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April 26, 2011 State Assessments: Multiple-Choice Strategies & Activities By Mary Blow
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    Sometimes I question whether my students are taking a multiple-choice test or a multiple-guess test. By the time the 6th graders get to me, they have had three years of state testing. I worry about the blasé attitudes preteens sometime develop because they have "been there, done that." So how do we motivate our students and prepare them for high-stakes testing?

    Sometimes I question whether my students are taking a multiple-choice test or a multiple-guess test. By the time the 6th graders get to me, they have had three years of state testing. I worry about the blasé attitudes preteens sometime develop because they have "been there, done that." So how do we motivate our students and prepare them for high-stakes testing? Below are a few reading comprehension strategies and review activities that help our students succeed on the state tests.

    Photo copyright Ryan Balderas/iStockphoto.


    Test taking tipsWe do not teach to the test. At the beginning of the year, we teach reading comprehension skills that will help them succeed in school, in college, and in their careers. These skills also help our students succeed on state tests.

    Depending on the reading goal, we read text differently. Think about it. If you read a novel, you relax and read at a faster pace. However, as soon as you open a textbook or say the word “test,” your brain shifts gears. It is important that students engage in metacognition so they monitor their comprehension and adjust reading rates accordingly.

    For some students, it is a guessing game trying to figure out what is important and what is insignificant. SQ3R (survey, question, read, recite, review) and QAR (question-answer relationships) strategies improve reading comprehension. We teach them at the beginning of the year and revisit them daily. These strategies help our students to succeed on the state test. With them, they start reading for a purpose, identifying main ideas, supporting details, and author's purpose.


    SQ3R transfers to all subject areas. It is a life skill. The College Board article “SQ3R: A Great Reading and Studying Technique” explains how to implement the strategy as a study skill. We review this strategy, explaining that successful students utilize an adaptation of this skill when taking tests. If you want your students to buy in, stress that this will save them time and increase accuracy. Here's the version of SQ3R I teach my students for tests:

    • Survey: I give my students 30 seconds to look over the article or passage, noting title, headings, subheadings, pictures, captions, maps, graphs, footnotes, bold words, etc. Hands shoot up when I ask what we learned without actually reading the passage. They are amazed that they can answer one or two questions just from this quick survey.
    • Questions: This prereading activity is valuable because it provides a purpose for reading. We circle tricky words: MAIN, BEST, NOT, ALL EXCEPT, etc. I have students who will highlight every word of every line because they believe all the details are important, as well as students who don’t highlight a single word. Reading questions first helps them to identify what is important. We read the questions, not the choices, for two reasons: First, there isn’t enough time. Second, reading the choices results in information overload for some students.
    • Read: Students read one passage at a time. If they find an answer when they are reading, they highlight it and keep going, so they don’t lose their train of thought.
    • Recite/Respond: After reading each passage, they respond to the corresponding questions. They are instructed to read the question and answer it by recalling the information. As they read through the choices, they look for a confirmation of their predicted answer. If their answer is the first choice, they still have to read though all the options.
    • Review/Reread: If students cannot find their answer, they use skimming skills to reread the passage. For multiple-choice questions, they apply the process of elimination and discern which remaining choice is the BEST choice.

    Question-Answer Relationships (QAR)

    QAR_poster_image Teaching students question-answer relationships improves comprehension by forcing them to think about how they construct knowledge while reading. There are four types of question-answer relationships:

    • Right There: The answer is located in one location in the text.
    • Think and Search: The answer is located in two or more locations in the text. I also call this the Here-and-There Question because you have to look in more than one place for the answer.
    • Author and Me: In this case, the answer cannot be found in the text. However, you will use knowledge from the text and from your head to come up with the answer. 
    • On My Own: The answer cannot be found in the text. It is in your head. It is possible that you can answer this type of question without even reading the passage.

              Download a free QAR poster for your classroom.

      We teach our students to read the questions before reading the passages. If they identify the different types of multiple-choice questions, it helps them to know how to find the answer while they read. It is a time saver, and it increases accuracy. When students utilize this strategy, they are monitoring their own comprehension. Sarah Dennis-Shaw published a wonderful lesson for teaching QAR, with background information and posters. Reading Quest provides information for teaching question-answer relationships as well as sample questions.

      Reading and Multiple Choice Activity

      IMG_5167 Think-pair-share activities provide students with the opportunity to utilize SQ3R and QAR reading strategies in a risk-taking environment. During think-pair-share, students are in mixed-ability pairs. They read articles, respond to them on their own, and then share their answers. If their answers don't match, they have to circle them, look back into the passages to find text evidence, and come to an agreement.

      Think-pair-share activities engage my students in deep discussions and serious debates. The activity holds each student accountable for reading the text, answering the questions, and defending his or her answer. The students appreciate this activity when reviewing for the multiple-choice portion of the test because it allows them to explore each other’s thought processes.

      Whenever possible, we go over the questions and answers in class; however, if we run out of time, I have students hand in one assignment with both names on it to save grading time. Watch a Scholastic video demonstrating how one teacher orchestrates a think-pair-share activity in her classroom.

      Student Response Systems

      Quizzillion I have access to a set of SMART Response wireless remotes, or what some refer to as "clickers." Student response systems are powerful tools when reviewing the multiple-choice section of a state test. You get immediate feedback on each student. If only one student is struggling, you can walk around the room and nonchalantly help them without singling them out. However, if many students are missing a question, it is time to consider if there's a curriculum gap or if the wording of the question is tricking them. (To reduce stress, I tell them I need to do a better job explaining.) In addition, you can quickly determine if the most missed questions are genre specific or if they are the same types of questions. Our data indicates that our most missed questions are organizational patterns, vocabulary, and author's purpose.

      Each year, my reading teacher or I type the state test questions from the previous year into the SMART Notebook software so we can use them in after-school review classes. Once the work is done, you have it for annual review. This activity gives my students another opportunity to reinforce their SQ3R and QAR skills. If you give them a printed copy of the test, you can hide the screen and let students work at their own pace. I prefer this method because it reduces anxiety.

      If you don't have a SMART Response System or something comparable, consider Quizzillion, a response game with four remotes. Students can work in groups or teams. Each group would have to agree on one answer, which sparks interesting debates.

      Listening & Multiple Choice

      This year, for the first time, my students will have to answer multiple-choice questions based on a  listening passage. Understanding QAR will be vital to their success. They will listen for details, but they will also have to listen holistically. I bet you have a few students who focus on every minute detail, but overlook the main idea, the pattern of organization, the theme, or author's purpose. I am teaching my students to listen for all types of questions, especially "author and me" questions like "Why did the author write this story?"

      STW06_Cover_LargeI find my best resources for listening passages in my favorite magazines: Storyworks, Scope, Calliope, Cricket, and Time for Kids. I hole-punch every issue that comes across my desk and put it in a binder. No, I am not rich, and I don't subscribe to all of these magazines. However, teachers somewhere in my building do. So I ask them for one copy. These single issues are useful for selecting listening passages and for exposing students to multiple genres and cultures. Magazine passages are the right length for read-alouds. Check out your school library. They discard magazines toward the end of the year and will gladly give them away rather than recycle them.

      When I return from spring break, I am going to pair a listening passage with a reading passage and have my kids respond to  multiple-choice questions from both passages on the same day. This will allow us to review for two parts of the test in one day.

      Grammar & Multiple Choice

      This will be my first year with multiple-choice grammar questions as well, and to be honest, I am not looking forward to it. I teach grammar rules throughout the year, but I focus on applying the rules to their writing. In my opinion, multiple-choice grammar questions do not indicate a students' knowledge of grammar, nor do they foster the acquisition process. 

      So, how am I preparing my students for this unfamiliar task? I admit, there are very few resources for practicing multiple-choice grammar questions, which supports my philosophy concerning the pedagogical wisdom of using multiple-choice to assess grammar skills. There are a few grammar resources on my Web site. My students like the Skillswise activities by the BBC, which include online multiple-choice grammar questions combined with game challenges.

      Each day, we engage in grammar review. A couple of weeks ago, I purchased Daily Sentence Editing software, which is available for grade levels 1–6 from Teacher Created Resources. The software is compatible with any brand of interactive whiteboard (IWB); however, it is possible to use it without an IWB by projecting it and using a mouse to interact. My kids love it! Everybody is out of their seats and engaging in grammar. Try the preview version online. The only limitation to this free version is that you cannot create customized sentences to review a specific grammar rule, as you can with the full version.

      Grammar rulesDuring Daily Sentence Edit, we review the rules as we edit. Every student edits the sentence at their seat; however, each child has to go to the IWB at least once a day. When a student corrects the sentence, he has to state the rule that was employed to correct the sentence. You can learn a lot from this. 

      Since I have no idea what is coming at us, I tell my students to find confidence in the fact that they know the rules. Simply apply the rules and use the process of elimination. Scholastic Printables grammar reference charts for students that are useful for review include "Grammar Rules," "Parts of Speech," and "Punctuation and Capitalization."

      Over the years, I have added teacher and student resources for state assessments to my Lowville Academy Web page. Please feel free utilize my Web site as a resource for all components of state testing: multiple-choice, listening and writing, and reading and writing. And check out my post from last week, "State Assessments: Note-Taking & Writing Strategies."

      As always, if you have any skills or activities that you use in reviewing for the state test, please post them below.


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    Susan Cheyney

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