What if preparing for tests could look, sound, and feel like your favorite units of study for reading and writing? What if there was a way you could inspire your students to dive in to short texts and constructed responses with the same sense of energy and purpose as they do when given beautiful nonfiction books and topics to research? What if they could have the confidence and the tricks-of-the-trade to make it possible for them to do their best work on every test they take?
If you teach reading workshop and writing workshop, you are already in good shape. It is helpful to take stock of all the things you already do, day-in and day-out in reading and writing workshop that will be supportive for your students when they sit to take a formal exam or standardized test. You’ve most likely already provided your students with opportunities to:
Read and writing with high volume and stamina. Many tests are 60 minutes or longer per sitting. If your students are accustomed to reading and writing for extended periods daily they will be well prepared for this.
- Close reading of short texts. Across many units of study in reading workshop, students could be analyzing short texts. Many units within the Units of Study for Teaching Reading (Calkins et al) support kids with this work. Dystopian Book Clubs, Researching Debatable Issues, Investigating Characterization, Literary Essay, or Lens of History are all examples of Units of Study that feature closely studying and analyzing shorter texts. If you’ve been teaching reading workshop, you’ve like already been teaching some of the higher level work that students will need-- including analyzing perspective, author’s choices, how parts of the text connect to the whole, as well as generating evidence-based arguments about the text.
- Planning, drafting, and revising a piece of writing all in one sitting. Writing workshop gives students many opportunities to move through various writing processes, sometimes quickly, and sometimes over longer stretches of time. In writing workshop, your students, over time, learn to be flexible with the process and adapt it to fit time constraints.
- Making a claim and supporting it with reasons and evidence. These skills are woven across both reading and writing workshop, and students will likely be called upon to put this to use in various ways on formal exams.
All year long, your strong teaching has done the heavy lifting that will help your students be successful in a testing situation. Reading and writing with stamina, for example, is not something you can cram for in a month. It takes practice, and involves incremental gains over time.
When testing season approaches, however, there are some test-specific reading and writing strategies that can set students up for success. Tests are a genre unto themselves, and when students understand the key features of tests, they are at an advantage. When test preparation is approached as a reading and writing genre study, for a few weeks before the actual test students are given a preview of what to expect. Using the same familiar structures as reading and writing workshop, you can harness those routines to provide explicit, targeted strategies, and differentiate for groups of students with different needs.
A few key characteristics of formal exams and standardized tests:
If you study the types of reading students may need to do by looking at sample items and released items from past tests, you’ll get a good idea of what students are going to be called upon to do. Use what you know about your students to anticipate the types of reading they will need the most support with and go from there. When we teach students how tests work, and a few strategies for identifying the genre of what they are reading and how to read it closely, they can use all that they know to do their best work.
You’ve likely taught your students some variation of text-based writing already, whether it was during Literary Essays, or Research-Based Argument Essays. Now it’s a matter of teaching students how to do this more efficiently, and highlighting the writing strategies and craft moves that will get them the most “bang for their buck” on a test.
Take some time to study released items and sample items from the test you are preparing for to get a sense of the level of vocabulary needed to:
- Read and understand the passages themselves
- Understand the questions asked of students
- Write short and extended responses using higher level vocabulary
Students who have strategies for figuring out the meaning of unfamiliar words using context will have a better chance of understanding what they are reading on the test, and will have a higher sense of confidence overall. Additionally, the more sophisticated their writing sounds, due to use of vocabulary, the better chance they have of a higher score.
A unit on preparing for tests doesn’t need to be dull or anxiety ridden. It can look like an engaging genre study, perhaps divided into parts. One possible model:
Part 1: Close reading of passages and questions, together as a class. Shared writing of responses, together, using chart-sized paper, or a projector. You model your thinking and problem solving, and invite students to work along with you.
Part 2: Students read passages and questions with a partner. They answer questions and construct responses as a team. You confer with each partnership to model your thinking and provide feedback and targeted strategies.
Part 3: Students practice on their own leading up to the day of the test, with you conferring with them to individualize feedback and instruction.
Perhaps you move through this cycle once using fiction reading passages, and again using nonfiction. Or perhaps you’ll decide to focus all your time on the one thing your students need the most support with. Or perhaps some students are working mostly on one aspect of the test, while others work on something different. Perhaps you’ll join forces with a few colleagues to share ideas or design a unit together.
A well-designed genre study of test passages and questions can serve your students well--but cannot take the place of strong teaching all year long.
Each Wednesday night at 7:30 pm EST the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project hosts a Twitter chat using the hashtag #TCRWP. Join hosts Janet Steinberg @eriuqse695 Alicia Luick @alicialuick tomorrow evening, February 6, to chat about supporting students in getting ready for exams.
Not on Twitter? Take Heinemann’s free Twitter for Educators course here.
Elizabeth Moore, literacy consultant and coauthor of two books in the Units of Study for Teaching Writing and Units of Study for Teaching Reading series, has been a first grade teacher, fifth grader teacher, literacy coach, and lead staff developer at TCRWP. She has also served as an adjunct instructor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Currently she lives in the mountains of northern Vermont where she finds adventure around every corner.