A Look at our ELA Test Prep

I wish I could say we don’t spend any of our instructional time on ELA test prep.  I wish I could say that the tests were straightforward and gave me quality data to help make instructional decisions about my kids’ learning track.  I wish I could say that the tests were painless and worthwhile.  I wish I could say that they were fair, developmentally appropriate, and measured my kids’ knowledge fairly.  I wish I could say that my kids were ready for the test and we were both confident in their performance.

But, I can’t.

In less than a month my kids will begin their first round of ISTEP tests (Indiana’s version of PARCC that looks an awful lot like PARCC but is “not”).  This is the first year Pearson has developed our test, after multiple years of testing disaster with CTB, and I’m feeling a little unease about not being certain what the format is going to be.  Last year was the first year for the new test with the new standards (Indiana’s version of the Common Core that looks an awful lot like Common Core but is “not”)and brought many new changes to our testing process and left a lot of us uncertain what the format and expectations were going to be.  With a new provider, we’re again uncertain about format and expectations.  You see, format and expectations are things I need to spend instructional time teaching my kids.  Instead of teaching them math skills they’re going to need for life.  Instead of spending that time reading and discussing an amazing book I can’t wait to share with them I’m doing ELA test prep.

I need to teach format and expectations because this is the first time they’re seeing these big tests as third graders and they have this infamous Voldemort feeling surrounding them.  I need to teach format and expectations because they’re often asked to answer questions in obscure ways that even confuse adults.  I need to teach format and expectations because they’re often asked to answer questions that have more than one “right” answer, and they have to choose which one is best.  And, I need to teach format and expectations with my kids so they don’t open their test book and shut down when they see that the first story is 4-5 pages long, and so they’re confident they know how to answer the questions when they’ve muddled their way there.  So they know how to analyze the prompt to decide if they’re writing as themselves, the narrator, or from a minor character from the text that they don’t even remember was in it.  So they know how to break the question down so they’re answering based on the exact wording the question asks, and not the way they’re probably going to read it on a first read.

And, I teach my kids format and expectations because so much rides on this test.  For them and for me.    ELA test prep is commonplace in so many classrooms during this time of year, as much as we wish it wasn’t.

underline key words

One of the first things we do each year is begin underlining key words in questions.  We do this in texts as well as in math.  We begin with underlining the question word as that often gives kids a big glimpse into the answer.  Who means the response is going to be a character.  Where means the response is going to be a location or the setting.  Why means there’s a cause and effect relationship.  I teach my kids the sentence “Effect beCAUSE cause”.  Then when they get to a why question, they restate the question stem and add in because and then 9 times out of 10, they’re able to answer the question immediately when they try it that way.  Click the image below to head to another post to download the free poster.

In addition to the question word, we also underline the other key words in the question.  I tell my kids we are breaking it down into caveman speak.  Basically we want the question in the fewest form so we can focus on what’s important as we skim and scan the text to help us find our text evidence.

underline text evidenceReferring to the text to find evidence that supports answer is a critical skill.  I begin practicing this with my kids right at the beginning of the year using the Text Detectives sets from Luckeyfrog’s Lilypad.  Click the image below to head to her post to see how she sequentially teaches this strategy and to grab a few sets for yourself.

I got each of my kids a set of 8 skinny markers through DonorsChoose and they’ve used those as we’ve practiced together, in small groups, and independently.  I also often allow them to use those markers, or Scentos or colored pens, when we’re working together in small groups.  This helps bring just a bit of novelty and fun into things to help keep them engaged.

restate the question

I teach my students to restate the question by using the acronym PQA.  I introduce it the first week of school as we get to know each other through interviews.  I tell students I expect them to answer in complete sentences.  We use PQA- Put the Question in the Answer but there are many other common acronyms.  I have free posters for many of the most common acronyms.  Just click the image below to head to my post full of ideas for practicing Restating the Question.



At the beginning of the year when I introduce it, we do it orally through interviews using my Kicking Off a Great Year unit.  It’s intended to be used at the beginning of the year as the kids are getting to know each other, but it can be used at any time in the year.  In fact, I use the question cards during our morning meeting throughout the year.

Interview to practice restating the question


PQA with interviews


After students have practiced answering in complete sentences, we practice applying it by answering questions in response to reading.  As a third grade teacher, I begin with my Step 2 set.  This way, the text isn’t overwhelming for my kids but they understand what I expect of them.  They also continue to apply what we’ve learned with underlining key words and text evidence.

Comprehension Practice

With two sets, we have enough to introduce it during the beginning of the year, and still have many left over for students to independently apply it during our reading centers.  I don’t do a lot of worksheets during our reading block, but this gives me a good gauge of how my kids are independently applying the standards.  You can see Set 1 here, and Set 2 here.

Practice Question Types

I want to give my kids experience and practice with various question types they’ll see on the state test.  The weekly tests and resources with our basal just don’t have enough practice with anything open ended.  While they do have a resource for answering extended responses to literature, there’s not enough for shorter responses using text evidence.  This isn’t the focus of most of my instruction, but we apply these throughout the year in our journals and again before testing begins to get kids comfortable and confident with them.

When we come back from winter break is when we really start to think about the test being near.  Because February is Black History Month, I wanted my kids to practice the question types they’ll see on the test while still getting meaningful content instruction.  My African-American Heroes unit gives my kids practice with text-based, inferential questions in both constructed and extended response formats.

Parks Biography and Questions

This gives my kids practice with the type of questions they’ll see on the test and allow us to discuss and practice how to tackle them together.   I designed these to completely match our ISTEP test format from a few years ago.  It’s now changed, but these two types of questions (constructed response with about 5 lines to respond with text evidence as well as a longer extended response prompt based on the text) are still prominent.  I believe it matches the expectations and format of PARCC pretty well.  You can see more about the unit, and download a free set on Martin Luther King by clicking here.

A new change has been that the kids are now asked to cite the text evidence that supports their answer.  As I tell them, the test doesn’t ask them “What color is the dog?” and then they get to choose the evidence “The dog is brown”.  No, it asks them to make an inference and then gives them two inferences that seems to make sense.  Then it gives them evidence that doesn’t seem to support either one of the inferences that seems plausible.  I’m exaggerating, but they’re definitely tricky in their little 8 year old minds.  This year I created a set of Part A/Part B questions and passages called What’s the Proof to help us practice these tricky question types.

What's the Proof highlighted

Each passage fits about a half page and is duplicated on the first and second pages so students don’t have to flip back and forth between pages.  Each passage includes 4 questions with 4 questions ask for the text evidence.  Part A questions ask students to make inferential choices, and then part B requires them to cite a piece of text evidence that would support their choice.

What's the Proof

The unit includes 3 fictional texts, a myth, and 8 non-fiction texts.  The texts are written with varying levels of complexity but are intended to be great test prep for third and fourth grades.  See more about them, and try out a passage with your kids, here.

These units make up most of our ELA test prep for ISTEP.  As a third grade teacher, however, we also have another test right on the horizon: IREAD.  Third graders in Indiana must pass a reading proficiency assessment or they’ll face a mandatory retention.  To be fair, the test is pretty straightforward with many more literal questions.  Students who don’t pass truly are struggling readers who need additional assistance.  But, the phonics part of the test stalls many of the kids.  You see, it tells students to choose a word that sounds like the sounds in a given word (both verbally and in text).  For so many kids, they get tripped up with that and automatically choose the word that is spelled the same way.  They don’t break it down to really think about the sounds they are being asked to replicate.  So, we do a little bit of practice using my I Have, Who Has sets.

Phonics I Have Who Has

I have 3 different sets in the unit so that kids have practice with a variety of sounds, and to keep it fresh.  When we have 10 minutes or so to fill, this is the perfect thing for me to throw in to give kids test prep for IREAD that doesn’t feel like test prep.  I don’t know the other reading tests in other grades so I don’t know how well it matches, but it works well for us.

Phonemic Awareness I Have Who Has

If you want to see more about these sets, you can go to my TpT store and see them here.


Do you have any tried and true test prep strategies you do in your room?

ELA Test Prep

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