Questions & Authors: Preparing for tests – without worksheets!

October 21st, 2009

This week Charles Fuhrken, author of What Every Elementary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading Tests, has some tips for preparing students for reading tests throughout the school year—and not one of them involves a skills worksheet!

In this age of testing, school campuses with a history of performing well on high-stakes tests may get through the first month of a new school year without a single mention of “the test”—they very well may make it through the fall and winter without mentions of an upcoming spring assessment.  That’s refreshing, because the sad truth is that this will not likely be the case for the school campuses that have been deemed “low performing” by recent test results; instead, anxiety is felt on these campuses and preparation for a spring assessment begins almost immediately.

Teachers know that students cannot do their best work when they are encultured to view “the test” as something to be feared and something that requires year-long preparation via worksheets.  Therefore, practices that will ultimately help students on tests need to be more seamlessly integrated into the teaching of reading.  Here are some ways of doing that:

Translate “classroom speak” into “test speak”

The language of tests has been called formal English or hyper-English.  It’s more like funky English.  Certainly, it’s much too polite for the ways in which students (and teachers) talk about skills in the reading classroom.  Because tests have a certain way or a couple of ways that questions are posed about reading skills, teachers might want to do a bit of digging around in released tests and supplemental materials authored by their state department of education.  These sources provide information about how students are expected to recognize and respond to questions about reading and can be used to guide and assess classroom talk.  For instance, a review of released tests might tell you the word “conflict” is used to ask about story problem.  And yet you may hear students repeatedly use the word “problem” to discuss story problem.  Seize the opportunity to help students cross the bridge from “classroom speak” to “test speak” by discussing that “problem” and “conflict” are synonyms.  For younger students, especially, you may have to be explicit about your purposes for pointing out the association.  You might have to say, “So if you see the word ‘conflict’ on a reading test, just know that the test maker means ‘problem.’”  Embedding test language into classroom discussions in this way provides students with nuggets of test-taking wisdom over the course of the school year and can help students feel more confident about the questions they will be asked.

Teach students to be reading skill “name droppers”

We all have experience with name droppers—those acquaintances who infuse their dinner party conversations with the important people they know.  At parties, these people are annoying, but in the reading classroom, we like name droppers!  By that, I mean, we want students to label and name the understandings they voice.  Teachers often have to model how to be a name dropper.  For instance, if a student says, “Paragraph 3 tells about how bats are nocturnal,” then the teacher can label that student’s talk by saying, “You’re helping us to understand the main idea of paragraph 3.  You explained what paragraph 3 is mostly about.  It’s about how bats are nocturnal.  That’s what the author wants readers to know about bats in that particular paragraph.”  Because a test will use the words “main idea” and “mostly about” to test the reading skill main idea, your labels will help students learn to “name drop” when talking about this reading skill.  That way, the names and labels that test makers use will have become part of students’ everyday vocabularies.

Gather and publicize test knowledge

As students are learning “test speak” and to become “name droppers,” keep public records of students’ understandings by having students make lists and charts of their growing knowledge of test information.  Then, closer to the spring assessment, students can review this information so that it is on their minds come test day.  For instance, students can create “Classroom to Test” dictionaries in which they “translate” classroom speak to test speak and share them with their peers.  Another useful exercise is to have students work together to host a test-taking workshop in which groups of workshop leaders share their top five (or more) tips.  Such engaging activities provide a review before a test without the need to resort to worksheets.

Help students build their reading stamina

Reading tests are long.  Let’s just put that out there as fact.  Even “accomplished” readers, if you will, can have a tough time of getting through the text-dense test pages in the spring.  That’s all the more reason why students need time to get used to facing multiple pages of dense text in one sitting long before the day of the reading test!  Here are some ways teachers can help students build reading muscles:

Increase time spent in self-selected reading gradually

Asking students to stay focused on one text for a bit longer each month in the fall will certainly help students focus their minds on test passages in the springtime.  Try to make the increases unnoticeable to students.  (Having great books available in the classroom library will help with this too!)

Offer a range of reading opportunities—and follow-up activities

Reading silently from magazines.  Reading a chapter book with a book club or partner.  Preparing and reading aloud a poem.  Listening to the teacher read and following along.  Then writing about their reading.  Talking to a buddy.  Acting out a scene.  These are ways for students to spend meaningful time with texts and increase stamina.  Nancy Gregory, supervisor of secondary English language arts in a San Antonio, Texas, district, once told me, “Stamina comes from being fully engaged in reading and being a good reader.  Stamina is not built by reading test passage after test passage in test prep booklets.”

Allow students to be accountable for their reading work

Lucy Calkins suggests asking students, before they begin reading, to place a post-it note on the page they would like to reach during a particular reading session.  She contends that doing so helps students stay focused on their task and push to reach their goals.

Test scores from a previous year shouldn’t interrupt or halt the “real” work of the reading classroom in favor of skill-building workbooks.  When the preparation for tests that students need is incorporated seamlessly into the teachers’ instructional decisions all year long, students can grow to feel powerful over the test instead of anxious about it.

Entry Filed under: Assessment,Questions & Authors

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Karen  |  October 21st, 2009 at 11:59 am

    I greatly appreciate Charles’ approach to reading education. Yes, we have to prepare students for important assessments, but that doesn’t mean that our instruction has to be dry or dull.

    I have a copy of Charles’ book and have shared it with a wide variety of teachers. All have commented on the easy to implement ideas and usefulness of the activities. Thanks, Charles! Hopefully there will be more books in the future!

  • 2. Peter Conforti  |  October 21st, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Dr. Fuhrken provides very practical advice that teachers can apply in the classroom to help their students succeed not only on state assessments, but also when reading. It is refreshing to read the perspective of someone “in the know” who gives sensible, no-nonsense information on a subject that affects so many of us in education!

  • 3. Debra Bay-Borelli  |  October 21st, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    This is one of the best books on this subject for preservice training and for new and experienced teachers in the field of education. Charles knows what he is talking about and it shines through in the text. I would recommend it to every preservice program for use in their reading classes.

  • 4. Terry Smith  |  October 21st, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    As a researcher in learning, I could not disagree more with the logic of this article on “test speak.” Seriously, you would begin to use the language that you find in tests as part of your classroom vocabulary to “help” students? So whose test language might you prefer? From what test mill organization would you choose the words? Which company has the best words? Your point of view is a distortion of the educational process. Developing a rich vocabulary does not come from studying tests – it comes from literacy experiences – books, magazines, blogging, etc.

    Sir, your message, although it has the tone of an informed educator, is absurd and I hope that no intelligent teacher takes it to heart in order to get higher test results, perhaps to gain teacher merit pay and part of the giant stimulus prize called Race to the Top.

    Better approach – do away with tests that do not pertain to what is being taught – do away with tests that provide inaccurate data on student learning.

  • 5. L Kidd  |  October 21st, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    I do have to agree coming from a low performing school myself that the pressure to start the testing procedure is immediate. My first year in the classroom I was convinced that doing this was “best practice”, little did I know that teaching the “classroom speak to test speak” as Charles Fuhrken stated was the best avenue to take. As I transitioned into a teacher (instead of test taking teacher), I found that my students were more successful , had a higher stamina for reading, and actually had higher performances on their TAKS tests. All in all teaching the concept first and then the strategy for the test later was the best situation… even in a title I school.
    I did think that the dictionary was a great idea.. I will definitely be sharing that with my teacher tomorrow!!! Great tips in general for all teachers but especially for teachers feeling the pressure.

  • 6. Marie M  |  October 22nd, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Terry’s comment shows how far removed she is from public school classrooms and how little she understands the reality of standardized testing. Dr. Fuhrken’s point is not to teach to the test. Just the opposite is true. He is suggesting that we teach way beyond the test, but–in the process–that we give students the tools they need (the “test language”) that will help them negotiate these assessments. It’s either that or condemn students to failure on state exams that determine whether or not they will walk the stage in June. This has nothing to do with merit pay or teacher self-aggrandizement, and everything to do with ensuring that our kids have a future. I think Dr. Fuhrken’s ideas are wise. He reassures me that I can teach at a high level and embed test-taking strategies into my curriculum without turning my classroom into a test-prep factory.

  • 7. ETorres  |  October 22nd, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    I, too, am fortunate to have a copy of Dr. Fuhrken’s book and have actually used several of the activities he suggests for teaching specific reading objectives both with monolingual and bilingual students. The activities offer opportunity for active participation of every student in a fun but meaningful learning situation. I encourage all my teacher friends to read and use his ideas to benefit their students. As he mentions, it is sad that we must focus much of our teaching moments with the “test” looming before us, but it is our promise to our students to help them succeed. For me and many others in education, “test speak” means teaching children to succeed by recognizing vocabulary with similar meanings whether they are preparing for a state test or discussing a story from their class literature book.

  • 8. Carol Bedard  |  October 23rd, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    As I work with teachers in various public schools, what I find is that for many new teachers standardized tests are frightening because they feel a lot of pressure from administrators for their students to perform well on the tests. Yet, many new teachers are not sure how to accomplish this very important goal. The book, What Every Elementary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading Tests, can serve as a toolbox for these teachers because of its many teaching tips with examples for clarification. More importantly, the book can be a resource teachers can use to gain a deeper understanding of the testing genre. I love the chapter, Common Beliefs About Test Taking: Fact or Fiction, because I have heard almost all of the beliefs! I think every public school educator should have a copy of this book.

  • 9. Mary Anne Lock  |  October 30th, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Too often teachers are cramming one worksheet after the other, or practicing one state release item after the other to rehearse for “the test,” as opposed to focusing on teaching and learning. This article was excellent in using proficient reader strategies to assist students in preparing for state tests. We have lost our true focus when interrupt the classroom to merely practice for state tests. I think the authors tips were very appropriate and much more rigorous than worksheets.

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