Most teachers are familiar with multiple choice test-taking strategies, but when it comes to writing, it feels like we’re kind of on our own. Some schools use acronyms such as RACE or PIE, but those formulas aren’t always an exact fit for the state rubric. So how do we offer students a winning method when it comes to test prep for the writing sections?
In Part One of this blog post, I presented my strategy for reviewing multiple choice, including a free student self-analysis handout. If you missed it, read it here: How to Make ELA Test Prep Simple, Quick, and Effective. For the writing sections, just like with multiple choice, I use released questions from the previous year’s test. I like to copy the paired passages, and staple the whole task into a student packet. I make a cover page for it that says something like ELA Writing Test Practice – Classwork – Paired Passages – Short Constructed Response – Full Essay with Planning Page. If you don’t have released questions in your state, find a paired passage you can use from other test practice materials.
SHORT CONTRUCTED RESPONSE – Students should already be familiar with short constructed response, so on the first day, I show them the rubric, highlighting the things I want them to keep in mind about the scoring. Then they read both passages (of course marking up the text for key ideas) and complete two constructed responses. Our test comes with three of them, so before they begin, we cross one out! Right away, they feel like they are getting a break! (And that’s one less anchor response I have to have ready!)
I teach the ADD+ method. That’s Answer, Detail, Detail, plus explain. I teach this just for short constructed response, not general paragraph writing. The students know this type of writing is for test questions only. They answer the question first (overall “gist” answer), and then provide two different details, along with some explanation (that’s the “plus”). I think it’s more effective than RACE for constructed response because it specifically reminds students that two different details are needed. Students write A D D + (spaced out) down the left edge of the response area as a reminder.
Our state publishes anchor papers for the writing, and I like to take a few minutes to re-write an anchor legibly and even improve its content so I have a solid exemplar to display to students. When students are finished with the short responses, I use my document camera (or you could project other ways) and show the exemplar. Students volunteer to come up and write A, D, D, and + over the areas that accomplish each requirement. Students read their own response and give themselves a grade. (Our state uses 2, 1, or 0.) Next, they switch papers with a partner, read their partner’s response, and grade it. When students get their papers back, I allow a few minutes for feedback discussion. Use this strategy for both questions and students will understand the process for writing a passing response.
When I collect the packets at the end of the writing practice unit, it’s so simple to assign points for this work. I basically skim the written responses, look at the self and peer grades, and consider that this is learning, participation, and classwork. Of course, if a student’s writing hasn’t gone beyond two lines, that’s not going to earn many points. But most students will be successful!
ESSAY QUESTION – Ah, the essay section. That’s where the major moans and groans come in. Well, I always tell students not to worry, because I’m going to help them with it! In their packets, we now turn to the essay question. I project the question up front and we talk about its wording, underline key words, examine the “bullets,” and decide on how many paragraphs the topic will need to cover all requirements in an organized fashion.
Now we look at the blank Planning Page. Let’s say the essay question asks for some common themes in the two pieces and similarities and differences of two characters’ experiences. I ask for student volunteers to come up and draw what their planning organizer could look like for this response. After we’ve considered these, I offer my version, and neatly draw out a simple design on my whiteboard and ask that they copy it onto their planning page.
For the planning page, it’s the body paragraphs we really need to focus on. So in the Introduction space, students merely fill in “Title, author, wording from question.” That’s enough to remind them what to make sure to include. Same thing with the Conclusion area, where they simply jot down “Transition, wording from question.” Let them know that once the planning page is done, the majority of the work is done! Also, tell students that complete sentences are not needed here. These are the details they plan to discuss in complete sentences when they write the essay.
Essentially, I end up doing half of the planning page for the essay with them, and I have them do the other half with a partner. Then they write the essay independently. This way, the comprehension part of the task is scaffolded. Initial help from the teacher, discussion and idea-sharing with a partner, and the content is done. Finally, students put it all together using writing skills they should already possess.
Planning half of the body paragraphs together allows for modeling and “think alouds.” When needed, I gently guide students to the places in the text they should be looking. Students see how many “bullets” we need with details necessary for a complete answer. Then, I say, “We’ve pulled our details for themes and two of the similarities together, so now, get with a partner to gather your details for one more similarity and your differences.”
As I said, students are expected to write the essay on their own, and the entire writing unit using the paired passage packet takes several class periods. Students just keep the packet in their binders until the end, when they hand them in for a classwork grade. The essays end up written with the correct structure and accurate and relevant details, with most students attaining a passing 3 or 4. They are quick to grade, because I am reading content that we have discussed in class. Of course, they can always use more editing!
No test prep for writing is going to be a bundle of laughs, but this type of preparation gets the job done! It hits on the most important skills with scaffolds, models, peer exchange, and think-alouds. Students get a walk-through of all the formats, and see that they can do it! I hope you’ll try some of the ideas here to round out your test prep plans!
Here are two engaging and effective resources to use with your test prep unit: