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NYC Helpline: How To: Teach Literacy

Using Your Writers’ Workshop to Prepare Students for Standardized Tests
by Allison Demas

In a writers’ workshop students have the freedom to choose a topic, utilize resources (i.e., word wall, other students), and take their time to complete their work. During a standardized test situation the students’ are assigned a topic, have a time constraint and must rely solely upon their own abilities. Standardized tests evaluate the students’ abilities to create a well-constructed, coherent, informative piece of writing. Since the ultimate goal of teaching writing is to help students gain the skills necessary to create well-written text, in a variety of genres, the existence of a standardized test in our students’ futures shouldn’t limit instruction.

The existence of a standardized test in our students’ futures should also not strike fear in the hearts of our children. We must always remember that, no matter what the grade, they are, first and foremost, still children. We are trying to prepare our students, our children for the real world. We teach them how to walk, how to read, how to write, with a great deal of patience and hand-holding long before we expect them to use these tools independently. Unfortunately, tests and time constraints are a part of the real world. We need to use the same patience and hand-holding techniques to teach children to deal with these aspects of the world long before we expect them to perform within these constraints.

I suggest that you begin at the very beginning of the school year, perhaps setting aside one workshop period each week for test preparation. However, I do not advise that you tell them it is “test prep.” Sometimes the very word “test” can create stress. Also, start out slowly, keeping pace with your students’ abilities and building toward the structure of the testing situation as your students abilities grow.

I am not suggesting that you ask the students to complete a whole test or to do what hasn’t been taught. You are simply preparing them for the circumstances that will exist during a testing situation. Once a week, you could provide a topic and request that the students write about it within a specified period of time. Follow-up with a “group share.” You can discuss how they felt about the topic, what may have helped them write, what they had difficulty with. You can arrange it so that the test prep is handled in the same, safe manner as your regular workshop. If the students know what to expect, and become comfortable in the setting there will be less anxiety as the real testing dates approach.

First of all you need to become knowledgeable about the tests administered in your area. Note the guidelines for evaluation of written portions of these tests. Then create a rubric which reflects these guidelines. Use this rubric with your class so the students become familiar with providing the elements necessary to create a well-written piece. You might want to slowly build this rubric with your class as your lessons scaffold and their skills build solid foundations.

As a matter of course you should be conducting mini-lessons on such topics as writing an engaging introduction, writing paragraphs and providing supporting evidence. Your lessons should include staying on topic, writing a conclusion, and choosing a title to match the topic. You should be offering lessons on writing conventions, as required by your students. The writers’ workshop should then provide the opportunity for them to hone these skills.

You should frequently provide your students with exposure to and demonstration of the use of graphic organizers. You should model the thought processes and strategies employed with these visual tools. Then you should provide ample opportunity for your students to use them. You are not “teaching to the test,” you are teaching the skills students need to help them as writers.

Some teachers put teaching “on hold” in order to conduct “test prep” with their students. This is usually done just prior to the administration of the tests. It is my belief that this only serves to generate apprehension, which can be crippling.

The advantage to providing your students with ample opportunity to prepare for the tests during the writers’ workshop is that they become comfortable with the format, the procedure and the process. As I stated earlier, standardized tests are only evaluating the students abilities to perform what you have taught them to do. The only new ingredient is the circumstance of their performance. If you eliminate the “newness” of this ingredient then they will be comfortable performing to the best of their abilities - just like they do on any given day in their writers’ workshop.

Questions or comments? E-mail Allison.

See also:

Getting Started in Writing Workshop by Miriam Bissu


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