Written By Anna Gratz Cockerille
Probably the greatest advice we ever hear about preparing kids for high-stakes tests is that a strong curriculum is the best test prep there is. When children are reading and writing daily for long stretches of time, they are far more likely to be successful on an exam that tests reading and writing. There are two key considerations when planning a curriculum that supports success with ELA exams: time and level of text complexity.
Building plenty of time for kids to read and writing independently each day is crucial. Certainly, we cannot expect kids to read passages and respond to those passages for hour-plus long stretches if they have never come close to reading for that amount of time in a single stretch. Some tests, like the New York State ELA, are no longer timed, so students do not have the pressure of working under timed conditions. However, they are still expected to complete all of the questions, which for many students means working for 60-90 minutes. If your students do not have that level of stamina, you might make stamina a visible focus for your class. Set a timer during independent reading time, and chart the amount of time kids spend reading each day. Rally kids to read for a little longer each day as they work toward their stamina goals. As the test approaches, you might set aside a day each week where kids read for at least an hour in a single stretch to mimic conditions of the test.
The passages used for ELA exams are complex and challenging. It can feel discouraging when kids aren’t reading at nearly the level on which they’ll be tested. There is a temptation to throw them one difficult passage after another in order to give them more practice with high-level texts. This strategy often falls short. We cannot expect kids to be up to the challenge of doing high-level reading work in difficult passages if they haven’t had the chance to practice high-level reading work in passages that they can actually read. Kids often are more successful when they have the opportunity to read a great deal of texts at an appropriate level, even if this level is below what they’ll see on the test. Gradually, with plenty of time to practice and with support from their teachers, they’ll be able to tackle more difficult texts. Great ways to expose them to the challenging texts they’ll see on the test are through read alouds, shared reading, and in small group lessons. As the test nears, you can decrease the support you give and give students opportunities to tackle more challenging texts with increasing independence.
Dwight McCaulsky and Janet Steinberg are ELA experts and TCRWP staff developers who will lead this week’s Twitter chat. They’ll help you think through how to assess what your students already know and how to design next steps so that your students are their best selves on test day.
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Each Wednesday night at 7:30pm eastern, The Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project hosts a Twitter chat using the hashtag #TCRWP. Join @McMaulskyDwight & @eriuqse695 to chat about looking forward to the ELA tomorrow evening.
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Not on Twitter? Take Heinemann’s free Twitter for Educators course here.
Anna Gratz Cockerille, Coauthor of Bringing History to Life (Grade 4) in the Units of Study for Teaching Writing Series.
Anna 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.