinking. Some allow kids to have regular or bilingual dictionaries to help with unfamiliar vocabulary. The online testing platforms often have supports, like definitions, highlighters, or spelling support for constructed responses. If this is acceptable,  let them practice this way.

3) Get the big picture quickly

  • Look for and carefully read direction – When practicing, have kids restate the directions in their own words to make sure they understand them so that they are familiar with directions on test day.
  • Read the title of the passage – The title may give the test taker a sense of the big idea. If it doesn’t help, encourage the kids not to dwell on it and move on.
  • Skim and scan – Teach kids how to skim and scan quickly to get an idea of what the passage is about, the genre, the length, etc.
  • Check out the features quickly – Teach kids to scan the questions to see if any can be answered using features like subheadings or diagrams.
  • Identify the genre – Have kids consider whether the passage is nonfiction, fiction or poetry. Teach them important aspects of each genre and how reading requirements of each differ. Provide practice in specific question types for fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Example: If the passage is nonfiction, they will likely be asked to pick out the most important information. If it’s a poem, they will likely have to infer answers to questions.

4) Review the questions

  • Read the question first – Teach your kids to keep the questions in mind as they read. When they answer one, remind them to fill in the bubble right away, rather than finishing the entire passage before answering.
  • Highlight key phrases – Many online testing platforms offer a highlight tool. If it’s allowed, encourage students to highlight or underline key phrases in the questions. Finding them as they read the passage will likely indicate the location of the answer.

5) Read the passage and answer the questions

  • Think about what you know on the topic but concentrate primarily on what’s in the text – It’s always useful to bring some background knowledge to the text but don’t over rely on it.
  • Don’t over infer – Have the kids practice answering questions with inferences that are supported with evidence from the text. Let them know that they really need to find clues in the text to support their answer.
  • Attend to signal words – Teach kids that some words cue us to pay attention to the text at that point, words like surprisingly, sometimes, most importantly, in conclusion, etc. (See signal words list.)
  • Watch for tricky answers – Test publishers include answers to questions that seem reasonable but are actually placed there to distract kids from a better answer. These distractors often appeal to kids because they make sense, sound correct, and grab their attention. Practice picking out these distractors and discuss how and why they are tricky.
  • Eliminate answers you know to be incorrect – Have your students practice eliminating answers they know to be incorrect in light of their background knowledge, but remind them to be certain of these before they eliminate them.
  • Cross out unreasonable answers – Teach students to review the answers and eliminate any that seem completely unlikely.
  • Recognize the difference between literal and inferential questions – Teach kids to differentiate between literal questions that are answered directly in the text and those questions that require inferential thinking. Encourage them to keep the distinction in mind as they read.
  • Slow down and pay special attention at the end of the article – Teach kids that the last paragraph of a passage often contains the bigger idea or conclusions.

6) Keep moving

  • Watch the time – In timed tests, pacing is particularly important. Teach kids to remember to think about the time constraint so they don’t lose track of time.
  • Don’t stop – It’s easy for kids to get overwhelmed, particularly if the test is long or difficult for them. Remind them to keep at it. 
  • Avoid spending too much time on one question – Teach kids to skip questions that confuse them and come back later if time remains.
  • Focus thinking and don’t let attention wander – Remind students to stay focused even in difficult circumstances. Tell them that taking a test is about persistence, and talk about what that word means. Also help them to remember that the test won’t go on forever, even though sometimes it seems that way. Staying focused is central to performing well on these tests.

7) Review the answers

  • Use extra time to check over the test – Teach your kids to go back and check their answers if time remains after they have finished.
  • Review confusing questions – Teach kids to go back when they have finished and review any answers that confused them. They may have a better idea at this point in time.

Want even more strategies (paired with free lessons) to help get your students ready to take tests with confidence? Click here to read “Prepare Kids for Test Taking with Comprehension Strategies that Build Strong Readers.”

Want to learn more about teaching comprehension strategies across the content areas? Check out The Comprehension Toolkit by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis.

Steph Harvey and Anne Goudvis Headshot

Steph Harvey
and Anne Goudvis are the coauthors of Strategies That Work, Inquiry Illuminated, The Comprehension Toolkit Series and Short Nonfiction for American History. Teachers first and foremost, they work in classrooms side by side with kids supporting teachers in progressive literacy practices.


Topics: Reading, Testing, Anne Goudvis, Assessment, Comprehension Toolkit, Stephanie Harvey

Date Published: 04/07/23

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