Returning from the Holidays: Test Preparation and Goal-Setting

By Victoria Jasztal on December 17, 2009

Holiday break is fast-approaching for your students' long-awaited time off from school. Yet as the second quarter is drawing to a close in my fourth grade classroom at Moton Elementary School, I am already thinking about effective test-taking strategies I will teach my students when they return in mid-January. The second week in February will be the Florida Writes, where my students will be writing to a 45-minute writing prompt. The following month, the class will be tested in reading and math. This purpose of this post is to share some writing and reading strategies that have worked well for me and may help you effectively prepare your students for their upcoming assessments.

Part 1: Writing

Gather baseline data
. When your students return after the holiday season, it is important to see where your students are strong and where they need more instruction. For example, my students are phenomenal writers, always coming up with incredibly creative ideas. Their grammar as a class is above par. When they write sentences, they almost always capitalize and include periods. Their word choice and usage of skills is exceptional as well. However, at times, they do not elaborate on their ideas as much as they could. I feel from time to time I need to probe them with questions.


Review important writing skills. Melissa Forney told me something important at a conference last July: "Writing is rated by having a beginning, middle, ending, details, and skills as well as being outstanding. B-M-E-D-S-O." My students receive ratings from a 0-6.0 on each of their writing prompts based on having those components. The most important component to push your students above average is making sure they use skills when they write. These are skills I have reviewed with my students recently: grabbers, strong endings, similes, metaphors, quotations with words better than said, slanted thoughts to self, lingering thoughts (or "dot-dot-dots", as my students like calling it), million dollar words, idioms, onomatopoeia, alliteration, color words, unique names, and enhanced descriptions of characters as well as the setting. Here is a sensational, free resource for you to print out from Melissa Forney to use with your students if you do not have any of her books. If you do desire to purchase any of her books, though, Writing Superstars is by far the most comprehensive, geared towards preparing for writing assessments.

Create writing preparation podcasts with your students. Last year, my students recorded podcasts for their pen pals in St. Augustine explaining what was important when they wrote the day of the Florida Writes. Here is Skylar's podcast last year that she recorded for her pen pal Victoria. Additionally, here is what Danielle recorded for her pen pals Cydney and Erika.   

Connect writing to student interests. Below is a photo from "The Car Lot", a description lesson I use every year with my students. I have a chart with different pictures of vehicles and classmates have to guess which car each student is describing.


Make writing hands-on. Last year, I prepared "theme boxes" of materials that encouraged my students to write. For example, one box included America-related items while another box included seashore-related items. Students rotated through groups and wrote down as much as they could when they "experienced" each box.

Getting parents to assist is wonderful as well.
Above is a photo of mom from last year's class working with one of the groups as they looked through hands-on materials.

Even coming up with a theme before a writing assessment can be motivating for your students. Our theme last year and three years ago was, "You shoot, you score, for a 4 or more on the Florida Writes!" Students received a goody bag the day before the test that included a basketball, a "million dollar" candy bar (to remind them to use their "million dollar words"), a million dollar pencil, a glitter gripper and an expository prompt I wrote for each student explaining the reasons why I valued them.


Part 2: Reading

Here is my page that includes resources I feel help prepare my students for the FCAT reading test every year. Prior to the test, I host Reading Jeopardy (find a Jeopardy template at, prepare a packet of stories that pertain to their interests, and prepare charts that teach a variety of important strategies. This holiday break, I will be preparing an entirely new chart tablet that I will be sharing here in about a month.

Here is a link explaining some of the most important reading skills: author's purpose, cause and effect, chronological order, utilizing graphic organizers, probable passage, QAR, selective underlining, semantic feature analysis and story mapping. Additionally, these reading skills cards were created by me with the intention of sharing them this time of year.

It is important to share read-alouds regularly from differing genres. Make sure you expose your students to all kinds of fictional genres and non-fiction topics. Expanding one's schema broadens their understanding!

Here is an important list of general test-taking strategies for reading that I share every year:

  • Set a purpose for reading by looking at questions, discovering text features, and reading the first paragraph of your selection.
  • If you are taking a test with more than one selection, check your answers after EACH selection!
  • Eliminate answers you know are unreasonable. Check the correct answer in the long run. Normally two answers are impossible and one is close to the correct answer.
  • Answer vocabulary questions first because you do not need to go back to the selection to answer those questions. Those questions just require using context clues.
  • Understand your author's purposes and determine what the author's purpose is not long after you read the selection.
  • Sometimes, boxing paragraphs makes the selection easier to remember, in smaller "segments".

Last, here is what I give my students the first day they return from holiday break, explaining how they are part of a team:

We are like a sports team preparing for a huge match in March when we take the FCAT. That day will be like the “Big Game”. Practice tests are like scrimmages because coaches don’t want you heading into a game not knowing what to do. How many of you have been on a sports team?

How have your coaches prepared for you the big matches?

  • Pacing- Think of a test as a bunch of track-and-field events. Pacing your energy and concentration among all the events they face will give you the best results.
  • Using the Two-Pass Strategy- Sometimes when a person hits a hard question, he or she feels it is hard to move on. Sometimes you need to skip questions that are too hard at first and then go back to them. That is taking two passes through the test. Mark an empty box next to the problems that give you the most frustration.

I will share several more reading strategies with you over the next few months.

Part 3: Personal Goal-Setting

Here is one last checklist for you that may prepare you for your return from holiday break.

  • In which area(s) have my students shown hesitation?
  • How can I develop mini-lessons that focus on those areas?
  • Which lessons went particularly well in my classroom this year?
  • How can I use technology in preparing my students for upcoming assessments?
  • Analyzing data, in which areas were my students weak as a class?
  • How have I differentiated instruction this year, and has it worked well?
  • Have I exerted my absolute best? 
  • Is there a genre of books my students have not taken interest? (In my case, it is historical fiction, so they will hear Number the Stars by Lois Lowry in January.)
  • How do I envision student achievement in the next few months?

If you have any ideas to share or any questions, please do not hesitate to comment! Happy Holidays!


hi my name is samari and i am in 4 grade

... Thanks for visiting! I plan on writing a few posts for teachers to share with their students on here. You may like some of the links or ideas. Enjoy your 4th grade year! - Ms. Jasztal

Hello! I have had only three ELL students in six years (our school has a low ELL population of perhaps 40 out of 800 students), yet these are a few ideas I have used that have proven effective:

I have always written out lists of words that pertain to specific topics. For example, I have written out lists of food-related words, and in September, my students look up home improvement-related words using architecture magazines. Besides that, I utilize the thesaurus a lot; my students are always looking up words to use instead of words like "said" (though that is an extremely small aspect of our writing curriculum). Another resource I have used is pictures because students can get so many creative ideas in their minds by looking at them. I have used pictures from World War II, of beads, people, objects and colorful patterns. Pictures are universal and can enhance any ELL writing curriculum!

Hopefully I shared good ideas; I will try to think of more as I write future posts this year.


Excellent post. You bring up an excellent point that reading and writing need to be integrated as content based subjects. I'm curious to hear to hear your thoughts on integrating ELLs alongside the writing curriculum.

Dorit Sasson The New Teacher Resource Center "Make Your Teaching Sparkle. Teach for Success. Make a difference in the classroom."

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