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NYC Helpline: How To: Work with Students' Families

Preparing for the ELA in December  Lamson Lam

This is the second part in a series of columns that will focus on the steps that fourth grade teachers can take to prepare the fourth grade New York State English Language Arts (ELA) test in February and the New York State Math test in April. 


December is when I start cranking up the test preparation.  I don't think you should allow test preparation to dominate or replace a rich, meaningful curriculum, but with a little more than two months before the ELA, you, your students, and their families should know how prepared you already are and what work remains to be done.  Until now, I have tried to prepare my students in a less conspicuous, less intrusive manner.  For the most part, except for one or two isolated activities per week, all of my test preparation has been incidental and only as it would naturally integrate into my curriculum.  Now, with a little over two months remaining before the ELA, I will be slightly more pointed in my test practice and I will specifically bring up the test with my students and let them know when we are doing activities which will directly prepare them for the test. 

I strongly recommend having an ELA Preparation Workshop for parents in December or early January.  By familiarizing your families with the test and what is expected of their students, you can build a seamless partnership towards success.

December Through the Lens of Test Preparation:

Preparing Parents  --  A Parent Workshop on Preparing for the ELA

Promoting your Workshop

Promoting your workshop and getting a high attendance rate is crucial.  In my school we often have very low attendance at parent events.  We have given school-wide Math workshops that have been attended by only 3 or 4 parents.  On the other hand, I have had very high attendance rates at my test preparation workshops, including one workshop on a Saturday morning which was attended by 22 out of 25 students and 21 out of 25 of their families.  Here is my "secret."

  1. Get the word out early and often

  • I remind my students every day in morning meeting for a week before the workshop

  • A reminder goes into their homework every day the week before the workshop

  • I put up notices in the school (on the door, the PTA bulletin board, etc.)

  • I send out a letter about the workshop's importance and ask the parents to sign a  confirmation of attendance (sample letter, PDF file)

  1. Make phone calls.

  • Written communication often never reaches parents and/or is often disregarded (parents are inundated by paper throughout the school year)

  • I call every family either two days before the workshop or the night before (if  they have already confirmed in writing, I reconfirm; if they did not confirm, I try to convince them to come)

  1. Communicate the importance of the workshop.

  • In the notices and the phone calls I remind parents how crucial this test is to their  child's promotion and middle school placement.

Preparing the Parent Workshop

  1. Prepare your workshop.  (Sample Agenda).

  2. Have student work ready to distribute (preferably test prep work to distribute to families).  I like to have a mix of class work and homework so parents can see some work that they might have seen before and some work that they have not

  3. Prepare the following handouts:

    • ELA Information Sheet - this may include test dates, times, and general information about the ELA test  (Sample Information Sheet - Word Document)

    • ELA Questions and Strategies - this will give your parents an idea of what types of questions their chidlren will get and what type of strategies they can use. (Sample Questions and Strategies Hand Out, PDF File)

    • Prepare a mini practice test.  I usually try to use one reading passage with accompanying multiple-choice questions, and one text with accompanying short and long answers. (The mini-test should take at most 30 minutes)

    • Prepare a Parent Tips handout (Sample Parent Handout)

  4. Try to have some form of refreshments available.  Tell your principal or PTA president what type of workshop you are doing (it helps to give them the agenda), they may be happy to contribute approximately $20-$30 to buy some bagels and juice.

Preparing Your Class

Know Your Kids

In December you should start focusing not just on knowing your children as readers and writers.  You should get to know them as test takers.  Don't wait until February to realize that you have three or four excellent readers and writers who scored below their potential.  If you haven't given your kids any practice test activities, give them a few in December and grade them.  You already have their scores from last years test, when you look at those scores and this year's practice scores you might identify some children who are scoring below their potential.    These children are often quite easy to move up with a little specifically targeted instruction.

You should target these "below-potential" test takers and continue to target the students  you identified as "At Risk" for extra support.

Preparing the Students


Your children should be reading and enjoying a variety of genre.  While most of my students choose fiction for their independent reading, they are being exposed to fiction, non-fiction and magazines (CricketSpider, and Appleseed all have a good variety of articles and excerpts from these magazines have appeared on past ELAs).   I am also reading a lot of Native American folklore since we are in the middle of a Native American theme study. Your students should be able to recognize the elements of a story in fictional text (characters, setting problem and solution) and they should be able to recognize the features of non-fiction texts (headings, captions, fact boxes, graphs, etc.) and utilize these features to support their comprehension.  They should also be able to state main ideas, discuss themes, recall details and answer text-based questions using details from the text in their oral and written answers.  At this point, I also make a concerted effort to push to higher level thinking activities like tracing character development in fiction, comparing fictional themes, applying lessons from folklore to their own lives, and synthesizing information from more than one source.


Hopefully by now, your children are enjoying writing.  If they aren't motivated to write, one method that has always increased writing motivation in my classes has been to allow ample time for children to share their work.  The more they get a chance to read their work to a real audience and get positive feedback from their peers the more they will want to build on their successes.  Sometimes I just have them read their writing, sometimes I use samples of their work (always with their permission) to teach a lesson, sometimes I read their writing out loud.  I always demand accountable listening (eyes on the reader, not doing anything else and ready to repeat, paraphrase, compliment, question or suggest) and after every share, I allow time for a few peer compliments and a suggestion/question or two. 

In my class, we are continuing to work on note-taking and report-writing as it applies to our Native American research, and I am starting to introduce independent writing with prompts.  For example, last week, we read a folktale about an Iroquois girl whose parents agreed to have her married to a horrible man.  After reading and discussing many different aspects of this tale, the student's follow up writing assignment was to:

Write about a time when your family made a decision that you did not agree with. Be sure to include: -what the decision was, how you felt about their decision, what happened afterwards. 

This question is very similar in format to the way the independent writing piece on Session #2 of the ELA is often worded.  For a kid-friendly rubric that I compiled from the Standards and ELA scoring sessions, see (Go for a 4! - PDF file)

Before the ELA your students should be familiar with writing literature responses, narratives, persuasive letters, friendly letters, and text-supported persuasive essays.  Reports and narrative procedural writing are also in the standards, but I have not seen them on the test in the last four years.

Specific, Isolated Test Preparation vs. Meaningful, Curriculum-Based Test Preparation          

You will have to make test preparation decisions based on your own education philosophy and the policy of your principal, your district, and your staff developers.  My advice for December is to continue to expose your students to a rich, meaningful curriculum, while at the same time being very aware of what they need to know and master for the test and what they still need to work on. I still feel that, in December, for the most part, you should be teaching these test preparation strategies within the confines of your normal curriculum but if you see a pressing need and don't know how to integrate it, teach it.  It is also my opinion, that students need to start being exposed to some isolated test preparation activities periodically, without the support of the normal curriculum   In December I usually use one to two periods of class time a week for specific, isolated, test preparation activities.  I also give one test preparation activity each weekend so parents can start to familiarize themselves with test-like activities.   I stress the importance of going over this to parents at my parent workshop.


Please feel free to email me with any questions about Test Preparation, Family Involvement or Teaching Fourth Grade.


Best of luck!  





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