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NYC Helpline: How To: Teaching Upper Grade Literacy

Preparing Your Middle School Students for the New York State ELA Exam
by Lisa Peterson


The ELA exam looms large in the mind of every New York State English teacher. Preparing your students for this exam can be intimidating, especially if you’re not familiar with the format. If you break it down, however, you will see that the exam focuses on the same basic reading and writing skills you have been teaching all year. You will certainly want to prepare your students for the format of the exam, but you won’t be starting from scratch.

What’s on the ELA?
The ELA exam has three parts, which differ depending on the grade level. The odd-numbered grades (3, 5, and 7) take a shorter test than the even-numbered grades (4, 6, and 8). I will focus on the middle school grades, but the same principles hold true for the elementary grades as well.

  • Reading comprehension:  For grades 6 and 8 this section is purely multiple choice. Students in grade 7 must answer two short response questions as well.

  • Listening:  Students must listen to a passage, take notes, and answer questions. Students in grades 6 and 8 must complete both short and extended response questions. Students in grade 7 must answer multiple choice questions about the passage and complete short response questions.

  • Response to written passages (grades 6 and 8 only):  Students read two different passages on the same topic (one literary passage and one informational passage). The students must complete both short response questions and an extended response question that requires them to use information from both passages.

  • Editing (grade 7 only):  Students must fix common grammar and usage errors.

Short response questions may require students to complete a graphic organizer or write a paragraph-length answer. Extended response questions require essay-length answers.

The test is given over three days. Certain student populations are eligible for extended time or other testing modifications. In general, however, the time is broken down as follows:

Grades 6 and 8

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3

4-5 passages
(literary and informational)

26 multiple choice questions

1 listening selection
(literary for grade 6, informational for grade 8)

3 short response questions

1 extended response question

2 paired passages
(literary and informational)

3 short response questions

1 extended response question
45 minutes 45 minutes
(plus time for listening to selection)
60 minutes

Grade 7

Day 1 Day 2

4-5 passages (literary and informational)

26 multiple choice questions

2 short response questions

1 listening selection (informational)

4 multiple choice questions

2 short response questions

1 editing paragraph

50 minutes 30 minutes
(plus time for listening to selection)

How Can I Prepare My Students?
When preparing your students for the ELA, there are a few things you should keep in mind. The first is that the multiple choice section is by far the most heavily weighted. Even though you might think your students are fine with multiple choice questions, it pays to spend some extra time preparing them. However, this does NOT mean you should neglect the other sections. For students who test poorly, good scores on the written sections can mean the difference between passing and failing the entire exam.

The second thing to keep in mind is that middle-schoolers come to you with a variety of testing experiences and test-taking strategies from previous years. They can start to analyze their own preferences as test-takers and adopt strategies to help them overcome their personal hurdles. For example, some of my students have trouble with nerves, while others have trouble with boredom. I find it helpful, usually after one of the first practice tests of the year, to have students write a reflection about the process of taking the test. Then we create two lists: “Things That Make Test-Taking Difficult” and “Helpful Strategies for Test-Taking.”  I keep these lists up in the classroom and add to them periodically as we prepare for the test.

Finally, you should try to make test preparation as much fun as possible. Frankly, we all know how deadly boring it can be to listen to a teacher drone on about answer choices. You can create your own test prep materials from more interesting passages and make some of the activities into games. Above all, keep the students as involved as possible.

Multiple Choice Questions
There are many commercial books that help students practice for different types of passages or different types of questions. In addition, I find it helpful to focus on general multiple-choice test-taking strategies. The student handout Multiple Choice Questions: Tips and Tricks contains most of the tips I like to give my students. I usually introduce these ideas with activities. For example, I introduce the idea of previewing a passage and reading the questions beforehand with a simple activity from the 2000 ELA test.

As you prepare your students for the multiple choice section of the test, try to maximize student involvement. For example, after students complete a practice passage, many teachers simply go over the answers with the class, asking for student volunteers. The problem with this approach is that only one student at a time is truly involved.

I pair my students up after they’ve completed practice passages. The partners need to discuss the answers with each other and complete a new answer sheet that contains answers they agree on. (Usually, I have them write justifications for their answers as well.)  I grade only the sheet they complete together, so they have an incentive to make sure the answers are correct. They absolutely have to agree on the answers – if they put down a different choice for each person, I mark it wrong.

The purpose of this activity is to force the students to discuss their answers. Although there are fifteen discussions going on at the same time, thirty students (well, maybe that’s wishful thinking, but certainly a high percentage of the students!) are involved. (I find that this activity works best when the partners read at a similar level. If one student is a much better reader, then the second student tends to simply rubber-stamp the other student’s answers.) Although I announce the correct answers at the end, the real discussion takes place in the partner groups.

A colleague of mine had a different activity for going over multiple choice answers. She wrote A, B, C, and D on large cardboard squares, and then placed each square in a different corner of the room. She would read the question and then have students move to the letter they had chosen. Then she would give spokespeople for each group a chance to convince the others to move to their answer choice. Although this activity is probably a bit too chaotic for most classrooms, it can work well in a small group setting.

The Listening Section
As you prepare your students for this section, your main focus should be on helping them take effective notes. Most students are able to get down the main points of the passage, but usually they need lots of details to answer the questions well. The student handout Listening and Taking Notes: Tips and Tricks contains some of the advice I give to my students. In addition, I have found the following activities to be helpful:

Brainstorm purposes for listening:  Sixth graders will hear a literary passage, so they should be primed to listen for characters, setting, problem and solution. Seventh and eighth graders will hear an informational passage, so they should be primed to listen for main ideas and details, sequence, comparisons, etc. However, I don’t suggest having students create an outline (such as the Five W’s) before they begin taking notes. Several years ago, a staff developer in my district analyzed student notes from the listening section, and she found that the most successful students simply wrote down the information in the order they heard it.

MODEL, MODEL, MODEL:  Students need to see effective note-taking to know what it looks like. If you can get an extra adult in your room for a few minutes, have that person read a passage while you take notes on a chart. Later, the class can analyze actual student notes. You can make copies of them, or you can have student volunteers take notes on overheads.

Focus on brevity:  It helps to have students practice saying things in as few words as possible. They can practice rewriting all sorts of things in fewer words, from sentences you make up to actual notes. You can also have them practice using common abbreviations. (A list is included in the student handout.)

Make sure the notes are useful:  Have students practice using their notes to answer questions after some time has elapsed. If the notes are good, they should still be able to answer the questions. Alternatively, you might have students exchange notes with each other and use a partner’s notes to answer the questions. Then they can give each other feedback on the quality of their notes.

Written Responses
Students have to develop written responses in several places on the ELA exam. Whether the response is short (paragraph-length) or extended (essay-length), the same general principles apply, i.e., the principles of good writing in general. However, the rubrics for the ELA emphasize certain aspects of good writing above others. As a teacher you should help your students practice those aspects most intensively. For example, I have always emphasized essay structure – intro, body, conclusion. Although this structure is helpful in the sense that it makes it easier for graders to understand a student’s response, good essay structure won’t get that student any points by itself. I looked at the different rubrics I received as a grader, and I combined the general ideas into a student-friendly rubric. You can use this rubric to help the students analyze any writing they do to practice for the exam.

What’s important on the state’s rubrics?  Primarily students need to make sure they answer the question. For a short response question, you can have students use the question to begin their answer. (Question:  Why did Rufus want to leave his home?  Answer:  Rufus wanted to leave his home because…)  For an extended response question, you can have students cross out the parts of the question as they answer them.

Another important idea is DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS. Students will only receive middle-level scores with clear and accurate responses. In order to score higher, they need to provide lots of details. You can have students write initial responses and then have them add in details. You can also have them construct outlines with details before writing their responses.

The student handout Written Responses: Tips and Tricks contains some of the other advice I like to give my students.

Test Day!!
When all your preparation is done, the most important thing is for you and your students to think about what you have achieved and feel proud. Try to relax, help your students to relax, and let everyone do their best!


Questions or comments? E-mail Lisa.

See also: Preparing for the ELA in December by Lamson Lam



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