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  • Megan Mariano

Standardized Test Prep in Reading and Writing Workshop

The dreaded test prep. We all think about it. We all know we have to do SOMEthing...we can't just ignore the fact that students will have to fill in little bubbles (or click little bubbles) despite how unfair it is. So, what's the best approach? Completely ignore it and just do whatever you want? Do straight up PREP that students know they are grueling through? I think it's a mixed bag and there is no sure-fire way your tactics will be successful as we all work in different districts with different populations and needs.

Here's what I do!

My Experience

I've worked in 3 districts in my decade+ career. In my first few years of teaching the pressure was ON about preparing for the state test. Most of the pressure I put upon myself because I needed to look good. In my mind, it was a total reflection on me and my teaching methods.

I'd be handed all sorts of test prep material from the higher-ups and my colleagues, and by golly, did I run a ton of those copies. I'd try to spice it up as much as I could or spread it out throughout the year, but no matter what I did, those copies of reading passages and multiple-choice questions were awful. I was miserable doing them. The kids were miserable doing them. But I kept doing them because I wasn't tenured and it was all I knew how to do.

As time went on, I realized that, no matter how much drilling I did, especially with multiple-choice, it didn't matter. All this time being spent on test prep was taking away from the teaching of the material that the students needed to know! Keep in mind this was before I was knee-deep in reading and writing workshops. I was (forced) to use basal readers, which just perpetuated the blahhhh.

Fast forward to my current district. When I first arrived, they were using a new basal reader series. I was a little concerned about this because I knew about all the research against it. In my interview for the position, I mentioned my passion for reading and writing workshop and I think that helped me land the gig. So, I pretty much abandoned the basals and went head first into a more balanced literacy approach.

But oh no! Where did test prep fit in? I tried a few things. I taught 5th grade for several years and had some extra time in my schedule for small group. I'd use that time to work on Storyworks magazine, focusing on multiple-choice prep. I actually didn't mind it and found it to be pretty productive. Unfortunately, now, I do not have that luxury of time.

Since I do not have time for true small group instruction, I had to think of something else. So, I ended up going with a test prep UNIT since I teach in units. Let me tell you...the first year or two of teaching 6th grade, this unit took 5 weeks ::shudder::. I couldn't do this. 5 weeks?! That is so much valuable time gone!

What I do now


I couldn't stomach doing that much test prep anymore. There were so many fabulous units I wanted to do with my students. So now, I do about 2 weeks, 3 TOPS.

The key, for me, was to incorporate test prep within my already existing units (no...no multiple-choice. I will get to that later). When I moved to 6th grade, I took the summer to figure out what was expected of the students on the state test. I took note of the types of questions asked in multiple-choice. I wrote those questions out and figured out how I could sprinkle those into my reading units. For example, I saw lots of questions on older state tests about how the point-of-view effects the story. I was sure to incorporate this into my Deep Study of Character unit.

I do realize, though, at SOME point, I'd have to expose them to actual multiple-choice questions. In Reading Workshop, multiple-choice questions just never happen; I'd be doing a disservice if I didn't expose them at all. Right before the state test, I work with them on analyzing the WORDING of multiple-choice questions and answers.

Below is a display I have on TpT you may want to use in your classroom.

The questions for multiple-choice ELA tests are usually focused on main idea, inferences, or details. We discuss the types of questions that would fit into those categories. Additionally, there are 4 types of answer choices: just right, close but not quite, doesn't fit, and opposite. It's important to look through the CHOICES to see how they are worded, too. Students create questions based on short passages, label question and answer types on existing practice tests, and learn key terms. This is not something I spend more than a couple days on, if that.

Check out the pictures below from my digital interactive notebook for multiple-choice practice.

The passages and questions I use are all from either older state practice tests or CommonLit or ReadWorks.


Once I figured out how to include those consistently referenced skills from multiple-choice questions into my units, my next area to tackle was writing. My state test requires three types of writing: narrative in response to reading, research simulation task, and literary analysis. In my mind I thought, well, don't I have to do this anyway?

I knew I wanted to do Writing Workshop in some capacity, but was willing to stray. While I am a big Lucy Calkins' gal, her writing units are a bit too...open-ended. My kiddos need more structure. I've ditched the personal narrative (read about that here) and decided to mold my narrative unit more toward the state's expectations. I have the students write continuation and point-of-view stories in response to short stories we've used in our reading unit. I still follow a Writing Workshop model when doing this. Granted, there is a bit less choice here, but they can choose what story to focus on.

My other two major writing pieces are a research essay and a literary analysis essays. Both of these types of essays are on our NJ state test, so I've also worked on making those two essays more catered toward the test. For research, students already do research in my non-fiction reading unit (read about it here). They take that research to write an essay. My state requires students to look at 3 sources to write an essay, so, during the research stage, I have students use 3 sources. The essay is built around typical state test prompts. For the literary essay, it's very similar, instead, they are using books from a reading unit they recently did.

Overall, for writing, all of my writing units are catered toward the state test, but I don't call it that. It's dressed up as Writing Workshop unit...students still have choices and work through the writing process. This way, I am not spending weeks and weeks on writing FOR the test.

Right before the test...

As mentioned, I avoid doing a ton right before the test, but I do try to do a bit of a refresher. As mentioned above, we do a bit of multiple-choice work. Then, we take a look at all of the types of writing pieces again.

I also do require them to take a literary terms test. This is one of the only tests I give all year. I want to be sure they know those words that may pop up on the test. The words are just common literary terms, but I also include common test terminology. I provide them with flash cards that I make using Flippity. They take the test as a Google Form. Click the pictures below to get these for yourself.

In addition to the above, I spend a few days analyzing the different writing tasks' prompts and sample essays/stories. Since every state test is different, what I use is very specific to the New Jersey E.L.A. test. I have them work with partners in a digital notebook you'll see here. These are all reminders...we did all of these skills in October, however, this one needs a bit more practice since in my class, we have done tons of other writing pieces in between.

First, they analyze stories written by former students. I provide those for them. They focus on what they did well or not so great. Then, they PLAN a narrative task based on a state test prompt. They don't end up writing the whole story. They just plan it. It's so important to know how a story is going to go before they dive into it. Once they have that plan, the rest usually comes naturally. I am not going to reteach everything from the beginning of the year. One would hope it stuck and continued to stick with all the reading they've been doing.

Again, I do an entire narrative unit that revolves around the same skills in October. Click here for my narrative unit.

After that, we focus on the essay tasks. For this, I do not have them write entire essays. Instead, similar to the narrative tasks, they work on PLANNING essays. I do this with a topic sentence center activity. I print out short passages from Commonlit.org and create essay prompts that would be similar to those on the state test. What's great about this website is it already has paired texts for you! Saves you a ton of time. I put the prompts on big easel paper and place them around the room with the passages next to them. Students work in groups to go to each station and make topic sentences for a potential essay they would write based on the prompt. I always teach them to write their topic sentences FIRST then write their essays.

If time allows, I let them gather evidence for their essays, but I never have time. The goal for this activity is for them to just recognize the prompts and how to set up the essay. Click here if you want this activity.

The very last thing I do with students is a digital escape room! This is a super engaging activity and makes test prep FUN. Students manipulate interactive Google Slides to practice various ELA skills, determine a code from their work, and use that code to "break out" of escape rooms using Google Forms. Each time they "break out", they will see a silly GIF.

Check out the video below or click here to get it!

Bottom Line

I don't spend weeks and weeks on "test prep"; it's hidden in units in all year. When I end up doing the things above, I don't sugar coat it and call it something else. I tell my students it's test prep because it is! It's not usually met with much resistance since I am not forcing them to write a ton or do a bunch of practice tests. My philosophy is if I did my job all year and they did their job all year, then they will be successful.

I do have some more extensive practice in my TpT store. Click below for that!


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