Teachers can equip students for success in standardised testing without changing their every day teaching strategies and habits, according to literacy experts Phil and Sharon Callen.
Standardised testing, such as NAPLAN in Australia, is a small but important part of the curriculum. Teachers will often struggle in finding the right balance and methods of preparing students for standardised tests without steering away from their day-to-day lessons.
However, a teacher’s everyday practices should already help students perform their best in a ‘one day’ standardised test, said Phil and Sharon Callen on episode 23 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit For Literacy.
“[A standardised test] is an assessment that’s assessing exactly what we’re teaching,” Sharon said.
“We can sometimes think of the standardised test as being very different to what we would ask students to do in their normal part of life, where in fact, I think there’s more that’s the same about it than different.
“So let’s say we’re looking at a reading one. So what it’s assessing is how well we read and comprehend text. Now that’s something that we’re chasing down in our teaching on any day as we are helping children to become better readers, to manage text, to be able to fix up when they lose meaning and to read with accuracy and to read with understanding.”
Sharon explained that exposing students to different types of texts is beneficial for both literacy learning and standardised testing.
“In an assessment, we might be asked to read a range of texts and range of genres. In any day, that’s what I’m also teaching my children to do. I’m teaching them how to read fiction texts, informational texts, poetry, biographies, imaginative texts … I want to cover all those types of reading with my students,” she said.
“By doing that, then I’m also of course lifting vocabulary across a whole range of topics and subject areas and concepts and ideas. So that range of texts that I read aloud and bring to children, I’m going to be quite intentional about that.”
Another key element to testing which can be developed particularly through independent reading is reading stamina. This ensures that students can not only read for an extended amount of time, but also sustain their thinking.
“In an assessment we might say, they’ve got to read X number of texts within a timeframe. The timeframe piece is actually about reading stamina. So, if we are building students’ reading stamina, we are really helping them to showcase how much they can read during an assessment,” Sharon said.
“It’s also the stamina for doing the thinking as I’m reading. So if in a standardised assessment there might be five or six pieces that I’m reading during that time and different types of genre, then I need stamina for what kind of thinking am I doing? What do I know about this? What am I bringing to this?
“That’s why that daily, independent reading is important, and we know from the research that students who read a lot do really well on standardised tests.”
Phil added: “Some children, when they come to that standardised testing, they may give up after 15, 20 minutes because they just haven’t got the stamina to keep reading. So if you’ve been building up that stamina over the year and independent reading time gets longer as you go, the children can focus more on the reading for longer.
Part of this development is also about establishing a more ‘automatic’ thinking process and set of habits within students. To achieve this, Sharon said it is important for students to talk about their texts with others.
“Talking about it really helps us to build understanding … teachers have come back and said how powerful that has been after reading to just have that quick turn and tell time. So it’s not discussion time, because we want to build in discussion at other times,” Sharon said.
“Just having 60 to 90 seconds of uninterrupted talking time to tell about my reading and to tell about my thinking or to tell what I noticed seems to add such power to students working towards accuracy and understanding.
“And so what we’re really building is automaticity for thinking accuracy as we’re reading – understanding and accuracy as we’re reading across lots of different genres. Then, we really come to an assessment like a standardised assessment, really being able to showcase what we can do as a reader.”
But perhaps the biggest question asked by teachers is whether multiple choice questions should be practiced in the classroom, considering their prominence in standardised tests. To answer, Sharon advised that teachers should focus more on the thought process behind answering a multiple choice question.
“What I have found is that students need to know how multiple choice questions work, but they also need to know what a good reader is thinking as they look at those questions. So I find that it’s still actually something I can model, but I don’t need to give lots and lots and lots of practice in doing that. It’s more about them knowing ‘what do I do when I come to multiple choice questions?'” she said.
“So number one, good readers read the question and all answers carefully. For our students, when multiple choice questions aren’t part of their experience, we can demonstrate how it’s important to pay attention to specific words in the question and details in the answers.
Sharon also recommended different strategies, such as the QAR – Question, Answer and Relationship Strategy, which talks about the four types of questions that can be asked.
“There are some that are ‘in the text’ questions and there are some that are ‘in the head’ questions. So in the text questions, we know that some answers will be just right there. Then there are thinking search questions, where the answer isn’t in one place and I have to think and search because the answer is going to come from different parts of the text,” Sharon said.
“[And this strategy], I don’t have to link it to a standardised test. I can link that just to everyday thinking about text. So how I can even answer my own questions as I’m reading, because that’s a huge comprehension strategy that, as a reader, to check in and to read with accuracy.”