When preparing students for standardized tests, teaching to the test is not the answer. Instead, incorporate these effective test-prep strategies to ensure student success on these tests and beyond.
I never liked using precious class time to prepare students for standardized tests. It doesn’t help that English Language Arts teachers seem to carry a little extra weight in this department. (No offense to other subjects.)
However, while I was never thrilled about giving up class time to prepare students for standardized test prep, I did want them to succeed. Not only did I want them to have the right skills, but I also wanted them to feel confident when taking the test. So, I sucked it up and did what I dreaded most: I took a few days to dedicate to test prep. (Ugh!)
Over the years, I realized that preparing students for standardized tests doesn’t have to be so… dry. And it doesn’t have to feel so forced and awkward, either.
If that’s music to your ears, keep reading to learn six standardized test-prep strategies for secondary ELA.
Teaching to the Test: Yay or Nay?
Preparing students for standardized testing can feel like another responsibility (and pressure) added to our plate. It’s easy to give into teaching to the test as a simple solution. Reviewing practice questions and taking sample tests in class will help students preview the material and expose them to the testing format. However, teaching to the test is not the only way. Nor is it the most effective.
Our students need authentic learning opportunities that inherently prepare them for standardized testing. They must build confidence around their skills rather than cram for the upcoming exam.
When preparing students for standardized tests, the secret lies in your everyday teaching. In fact, you’re likely already preparing our students for standardized tests in more ways than you know!
6 Effective Standardized Test-Prep Strategies for Secondary ELA
Instead of teaching to the test, try incorporating some strategies below to help your students prepare for standardized testing.
Strategy 1: Teach the Essential Skills
I know, I know. This one sounds obvious. However, teaching the essential skills for standardized testing is something you can do all year long. (And it’s likely you already do.) Rather than teaching to the test, teaching and practicing essential reading and writing skills throughout the year is crucial to student success in your classroom and on standardized tests. If you make these skills part of your regular instruction, students will build confidence in their abilities, making the content of standardized tests far less intimidating.
The good news is that if you teach essential comprehension strategies like making inferences and finding the main idea of a text, you’re already preparing your students for standardized tests!
Strategy 2: Encourage Students to Interact with Texts
Being able to comprehend and analyze a text is an essential component to any ela-focused standardized test. Students need to feel comfortable making sense of what they read, summarizing information, identifying key details, drawing conclusions, and finding supporting evidence. Therefore, we need to ask students to do more than read. We need to encourage them to interact with texts.
Incorporating close reading activities is a great way to get students engaged with a text. Close reading is a skill that will come in handy on any language arts portion of a standardized test. Encourage close reading to help answer comprehension questions, respond to writing prompts, and engage in meaningful discussions. Having students annotate as they read is a great skill to practice and goes hand-in-hand with close reading. The more you ask students to do this in your classroom, the more likely they will utilize these strategies when faced with new material on a standardized test.
Strategy 3: Teach Them The “Right” Questions
A big part of making sense of any text, especially complex passages, is knowing the right questions to ask. However, many students quickly read through assigned texts to check it off their to-do lists. The problem? They reread the text repeatedly when trying to answer any accompanying questions. This is a big waste of time, and students don’t have time to waste during time-constrained standardized tests.
The solution is to teach students to ask questions before, during, and after they read. That way, they are already thinking of the information that will help them answer any text-related questions that follow. One set of questions to teach that are especially relevant to standardized testing is that around an author’s purpose and argument:
- What is the text about? What is the topic?
- What is the author’s main argument about this topic?
- What evidence does the author use to support the argument?
- How does the evidence support his or her argument?
- What is the author’s purpose? What are their goals behind writing this piece?
If you get your students into the habit of asking these questions when they read, they won’t be as intimidated by the texts on a standardized test.
Strategy 4: Incorporate More Nonfiction
Speaking of the reading material on standardized tests—it’s time to start thinking about incorporating more nonfiction into your classroom. Novels certainly soak up the limelight in the ELA classroom. However, incorporating nonfiction and informational texts into your lessons will help students prepare for the texts they will face on a standardized test.
Now, before looking for nonfiction books to replace some of your novels, know that it doesn’t have to be that difficult. Not only will shorter nonfiction texts more resemble the readings on a standardized test, but they also make for great complimentary texts in the classroom. Consider the novels and short stories you already plan to teach. Then, ask yourself, “What nonfiction texts or excerpts can I weave in to deepen my students’ understanding of the theme, setting, or overall message?” If you’re not sure where to get started, CommonLit and Newsela are two great (and totally free) resources for finding engaging nonfiction texts for secondary students. You can even search the databases for particular topics, standards, and genres.
Strategy 5: Incorporate Multiple-Choice Questions
Some ELA teachers will tell you that there’s no room for multiple-choice questions in our classrooms. While I agree that there are more effective ways to measure student comprehension, we can’t ignore these questions altogether. After all, they will show up on standardized tests. Instead of ignoring them, it’s best to make them part of your instruction where appropriate. Maybe there’s a multiple-choice section on an exam or a quick reading quiz.
Either way, use these questions as an opportunity to teach students how to approach multiple choice. Consider teaching the following strategies:
- Read the entire question carefully before looking at the answers.
- Come up with your own answer first, then see if any provided choices match.
- Use the process of elimination to narrow down answers that make sense.
- Go back to the text to support answers with evidence.
The more experience and strategies students have for answering multiple-choice questions, the less intimidating they’ll feel on a standardized test.
Strategy 6: Talk About the Test
I know I said you don’t want to jam your test prep into the days before a standardized test. However, this tip is something you should do in the days leading up to the test. No matter how much you (and your students) dread standardized tests, they will happen. So, instead of ignoring the elephant in the room, start a conversation.
Talk about what students can expect on the test. Let them know the types of texts and questions they will encounter. Review test-taking strategies and open the floor for any questions or concerns they may have. Lastly, give them space to share their fears and anxieties around the test. (Even if they don’t say it, they’ll appreciate this more than you know.) From there, you can guide them through them, reminding them of the skills and strategies they possess that will help them be successful.
More Standardized Test-Prep Tips
- Teach students how to perfect the short response. Don’t just rely on full-length essays for students to showcase their writing skills. There’s something to be said about clearly and concisely making your point—and it’s a skill needed for timed standardized tests. Incorporate evidence-based short responses regularly, providing guidance for strengthening their writing.
- Show students how to “Turn Around” the prompt. Do you ever read through an entire student response only to realize they never actually answered the question? Yup, been there. Teach students how to “turn around” a prompt when crafting their answer. Simply rephrase the question as a statement and add your two cents. Voila! Your students will start off on the right foot.
- Review grammar on the regular (but make it interesting). Teaching grammar will help students succeed on standardized tests. However, it will also help them become better writers in general, and why wouldn’t you want that? Instead of teaching new grammar concepts in isolation with arbitrary worksheets, incorporate engaging mentor texts and writing lessons. However, if you are looking for a quick homework assignment or review activity, students can have a lot of fun with NoRedInk.
A Final Word on Preparing Students for Standardized Tests
Ready or not, the standardized test will come. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather my students feel ready. Sure, getting students excited about standardized testing might be a long shot. (Okay, maybe even impossible.) However, empowering them with the right skills and confidence is certainly within reach.
I hope these strategies for preparing students for standardized tests can be put to good use in your classroom. If you have any tips, resources, or strategies to add to the list, please share them in a comment below. I always love hearing your ideas!