I’d like to begin with a song expressing how I really feel about ELA test prep:
It’s the most stressful time of the year,
With the kids standardized testing
And everyone telling you get your scores HERE...
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
It’s the stress-stressiest season of all...
Need I go on? It’s no secret that this time of year means extra pressure and stress (as if teachers don’t have enough of that already). While I could write a whole blog post (or song parody) about how much I despise standardized testing and the pressure of “teaching to the test,” it’s an unfortunate reality in today’s educational world.
A few years ago, I taught a remedial ELA test prep class to sophomores who needed extra support to pass my state’s standardized test. Initially, it was pretty miserable for me and the kids, but over time, I learned how to get creative with test prep. Sometimes that meant cleverly sneaking it into lessons (like how my mom would sneak zucchini into muffins when I was an anti-veggie kid). Other times, it meant disguising or dressing up test prep as a much more appealing, engaging activity. And when I didn’t have any tricks up my sleeve, it was just old-fashioned test prep with a new name or some friendly competition. Teaching that class was incredibly difficult, but it taught me a lot about making ELA test prep manageable, engaging, and effective.
If you’re feeling the stress of testing season and looking for new strategies to replace your stale ELA test prep worksheets, then here are 10 different ideas for engaging lessons that will work with just about any content:
1. 4 CORNERS
This simple strategy gets students up and moving, discussing, and thinking critically about multiple choice questions. To do this, first designate the 4 corners of your room as A, B, C, and D. (If you need an E option, designate the middle of your room for that.) Pieces of paper with the corresponding letters will suffice. Then, project multiple choice questions one at a time, and instruct students to move to the corner of the answer. Once students are in their respective corners, ask them to discuss and defend their answer with their peers. As you go over each question, give students in the wrong corners a chance to move to a new corner. The kinesthetic element of this activity will make the “process of elimination” visual and concrete for students, who will quickly be able to narrow down answers to two corners. From there, students will be able to discern the BEST choice from the plausible answer.
2. VIDEO CLIPS & FILMS
If your students are tired of endless passages and excerpts, mix up your ELA test prep with video! Often, you can practice the exact same literary analysis skills with video clips. Here are a few ideas:
- Use “recut” movie trailers to teach tone and mood. (You’ll never think of the movie Frozen the same way again after you watch this…)
- Show Pixar shorts to teach theme and other literary elements. (Here’s a playlist for teaching theme)
- Play animated read-alouds of children’s books (on YouTube) to teach theme and other literary elements. (This Rainbow Fish read-aloud is perfect for theme)
- Use the film version of a novel to scaffold essential literary analysis skills. (More info HERE)
3. QUESTION TRAILS
This lesson idea is so, so good that your students won’t even realize they are engaged in multiple choice test prep! I’ve literally watched senior boys SPRINT around the classroom during this. A question trail is a unique kinesthetic activity that takes students on a “trail” of questions posted around the room. But it’s not your typical gallery walk; instead, each question sends students to a new spot “on the trail.” The best part is that a question trail gives students and teachers immediate feedback, because an incorrect answer will eventually lead students back to a question they’ve already answered. It might sound a little complicated, but I promise it’s easy once you put it into action. For full instructions on how to create your own question trail with any set of test prep questions, check out this helpful blog post or this editable template. For print-ready question trails, you can find all of my question trails here. I’m especially excited about my brand new vocabulary in context question trails, which were all designed with standardized testing in mind.
Instead of dedicating entire days to test prep and boring your students to death, bell-ringers can help you squeeze in a small dose of ELA test prep each day. If you give your students 1-2 multiple choice questions a day, then test preparation can be much more manageable. This option might not make test prep more engaging, but it certainly makes it less boring and daunting for your students. When I taught my remedial English class, I structured my bell-ringers around the day of the week: Mentor Sentence Monday, Test Prep Tuesday, Words in Context Wednesday, Textual Evidence Thursday, and Free-Write/Free-Read Friday. Tuesday-Thursday was heavy test prep, while Monday & Friday were “lighter” days that still incorporated essential ELA skills. These bell-ringers made the beginning of class predictable and efficient, and it was easy for students to see which days/skills were the most challenging for them. I used Google forms for my multiple choice bell-ringers, which allowed me to track this data and use it to inform my instruction. While it may not have been as “fun” as all of the other ideas on this list, this strategy was incredibly purposeful and effective!
5. LEARNING STATIONS
Because learning stations break skills and content into manageable chunks, they are the perfect way to sneak in test prep without students realizing that’s what they’re doing. These analyzing theme learning stations work for any text, and they’re perfect for test prep! If your students need extra practice on any of the following core ELA skills, then check out some of these learning stations:
- Informational Text Learning Stations for ANY Text
- Poetry Analysis Learning Stations for ANY Text
- Learning Stations for ANY Novel
6. ONLINE REVIEW GAMES
Quizlet Live, Gimkit, Kahoot, Quizziz, and more: A little gamification goes a long way when it comes to test prep! Any of these digital review games are perfect for test prep because they trick the students into multiple choice practice. Better yet, all of these platforms allow teachers to upload and share their question sets with everyone, so you may not have to even create your own game. Even if you do create a new game, it’s super easy to copy/paste an existing set of questions and answers. Many of these games also offer reports and other data that will help you see what your students understand vs. what they don’t. While all of these gamification tools are similar, my students seem to prefer Gimkit. For a thorough breakdown of the pros and cons of all of these tools, check out this blog post.
7. GROUP ESSAYS OR MOCK TRIALS
We all know students need lots of writing practice to prepare for the infamous written sections of standardized tests. But essays after essays become tedious for students and teachers alike. If you want to mix things up but keep expectations high, try assigning a group essay. This will appeal to students because it sounds like less work. In reality, it will force the group to really focus on synthesizing their ideas and structuring their essay. Instead of having the students immediately “divide and conquer,” set expectations for them to pre-write, write a thesis, and structure their essay as a team. While they may be doing less writing in a group essay, students will likely end up learning more, thanks to the collaboration and critical thinking. An engaging spin-off of the traditional group essay is a mock trial, which helps students work on persuasive writing skills. To learn more about mock trials and why I LOVE using them to practice persuasion/argument skills, you can check out this blog post or this resource for any text.
8. GROUP MULTIPLE CHOICE PRACTICE
This strategy is just like group essays, just with multiple choice questions. To facilitate this, divide your students into groups and give them a set of multiple choice questions. Force the groups to discuss, debate, and defend their answers: The entire group MUST come to a consensus! If you want to increase engagement, add in some friendly competition. Call the groups “teams,” give them one question at a time, set a time limit, and award points to the winners. This strategy works well because it forces students to analyze the questions. It’s always fun listening in to their debates about what the question is asking or which answer option is the best choice. Once again, students will learn more together than they would completing multiple choice questions on their own.
9. ESCAPE ROOMS
An escape room is a great way to sneak in some much-needed test prep on essential skills. Because escape rooms are comprised of various challenges, each of which generates some sort of “code,” multiple choice questions work well. When a task is a set of multiple choice questions, the “code” can be formed by the correct answers (A, B, C, or D) in order. Other ideas for tasks include matching terms to definitions, sorting cards, cryptograms, and cipher wheels. While escape rooms take a while to create, the investment of your time is worth the reward of 100% engagement. If you don’t have time to create your own escape rooms, you can check out some of the ones I’ve created or find others online. My poetry escape room is perfect for reinforcing essential poetry skills before a standardized test, and my escape room for Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is a great chance to practice literary analysis with a manageable short story (you know, a short story that’s actually short)!
10. READING…LOTS OF IT!
Studies have shown time and time again that reading is linked to increased comprehension and higher test scores. With the proliferation of “drill and kill” resources and digital test prep programs, it’s easy to lose sight of this. The more time that students spend between the pages of a book, the better they will perform on the test…and in life. Perhaps structuring in some in-class silent reading, low-risk independent reading, or literature circles is what your students need. Reading will feel like a break from the heavy test prep, but what students don’t know is that it’s probably the best thing for them. You can find my resources for literature circles HERE, a collection of editable resources for independent reading or any novel study HERE, and engaging activities for any text HERE.
I these ideas help you and your students survive the most stressful season of all! If you like this post, don’t forget to pin it so you can refer back to it when you need inspiration for a lesson!
If you any strategies to share, please leave them below in the comments. I’m always looking for even more ideas to mix things things up. 🙂