The single best way to prepare students for tests is with a strong curriculum. No amount of test prep can make up for daily immersion in skills practice. For an English-language arts or literacy test, a curriculum in which students have plenty of time each day to read is crucial. They should read engaging, high-quality texts in a range of genres. They should read lots of pages, and for lots of minutes, around sixty per day, every day. Kids cannot be expected to sit and read for sixty minutes on a test if they have never sat and read for this amount of time in a single stretch before. Students should also have plenty of opportunities to grow their thinking about their reading, through talking with classmates and through writing. They should read mostly texts at a level that is appropriate for them, meaning texts they can read with around 95% accuracy, even if this means they are reading below the level of the test. Spending all year slogging through texts that are too difficult will not afford students the opportunity to practice key skills they’ll be tested on, and will not afford them the opportunity to get better as readers.
Certainly, students do need opportunities to engage with the level of texts they’ll see on the exam. A way to scaffold students’ practice with texts at higher levels is to choose these texts for shared reading or read aloud work, so you can model for kids how to tackle the hard parts, and what the thinking work looks like at those higher levels. Eventually, as students get stronger as readers, this scaffold can be removed, and students can tackle these texts with more independence.
A strong curriculum that prepares students for literacy tests is one in which students also write every day, for a variety of audiences and purposes. Students need instruction in qualities of good writing, instruction that will help them anytime they write, and not just with one day’s assignment. If students are taking a test in which they’ll be asked to write about their reading, they need to practice doing this using texts they can read well.
As the test nears, it does make sense to engage kids in some practice with test question types and with the length, look, and feel of the test. So, yes, there can be a place for test-preparation booklets. This is best done in service of helping kids to know what to expect and not for last-minute cramming. It’s also best to keep this kind of preparation light and brief, and certainly not to allow it to pre-empt the regular, rich literacy curriculum.
At this week’s TCRWP Twitter chat, Janet Steinberg, Research and Data Manager for the TCRWP, and staff developer Rhea Royster will lead a chat on what is most important in helping students in grades 3-8 prepare for tests. Both facilitators are seeped in test prep experience and knowledge. Their aim will be to pass on just the most important tips so that you feel confident you are helping students to be as well prepared as possible while also maintaining your (and your students’) sanity. If you are gearing up for a high-stakes test, be sure to join this chat.
Each Wednesday night at 7:30pm eastern, The Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project hosts a Twitter chat using the hashtag #TCRWP. Join @rhearoyster and @enriuqse695 to chat about what's most important in test preparation tomorrow evening.
Not on Twitter? Take Heinemann’s free Twitter for Educators course here.
Anna Cockerille, Coauthor of Bringing History to Life(Grade 4) in the Units of Study for Teaching Writing Series, was a teacher and a literacy coach in New York City and in Sydney, Australia, and later became a Staff Developer and Writer at TCRWP. She served as an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and taught at several TCRWP institutes, including the Content Literacy Institute, where she helped participants bring strong literacy instruction into social studies classrooms. Anna also has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement (Heinemann 2012), and Navigating Nonfiction in the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Grades 3–5 series (Heinemann 2010). Most recently, Anna served as an editor for the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, K–5 series.