The test as a genre: How one group of 3rd grade teachers prepared students for their first standardized test

iStock_000014316766XSmallMany teachers consider teaching test-taking skills an unwanted task or chore, secondary in importance to regular instruction, and so rarely make much effort to be creative or innovative.

However, a recent article in The Reading Teacher describes one group of 3rd-grade teachers who decided to approach teaching test skills as seriously as they take teaching any other material.  With their 3rd-grade students scheduled to take their first standardized tests, the teachers decided to approach tests as a literacy genre.

Classroom activities included analyzing tests as a genre, studying the special language of testing, and then looking at the techniques used to trick students into giving the wrong answers.

The “test unit” sometimes included talking with students about their feelings and experiences with testing. The discussion could also touch on the downside of testing from an educator’s viewpoint, i.e. that it imposes particular meanings on literacy that ignore the breadth of students’ performance.

“In this way, students will not only become critical test takers who cannot be tricked by test writers, but also collaborate with their teachers to reconsider the regime of testing,” the authors write.

The study was conducted in a 3rd-grade public school classroom in a city that primarily served African Americans, Latinos and recent African immigrants. Most of the school population qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches and more than half of the students in the classroom received special education services.

These were children who were more likely to fail at taking the test and who could most benefit from a sense of mastery of test-taking skills and a belief that they had control over their performance, the study says.

“Fancy Language” Using Roles and Games for successful test taking

As in teaching any other subject, the authors say it’s important to engage students in learning test-taking skills by drawing on their interests and knowledge. One approach was to turn test taking into a game, with the teacher playing the role of a test-taker and the students coaching the teacher on how to provide a thorough and correct response to a test question. There were many classroom discussions about the language of testing, which one teacher referred to as “fancy language.”

“In addition, deconstructing the test as a form of language that could be learned and a game that could be easily won if not tricked by test writers, the students were positioned as critical readers and smart test takers who could switch codes and play accordingly, so as to succeed,” according to the researchers.

“Learning to play the game of testing was a sign of students’ empowerment,” the researchers say.
Building reading stamina was an important part of reading instruction that was emphasized in the class throughout the school year. With the exam requiring that students read for 45 minutes uninterrupted, the teachers intensified their efforts to keep students reading individually for longer periods.

The 3rd-grade classes had a competition to see which could read for longer periods of time and students even engaged in “spying” to see how long the classes had independent reading time.

There are 3 major lessons to be learned from the experiences of this 3rd-grade class, the authors write.

  1. Test preparation does not need to be a dreaded and monotonous practice.  Teachers can find ways to present it as a game that can be won.
  2. Appealing to their playful childhoods and everyday experiences and interests can help engage students in becoming good at test-taking skills.
  3. Collaborating with other teachers can bring a lot of ideas and enthusiasm into teaching test-taking skills.

“Meaningful Practice: Test Prep in a Third-Grade Public School Classroom,” by Stavroula Kontovourki and Carolyn Campis, The Reading Teacher, 2010, volume 64, Number 4, pp. 236-245.

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