Preparing for the ELA in December
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
the Lens of Test Preparation:
Preparing Parents -- A
Parent Workshop on Preparing for the ELA
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."
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)
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)
the importance of the workshop.
the Parent Workshop
Prepare your workshop.
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
Prepare the following
Information Sheet - this may include test
dates, times, and general information about the ELA
Information Sheet - Word Document)
ELA Questions and Strategies
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)
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
Parent Tips handout (Sample
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.
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.
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 (Cricket, Spider,
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
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.
feel free to email me with any questions about Test Preparation,
Family Involvement or Teaching Fourth Grade.