It’s finally spring! For most, this means a welcome break from the cold, dark days of winter. But for teachers, spring means something else.
These days, testing season involves day after day of boring test prep, test anxiety, and seemingly endless test sessions that are almost as painful for teachers as they are for students.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Below, we’ve identified 5 tried and true techniques for making the dreaded testing season not only an effective time to get some real, valuable instruction in, but also fun.
1. Differentiated Thematic Texts Jigsaw
Divide the class into homogenous groups of 4-6 students based on their reading level. Decide on a CommonLit theme relevant to what you’re doing in class, or just choose one that you think students will love discussing.
Find one CommonLit text for each group from that theme that aligns to the group’s reading level. For example, if you want students to discuss the question “Does money buy happiness?” you might assign your lower-level groups O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” or the fable “The Goose with the Golden Egg,” your middle-level groups NPR’s “You Can Buy Happiness, If It’s An Experience” or Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” and your higher-level groups the myth of “Midas” or an excerpt from the memoir Nickel and Dimed.
Give each student a copy of their group’s text, and assign roles like “Group Leader,” “Materials Manager,” “Timekeeper,” “Scribe,” or, my favorite, “Positive Vibes Technician” (a student in charge of encouraging and giving positive reinforcement to their peers for participating).
Have each group read through their text together as you circulate and provide feedback. Assign the CCSS-aligned text-dependent questions, emphasizing that students in the group must discuss and come to a consensus on each answer (I usually put the Scribe in charge of recording the team’s final answers). Tell students that the group with the highest average is the winner (feel free to give out prizes, but I find bragging rights to be sufficient in most cases!).
Once all groups have finished their questions, begin the discussion on the overall theme. Ask each Group Leader to share out a summary of their text, and how to relates to the essential question. Allow students to agree and disagree with each other’s statements, using evidence from their texts to support their arguments.
2. Multiple-Choice Relay Races
This is one of the most effective and engaging methods for getting in multiple-choice practice that I’ve ever encountered. It does take a good amount of preparation, but it is very much worth it!
To prepare, identify 4-8 short CommonLit texts aligned to the class’s average reading level (or slightly above) -- one for each relay round. Make sure the texts have at least a couple of multiple choice questions each (I ask them to skip the short answers for this activity). Print out a copy of each text for every group (or for every student, if you can). I usually sort the texts into hanging file folders for each relay round so they’re easy to grab as each group completes a round. I also keep a copy of the multiple-choice answer key right in front, so I can grade them as they come in.
Divide the class into heterogeneous groups of 4-5 students. Have them rearrange their desks so that each group is sitting at a “table” together. Explain that they have the class period to get through as many relay rounds as possible, and points will be given for correct answers and for speed (First team to finish gets 5 bonus points, second team gets 4, and so on). I also gave bonus points for excellent annotations.
Here’s the big catch -- teams must come to a consensus for each answer. This forces students to have in-depth, heated discussions about rigorous questions, and use evidence to back up their arguments. I will regularly hear students who almost never participate in class discussions fervently argue to a peer, “No, the answer is definitely B -- look at paragraph 4!! The evidence says…” It’s absolutely amazing.
To start, place the Round 1 text face down on each table. Ask for a drumroll, and then say “Go!” Once a team has read and come to a consensus for all the multiple-choice answers for that round, a team member runs up to you to turn in their paper. Hand them the next round, then quickly grade their answers. I like to keep a live scoreboard up on the board as a motivator.
This might sound like mayhem, and it can be a bit raucous, but I guarantee kids will have fun and get valuable practice dissecting a text and supporting their answers with evidence.
3. Rotating ELA Practice Centers
With this activity, students get to move around the classroom while practicing multiple skills. Set up the classroom into 4-6 “Centers,” each with a different practice activity that takes around 5-10 minutes to complete. Center activities can include:
- Poetry Practice
- Non-Fiction Practice
- Fiction Practice
- Drama Practice
- Vocabulary Review
- Literary Terms Review
For each center, prepare a folder with enough materials for every student. This can consist of a short passage with questions for the genre stations, vocabulary or literary term flashcards to study, etc.
Divide the class into the same number of groups as you have stations. Set a classroom timer for the amount of minutes you think is sufficient for the activity length. Each group starts at one station, then rotates to the next when the timer goes off. Repeat until each group has been to every station.
Review answers to assignments as a class once every group has finished their last rotation, or collect and grade assignments.
4. On-Demand Essay Challenge
Preparing students to write the types of timed essays required on some standardized tests can be daunting. Make it both rigorous and exciting with an on-demand essay challenge! This activity requires students to work together to practice skills they learned in class like brainstorming, outlining, drafting theses, etc. in the context of a quick writing prompt.
For this activity, divide the class into heterogeneous groups of 4-6 students. Come up with various practice tasks that students can collaborate on in short bursts of time. For example,
- Create a brainstorm for a given prompt
- Create an outline for a given prompt
- Draft a thesis for a given prompt
- Write a lead for a given prompt
- Identify key points for a persuasive essay
Keep the tasks a surprise for each round. I usually put them into a PowerPoint presentation that’s projected on to the board, or you can write them on chart paper. Decide on a time limit that would be appropriate for each round.
Adhere several sheets of chart paper to the wall next to each group, and give them a few markers. Tell students that they will not only be scored on the quality of their responses, but also their collaboration. Points will be deducted from a group if even one team member is not participating.
To start a round, reveal the task and start the timer. Students must work collaboratively to complete the task on their chart paper. Circulate while the clock is ticking, assigning scores to each team for collaboration and quality. Once the timer goes off, shout “Time’s up!” Students should step away from their chart paper. Take any extra time needed to finish scoring, then give some quick whole-class feedback. Have students clear their used chart paper and prepare for the next round.
Once the rounds are finished, announce the winner and debrief as a class. What were some strengths you and the students noticed? What were some areas for improvement?
5. Close-Reading Poster Project
Another group activity, this one gets kids really diving deep into a text. After demonstrating how to do a close-read with the whole class during a previous period, choose a short CommonLit text to focus on for the period that is great for close-reading -- something rich in symbolism, imagery, figurative language, diction, characterization, etc. One of my favorites is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” for older students or “Fish Cheeks” for those in lower grades.
Copy the portion of the text you want students to analyze closely onto a piece of chart paper -- one for each group. I’ve enlisted the help of students with good handwriting to do this for me, or if you have a poster printer you can make copies with that.
Divide the class into heterogeneous groups of 4-6 students. Have them arrange their desks into a “table,” and introduce the text. Explain that they will be analyzing the text in their groups -- without the guidance of a teacher. Each group will be judged by their annotated poster, and the winning team will earn a prize (or bragging rights!).
Give each group a list of annotation tasks and discussion prompts to complete the analysis. You may want to give specific directions for how to annotate the text (ex. Circle “woods” and identify what your group believes this symbolizes and why in the margin).
As students are working through the text, re-reading multiple times and discussing their interpretations, circulate and provide feedback. Once each group’s annotated poster is done, have students do a gallery walk. Finally, discuss each group’s interpretation as a class. What did people agree upon? Where were there differences in interpretation? Are these different interpretations valid? Why or why not?
Have Ideas to Share?
What do you do to get kids prepared and excited for testing season? Send your ideas to us and they may be featured on a future post!