Preparing Students for State Writing Assessments

By Victoria Jasztal on January 16, 2010

The time may be approaching for your students to take their first State writing assessment, and you may be feeling overwhelmed, out of steam, or anxious. In Florida, it is called the Florida Writes and it's administered to fourth grade students in February. January and February are hectic months in my classroom, yet I always approach this time of year with confidence because I know I can encourage my students to perform well with enriching instruction.

Writing is an incredible subject that regretfully not every student appreciates. Teaching writing is important, whether an assessment is approaching or not. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, "students work throughout their academic careers to achieve writing skills that illustrate written communication: clearly, strategically, critically, and creatively." Here are some ideas to make writing REAL for your students!


Everyday Lesson Ideas

Onomatopoeia: Teach your students about onomatopoeia, or sound effect words. Razzle Dazzle Writing by Melissa Forney has an entertaining poem that includes a plethora of sound effects as well as one about

Roller Coasters: You can have your students write out their own examples of sound effect words and even make those sound effects with one another.

Difference Between High-Scoring Papers: In Florida, students score between a 0-6 on the state writing assessment. Teach your students the difference between high-scoring papers. I show my students examples of papers that scored a 4, 5, and 6.

Black Lagoon Character: Read one of the Black Lagoon books with your students. For example, I recently read The Music Teacher from the Black Lagoon. Students then came up with their own Black Lagoon character after we discussed many possibilities. I encourage my students to write at least one page for this assignment using many exaggerations, similes, and metaphors as well as vivid vocabulary. Ultimately, students learn about characterization.

Write Mystery-Related Stories: I give this prompt every year: "You have moved into a beautiful old house. Everything is wonderful until one afternoon when you discover a secret passage and old papers saying the house has not been lived in for over a hundred years!" Before you begin writing, think about how you found the secret passage and how life in the house changes after finding the secret passage. Now tell a story about your adventure in the old house. Prior to having students write the story, show them pictures of old houses, secret passages, and pictures of families from over one hundred years ago to show them the way people dressed and looked then. Printing out pictures by visiting Google.com is your lifesaver for lessons like these. This year, I put the pictures into a PowerPoint slideshow.

Choice: Encourage your students to write about topics they enjoy. I have been doing this for many years, and it brings out their most vivid, descriptive writing. Tell students to write a story about something they have a passion for. Here are a few examples: a championship game, the time you read a Harry Potter book and were "grabbed" into the action, the time you went to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, and the time your family went to New York for the holiday season.

Encourage Reflection: Encourage students to reflect on their writing from earlier in the year. I keep portfolios of my students' writing, yet I normally do not show them until not long before the test because I want them to notice the magnitude of writing they have completed over the course of the year. During this lesson, I give them a checklist including a list of skills like onomatopoeia, color words, grabbers, transition words, and rich vocabulary words (I call them "million dollar words"; co-workers of mine call them "college words"). Ultimately, I want them to notice where their writing was strong and where they can view prior writing as "works in progress". They are encouraged to edit pieces of writing from earlier in the year using the skills they have acquired now.

Specifically, students can use the creativity slider from Melissa Forney's Writing Superstars (page 112).

Bring in Sounds: I teach a lesson that revolves around describing the rainforest every year where I play a sound effect CD for about fifteen minutes. I ask them to lead their reader through the rainforest with vocabulary that helps them to envision being there. For the first two minutes of the lesson, I have my students close their eyes as well, not writing anything at all, because I want them to generate a scene in their mind.

Three on the Scene: Last year, I came up with this lesson called Three on the Scene. It has proven to be an awesome lesson. Have students choose a place like a restaurant, airport, or theme park where many people congregate. They then have to describe the situations of three different people who are at that location. Come up with an example of your own as well. Let's say you choose Busch Gardens and your three types of people are a timid person who despises roller coasters, a roller coaster fanatic, and a whiny kid who is not tall enough to go on the ride. You would then name your characters and describe how they partake in the action of the scene.

Revising "Boring" Writing: Come up with the most boring example EVER. Once I wrote one about Sea World that basically stated "I went here, I saw this, I saw that". Have students elaborate on that non-example, changing words and extending descriptions.

Write for an Award: Last year, I started a contest extravaganza where they wrote descriptions that hopefully win them an award. Here is a list of my awards: Gross Me Out, Incredible Description, Beautiful Description of Nature, Sports Action, Humorous Memoir, Fantasy Writer, Action and Adventure, Animal Writer, and Word Crafter.

Funniest of All: The most unexpected yet endearing journal entry for my class came in September 2009 when my students were supposed to take the FAIR assessment and all the computers froze. The prompt was called "It most frustrates me when...". THE KIDS WOULD NOT STOP WRITING. This lesson was when they came out of their "writing shells," crafting descriptions with passion and voice.


Vocabulary Games

You've Been Sentenced: How many words can your students use from a game to come up with a crazy sentence, earning as many points as possible? You've Been Sentenced is an addicting game for at least three players where you can purchase add-on decks in a number of categories.

Science Diction: Want to extend your students' science vocabulary? The game Science Diction encourages players to use a variety of modalities in learning new vocabulary words.


Highly Recommended Websites

Writingfix.com: One day last month, I received an e-mail from Corbett Harrison that he visited my website. I was absolutely ASTOUNDED because I have been visiting his website, Writingfix.com, for quite some time. He includes these incredible prompt generators on his website that encourage kids to come up with numerous creative writing ideas. Even better, he and a team of amazing teachers have come up with mini-lessons that revolve around books and songs. Try one of his lessons with your students and submit their writing to his website because he is always seeking student examples. Additionally, his wife Dena has a website geared toward middle-school students and ideas for incorporating writing in other subjects, such as science, math and reading, are included. I guarantee that you can gather something astounding from this website if you have never visited it before.

Scholastic Story Starters: http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/storystarters/storystarter1.htm: Scholastic never has failed to amaze me, even when I was a kid reading books that were published by them. This website is appropriate for students in grades K-6, and students can receive a plethora of prompts by clicking on either grades K-1, 2, 3, or 4-6. They can choose a format for their writing as well: notebook, letter, newspaper or postcard. The sound effects and graphics make this website SUPER fun as well.

Writingfun.com: It is without doubt that Jenny Eather comes up with some of the most phenomenal websites for kids. Her interactive website includes downloads and printables as well as information about all kinds of text types, ranging from information reports to descriptive writing.

Melissaforney.com: At Melissa Forney's website, you can learn about making vocabulators for your students as well as print out all kinds of resources for them. A printable like "Twenty Critically Important Writing Target Skills" and "Really Cool Transitional Phrases, Beginnings, and Endings" just may tickle your fancy.

Lucy Calkins' Units of Study (UnitsofStudy.com): I am an advocate of Lucy Calkins and the writer's workshop. At her website, you can read about her six units of study: Launching the Writing Workshop, Raising the Quality of Narrative Writing, Breathing Life into Essays, Writing Fiction: Big Dreams, Tall Ambitions, Literary Essays: Writing About Reading, and Memoir: The Art of Writing Well. Sample sessions are included at her website as well to you to perhaps try out with your students.

I cannot convey enough how important writing is. Even if you are not preparing for an assessment, enriching writing instruction dramatically improves performance in other subjects.

Comments

Hello again, Bruce! You seem to be a sensational teacher. While I was perusing your page about storytelling, I thought of an interesting idea. If you have a sound recording program, record a child telling a story or sharing a memory. Then listen back and type out the story, seeing how many "skills" were addressed verbally. It's interesting to bold, capitalize, and italicize specific words as well as well as add parenthesis, a series of dots, and other components. I may use the idea in my classroom. Thank you so much for sharing; I know eventually you may love the ideas I will post for a publishing project in my classroom. - Victoria

Hi Victoria!

On my web site, I've posted a few ideas about Storytelling. You will find it under the Homeschooling link.

Let me know what you think about it. You can share it the next time you write about writing strategies. Just let me know when and if you post it.

Keep up the great work!!

Bruce, thank you very much for sharing your website! I have never heard of it, but I definitely want to peruse it. If you want to share ideas for storytelling with Scholastic's viewers, I can post them when I next write about writing strategies. I am very interested about your folders.

Hi Victoria! I teach third grade and enjoy teaching various forms of creative writing. An art form that should be in the language arts curriculum is Storytelling. It enhances both oral and writing abilities.

In addition, I have created Story Folders that support students writing. I have seen many of my students progress from average writers to excellent writers due to storytelling and this writing tool.

Lastly, I would like to share the poems I have written for teachers and parents. These poems support reading, writing, and retelling. It's on my web site, www.justsimplywrite.com Teachers can copy and use them in their classrooms.

I hope you find them useful.

Hi, Ana! Where do you teach? Melissa Forney truly is incredible. One idea that has inspired me, yet I have not used yet, is making "vocabulators". She mentions how to make them on her website. I also love how she used B-M-E-D-S-O to rate papers; she makes it a lot easier for my students to understand how to score a 6!! Last year and in 2007, I had one student with a 6, so I hope this year brings at least one more!

Thank you for your great ideas, I personllay love Melissa Forney's site and her books are awesome. I have been trying to attend one of ther workshops, hopefully this year. Thanks again for sharing!!

Hello, ladies! I will try to answer all of you in a general response. Though my state only stands for 1/50th of the nation, writing occurs everywhere! It is important to make your students passionate about writing because they will be called to do all kinds of writing in the future.

My students like writing better than reading, I believe, and I am teaching them about making the connection. I hope the new ideas I provided will make writing exciting for your students. Let me know what you do as well that makes writing alive for them! Thanks, everyone!

Victoria

These are great ideas! I'm definitely saving them for the future, thank you.

Thank you for the web sites. I am always adding to my collection and there are a few here I had not visited. Also it is always helpful to see writing ideas from colleges. I think I will use a few of these very soon!

Victoria, thanks for this wonderful blog post! It's full of great ideas and links to awesome websites. It's obvious that you are passionate about teaching writing. Thanks for sharing this information. I'm not from Florida, but what you have shared is beneficial for all teachers.

Great ideas and links, Victoria. My students have really been turned on to writing this year--to the point where they have told me that they like writing much better than reading! I've used some of the ideas you listed, and WritingFix is a favourite of mine as well, but you've given me some new ideas to try. It's so exciting to see what the students are able to achieve when they have the confidence in their ability to write.

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