I’ll never forget the tension in the room the day our entire English department got called into the conference room. We were in trouble. Or rather, our scores were in trouble. But as all educators know, it’s often difficult to separate yourself from the numbers on a page when the stakes are high. While I won’t pretend I was open to their strongly worded suggestions at the time, in hindsight, it ended up sparking a pivotal change in my teaching. After the dust settled, I realized that ELA test prep activities were not only essential but also equitable. I also realized they are much more effective when you do them all year long– not just in the panicked weeks before state tests.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you have to teach to the test to get high scores. In fact, most of my blog content is about inspiring creative thinking with engaging lesson plans. However, I do think incorporating explicit test prep strategies throughout your year-long curriculum will better help prepare students for the test come April or May.
Here are some easy ways to incorporate middle and high school ELA test prep into your regular curriculum:
Use Standardized Vocabulary
One of the easiest changes you can make to prepare students for your standardized test is to standardize the language you use in everyday teaching. For example, I personally use the phrase “main idea,” but as you can see in the example above, this state test uses “central idea.” With just this one simple change, students will pick up the testing jargon throughout the year so that it doesn’t slow them down or confuse them during state testing days.
Another hack you can do is to analyze your state practice tests from a mathematical lens. First, look through some of the sample test questions. Then, use the “control F” keyboard shortcut to get a count of how many times that word or phrase is used. Next, put the words and counts into a sheet and see what you notice. What type of questions or phrases are used most frequently? Which are used the least? Lastly, apply this data by focusing more on high frequency test questions throughout the integrated test prep ideas below.
Mimic Standardized Test Questions
If you give unit tests after reading novels, then you have an opportunity to incorporate test prep without sacrificing an instructional day! Though it does take some time to write the test questions, all you have to do is make sure that your unit tests mimic standardized test questions.
Though all state tests are slightly different, one thing I’ve noticed and try to mimic in my unit tests is that the answers all start with the same stem. For example, you can see in the sample above that all the answers all start with “He uses.”
Beyond this small tweak, you can also use test prep questions such as a prompt to put into AI or as inspiration to write yourself. Like the tip above, the goal is to try to mimic how questions are worded so that students get used to seeing the types of questions they’ll face on state testing days. This goes far in building stamina and confidence over time, especially if they have an opportunity to track improvement!
Incorporate Cold Reads
Adding to the point above, one of the biggest changes I made with my year-long test prep strategy was to add “cold reads” to every test. A cold read simply means a passage that students haven’ t read before but that tests the strategies they have learned. My favorite place to get these cold reads is CommonLit. They have a variety of passages that are organized by topic, each with built-in test prep questions. For example, if you are teaching The Crucible, they offer a ton of thematic pairings.
Once you start using passages and test prep questions like this, be sure to track the data and see which skills (not content topics) students are struggling with. Use that data to inform your next unit.
Start ELA Test Prep Bellringers
My favorite way to start a class is with 10 minutes of free choice reading. While simply reading does wonders for improving ELA skills in general, you can also pair this with ELA test prep bellringers for an extra test prep boost. Here’s an overview of how I set up my book bellringers:
Week 1 Informational Text Focus (article of the week):
Main Claim Monday – Students read the article of the week and determine the main claim and evidence used to support the claim.
Technical Tuesday – Students reread the article and determine how a section is structured.
Wonder Wednesday – Students reread the article and ask wonder questions.
Test Prep Thursday – Students practice vocabulary in context and other test prep skills.
Free Choice Friday – Teacher choices from a variety of activities including:
- Free-choice Friday (students get extra time to read their independent reading books)
- First Chapter Friday (read one chapter to get students hooked)
- First View Friday (show a book trailer to get students hooked)
- Find Out Friday (students follow a rabbit hole they are curious about)
- Face-off Friday (students play a review game)
Week 2 Grammar Focus (first line mentor text):
Mentor Sentence Monday – Students read a first line of a YA book as a mentor sentence and compare it to an ELA skill in their current independent reading book.
Teach It Tuesday – Teacher gives a mini grammar lesson related to the first line.
What Do You Notice Wednesday – Students take an even closer look at the first line and notice things like author’s voice, tone, cover art themes, and more.
Test Prep Thursday – Students work through grammar test prep questions.
First Chapter Friday – Students hear more of the first chapter either through a read aloud, audiobook sample, or eBook preview and decide if they want to add this book to their to-be-read list.
As you can see, every other week rotates between informational text focus and grammar focus. Every day reinforces an ELA skill with explicit test prep questions on Thursdays. Additionally, every week encourages more free choice reading!
The grammar weeks use first lines of popular YA books to hook students in reading more books, and the informational text weeks are all about the benefits of reading for pleasure. If you would like to start incorporating these test prep bellringers, you can download them here:
Play ELA Test Prep Games
Gamification makes anything more fun! While I think it’s more common to use long form test prep games like escape rooms or review Olympics closer to testing season, you can sprinkle in short review games anytime!
Here are a few quick test prep game ideas to have on hand so that you can play them anytime you have a few extra minutes to fill:
- Play vocabulary games using standardized test jargon
- Play reverse grammar charades
- Play digital test prep games like Kahoot or Gimkit (use QuestionWell AI to write and export)
As I said in the introduction, I don’t think you have to teach to the test to help students succeed on standardized tests. But the truth is that all students deserve an equal chance at success. From my observation, parents with the means to do so will often hire private test prep tutors to help their child do well on tests like the ACT or SAT. Many schools offer test prep electives, but not every student can fit them into their schedule.
By incorporating ELA test prep all year long, you’ll help fill the gaps and give every student an opportunity to practice and a chance to show their growth.