Reading Without Limits

Maddie Witter

STOP Drilling… START Building Hope

It’s that time of the year again.  Millions of kids (and teachers?) are groaning across the United States.  Why? It’s time to take ‘the test’.  The big, bad, scary test.

Is it big? If you are a New York State test taker, then it certainly is.  For eight graders,  passages are a thousand words in length over several days of testing.

Is it bad?  The surge of teachers protesting more testing certainly doesn’t show that it’s good.

Is it scary.  Yes. It’s scary.  With the advent of the Common Core State Standards, the passages will be harder, arguably more boring, and as Diane Ravitch shares on her blog, passing scores could drop 30%.

Take a look at a paragraph from the released New York State 8th grade sample test questions:

Little Women

by Louisa May Alcott

Beth, Meg, and Jo March are the daughters of Mrs. March.  Their next-door neighbor is an elderly, rich man named Mr. Laurence, who is raising his grandson, Laurie.  Beth is very shy and perceives Mr. Laurence to be a grumpy man.

Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful

But Beth, though yearning for the grand piano, could not pluck up courage to go to the ‘Mansion of Bliss’, as Meg called it.  She went once with Jo, but the old gentleman, not being aware of her infirmity, stared at her so hard from under his heavy eyebrows, and said “Hey!” so loud, that he frightened her so much her ‘feet chattered on the floor,’ she never told her mother, and she ran away, declaring she would never go there any more, or even for the dear piano.

Did I lose anyone?  Now imagine two pages of that text.  Rinse and repeat six times and you just finished day one.

All too often, test passages like that scare kids off.  Maybe it happens right away.  Maybe it happens two pages in.  Negative self-talk kicks in such as “I can’t do this”, “I’m going to fail anyway, why bother?” or “NONE of this makes sense.”  It breaks my heart thinking kids are going through such devastating fixed mindset thoughts, and I know those thoughts spike during testing season.

Teachers are prepping students across the country by teaching them test taking strategies like process of elimination, using text features, and finding answers with the most textual proof.  In Reading Without Limits I advocate teaching such strategies (in moderation) as the test is its own unique genre, and great test takers are strategic.  Ultimately, the best way to boost standardized test scores as I cite in RWL, is to get your kids reading, reading, and reading some more (and not test passages… choice, shared, and guided texts).

There’s also one more ingredient that’s necessary in building effective test takers.  That’s hope.  If teachers taught kids how to turn their negative self-talk into positive self-talk, I guarantee scores will go up.  Instead of drilling kids by making them take tests over and over, instead, we should explicitly model hopeful thinking when taking difficult passages.

Let’s go back to the passage from Little Women.  Model the hopeful thinking in your head when you read the passage.

Little Women

by Louisa May Alcott

Beth, Meg, and Jo March are the daughters of Mrs. March.  Their next-door neighbor is an elderly, rich man named Mr. Laurence, who is raising his grandson, Laurie.  Beth is very shy and perceives Mr. Laurence to be a grumpy man.

GOSH, THERE ARE A LOT OF CHARACTERS HERE.  THAT’S OKAY, I’M NOT GOING TO LET IT OVERWHELM ME.  LET ME SEE IF I CAN KEEP THEM STRAIGHT.  I’LL QUICKLY REREAD… THREE DAUGHTERS, ONE MOTHER, AN OLD MAN AND A GRANDSON.  ONE OF THE DAUGHTERS THINKS THE OLD MAN  IS GRUMPY.  OKAY, I THINK I CAN REMEMBER THAT.

Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful

But Beth, though yearning for the grand piano, could not pluck up courage to go to the ‘Mansion of Bliss’, as Meg called it.

OH JEEZ, I DON’T GET THAT AT ALL.  I DON’T UNDERSTAND.  THAT’S OKAY, I BET I CAN FIGURE IT OUT LATER IF I KEEP READING THE PASSAGE.  I’M GOING TO CONTINUE AND NOT WORRY ABOUT IT.

She went once with Jo, but the old gentleman,(THAT MUST BE THE OLD GUY FROM THE BEGINNING THAT THE DAUGHTER DIDN’T LIKE)  not being aware of her infirmity, stared at her so hard from under his heavy eyebrows, and said “Hey!” so loud, that he frightened her so much her ‘feet chattered on the floor,’ she never told her mother, and she ran away, declaring she would never go there any more, or even for the dear piano.

OKAY, THAT WAS A CRAZY LONG SENTENCE AND THERE WERE A LOT OF BIG WORDS BUT I’M NOT GOING TO LET THAT GET ME DOWN.  I GET THAT BETH REALLY DOESN’T LIKE THE OLD GUY.  HE SCARES HER.  HE LIVES IN SOME SORT OF MANSION (OR PALACE?) AND I THINK HE HAS A PIANO.  I CAN DO THIS! IF A QUESTION ASKS ME TO GO BACK TO THE SECTION, I WILL REREAD, BUT I’M GOING TO KEEP GOING BECAUSE I THINK I WILL BE FINE WITH THE GIST.

In the season of high stress, I urge educators to help flip catastrophic fixed mindset thinking into hopeful, pathway thinking as I modeled above.  Over the course of a few days, show students by modeling how you hopefully attack a difficult passage, let them practice with partners, and finally let them try it on their own.  Fear, stress, and panic will translate into strategic, hopeful test takers.

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This entry was posted on April 10, 2013 by in Standardized Tests and tagged , , , .

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