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March 28, 2014 Test-Taking Strategies in Writing Workshop By Rhonda Stewart
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    Last week, I shared some strategies I use in reading workshop to help prepare my students for the state assessments. My focus this week will be on strategies that can be used during writing workshop. To be honest, I think this section of the state assessment causes the most anxiety among my students.

    For the most part, my students have an entire month to create a piece of writing using our writing process. They really get to massage their writing, from creating the seed idea to the final step of publishing their drafts. Now, there are occasions within each unit where the students are exposed to timed writing — we call them “Flash Drafts.” But they are not the standard practice in our writing workshop. Students are accustomed to having a month to develop their published writing.

      Pearls of Wisdom — Inform your students that timed writing calls on everything they have learned over the years as developing writers. It is not just from the current grade that they are in, but all of their years as writers.

    In New Jersey, we have two days of testing where students must respond to a writing prompt. The prompts vary from argumentative, persuasive, and informational/explanatory essays, as well as responding to a narrative scenario. Grade six students are expected to be able to write in these genres within a specific time limit. More time is given for the persuasive essay prompt. I have two trains of thoughts on this: something old (tried and true) and something new (thinking outside the box).



    • Set Writing Goals — Students take inventory of what they do well. They examine their past work in their writing notebooks and binders. It is important that they also review the writing rubrics that are used in class to assess their writing. Based on their research as writers, the students set goals for themselves as writers. 

    • Student Scorers — Using student writing samples and the state rubric (you can go to your state department of education website to access your state rubric), students score the work of their peers. Students must be able to explain why they gave a student a particular score using the language of the rubric. Having to justify the score using the rubric really makes the scoring student look closely at the work. This can be done with partners or as a group activity.

    • Pre-assessment — Simulate the testing format of the assessment and have a trial run. I model my assessments to have the appearance of the “TEST.” Then I look for trends in their writing to inform my instruction.

    • Scripted Unit Plan — This is a timesaver, especially for new teachers who may need some guidance with test-writing strategies (page 1, page 2).

    • Anchor Charts — These are used to demonstrate writing formats.


    Thinking Outside the Box

    • Student-Created Writing Toolkits — In the past, I would hand out support materials to guide students with their writing. Since students are creating goals for themselves as part of the tried and true method, they should create a toolkit that supports them towards achieving their writing goals. The toolkit can include transition lists, essay formats (sample 1, sample 2), and types of leads/hooks just to name a few. The samples that I have included have been shared with me by my colleagues.

    • Writing Stations — Our district just distributed a handbook for parents regarding the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK). I am in the process of creating different activities that my students will complete to support their preparation using the prompts from the handbook. The students will rotate through the different activities and compare their findings with their partners. Some of my activities could include:

      • Describe in detail the difference between a persuasive and argumentative essay.

      • Hands-on activity: using an essay template, create a puzzle using the outline for an essay.

      • Create a list of transitions that you could use from the start to the finish of your essay. 

    My station ideas are still a work in progress. My rationale is to have the students come up with strategies that they will own to help them be successful during the stressful period of testing.

    As always, do you have any strategies that work to improve student writing? If so, please share!


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Susan Cheyney