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Science for All

Evolving Students' Writing Skills

How to improve domain-specific writing

Evolving Students' Writing Skills

By Kaitlyn McGlynn, Janey Kelly

Strategies for increasing student engagement.

Preparing for high-stakes tests is necessary, but it can also be ineffective if not done in a way that works best for your students. Our purpose this month is to provide you with the tools you need to effectively prepare your students for standardized testing.

Test prep is a philosophy, not a season

We should be prepping our students for high-stakes testing through our daily curriculum—not by bombarding them with practice test after practice test a month before the testing date. In our minds, test prep is about organically teaching students comprehension, self-monitoring, and problem-solving strategies through engaging instructional activities. This way, they can more successfully navigate the test with stamina, engagement, and confidence. These are not things that you can develop within your students in a month—it is a year-long effort.

Why you should think like a literacy specialist, and how to do it

One of the reasons why we believe high-stakes testing can be so difficult for students is the level of language skills that it demands. Think of it this way: Imagine that you are buying a car, and the salesperson gives you the key in a safe with a combination lock that contains letters in a language you have never seen before. You theoretically know how to open a combination lock, and you definitely know how to drive the car, but you cannot understand the language well enough to figure out what the combination is to unlock the safe. Eventually, you grow tired and frustrated and give up entirely.

This is how some of our students feel when taking standardized tests. They may know the content (just like you theoretically knew how to open the combination lock and how to drive), but they are unable to navigate the language skillfully enough to figure out how to demonstrate that content knowledge. This is why we believe that science teachers—and all content-area teachers, for that matter—need to teach literacy strategies alongside content knowledge. It is the literacy strategies that are the key to unlocking students’ abilities to demonstrate their knowledge of science content.

Below are some literacy strategies you can incorporate into your daily instruction to help your students read and write with more vigor in the science classroom, as well on high-stakes tests.

Teach students how to identify the main idea of short passages

This is a strategy we love because it is something that can be practiced while teaching content. If you are having your students read a content-area text, model for your students how to arrive at the main idea by following the steps below: Ask yourself, “What is the topic of this text?” Then ask yourself, “What is the author trying to teach me about this topic?”

You can then teach your students to write the main idea in the margin of the text. If they are reading a textbook that cannot be written in, you can have your students write the main idea on a sticky note, and place that next to the text.

It is also important to teach your students how to arrive at the essential information of a question. The language that is used to develop questions for state tests is often flowery and confusing, especially for struggling and English language learners. You can practice making sense of test questions with students by thinking aloud through a question and showing students how to reword it in a way that makes sense to them. Then, show students how to rewrite the question in the space above it. This is an important skill for students to master before taking a standardized test because they will often guess at an answer if they do not understand a question. For an example of how this could look, see Figure 1.

figure 1

Teach the language of testing

Too often, students get stumped on questions because of the wording, not the content. If you want to make sure your students’ scores are an accurate representation of their knowledge, start by teaching them Tier 2 vocabulary terms that are a part of every standardized test, regardless of content area. Tier 2 vocabulary terms are high-frequency words that are used in a variety of contexts and therefore have strong implications for comprehension. One of the best ways to teach these terms is to use them often! Embed the language of testing into your daily practice by putting them in your assignments, on your assessments, and in your communications, so that the terms become familiar to students and less intimidating when they see them in testing situations (Larson 2018; Wolpert-Gawron 2017). See Figure 2 for a list of standardized test terms that are not specific to science. Please be aware that this is not an exhaustive list; however, it is a great place to start!

figure 2

Teach students how to chunk text, especially when they are struggling to understand a question/passage

Sometimes the science scenarios that are given to students on state tests are especially dense and full of quantitative and qualitative data that are hard to digest. If you are using science scenarios as an activity to help your students practice identifying elements of a controlled experiment, for example, model for your students chunking the passage by thinking aloud. Explain that students should slow down and think about which variable is the independent variable and which is the dependent variable by using language such as, “I can tell that the amount of water is being changed on purpose by the experimenter, so that must mean it is the independent variable” or “The growth of the plant is responding to the change, so it must be the dependent variable.” Then, have students practice “talking” themselves through the remaining scenarios with a partner. It is especially important to also say things such as, “Hmm, I’m having trouble understanding what is going on here. Let me slow down and think a little more carefully about this part.” This shows students that when they are struggling to understand part of a text, they should slow down, re-read, and rephrase it in a way that makes sense to them, rather than just skipping over it.

Teach your students to monitor their thinking

Teach students to recognize when they may not be understanding what the text is telling them. You would be surprised at how many students do not understand what they are reading and are not even aware of it. This habit of “thinking about our thinking” is known as metacognition, and is one of the most important aspects of engaged reading. If students cannot recognize that they are not understanding what a text is saying, they will never go to the next step of using a skill such as chunking or rereading. Teach metacognition by thinking aloud and saying things such as, “I’m really not sure what is meant by this step in the lab. Let me go back and reread it to see if I can put it another way for myself that I’ll understand better.”

Teach your students to use context clues

If while reading students come across a content-area word that does not make sense to them, teach them to cover up the word, reread the sentence, and then place a word that makes sense to them in the place of the unfamiliar word. More times than not, this word will be a close synonym to the word they do not know! This is an effective “last-ditch” effort for students to use when they are really having trouble understanding a text at the word level. But, of course, this may not always work if it is a very content-specific word, such as photosynthesis.

Give your students multiple exposures to content in successive “laps”

This means that you should give your students opportunities to “practice their skills, then repeat what they’ve learned and improved, then begin to move beyond form to larger understanding” (Kittle 2007, p. 2). For example, when explicitly teaching the difference between chemical and physical properties and changes, you may be very direct with your instructional activities. However, later on in the year, you could have your students identify the physical and chemical properties of an element while studying the periodic table, and then again when doing a project such as designing the “ideal” water bottle out of plastic, stainless steel, glass, or aluminum. The repeated exposures to a skill or piece of content throughout the year will reinforce your original instruction, and give students the opportunity to practice it in different contexts, thus deepening their understanding. As a result, students will most likely perform better on any high-stakes testing question that requires them to demonstrate this specific knowledge, because they are already used to seeing it in different contexts throughout the year.

Other test-specific prep strategies

In addition to preparing students with test-taking strategies that use literacy tools alongside science content, there are times when you just need to “teach to the test.” Combined with the strategies discussed above, the ones below will help your students perform at their best and avoid being overwhelmed by anxiety or frustration.

Consider the format in which your standardized test is given

Is your test paper and pencil or online? Whichever it may be, make sure your students are getting practice with the format. Just because they type in a Google Doc regularly does not mean that they will be comfortable with the format of an online test. Many states release items for each content area and grade from the previous year’s test, as well as grading information. Take a look at your state’s items, and mimic the format for some practice assessments to help students become more confident with the format (Larson 2018; Findley 2018).

Explicitly teach test-taking strategies

We may sometimes assume that students have been taught all the tricks of test-taking by the time they get to middle school. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, and even if they have been taught some or most of them, a little review can’t hurt! From time management to using the process of elimination, these simple tricks can make all the difference with students (see Resource).

Teach students how to interpret visual displays of data

Graphs, charts, tables, diagrams, maps—there is no shortage of visuals on science standardized tests. To feel confident when interpreting these displays of data, students need to see and interpret them throughout the school year. Incorporate visuals into your instruction regularly so that students are familiar with them (Larson 2018).

Practice strategies to stave off frustration

Many students, especially those with disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, experience anxiety during testing, which can be debilitating. If students do start feeling stressed and overwhelmed, it can be helpful for them to have coping strategies with which they are familiar. Teach deep-breathing techniques and encourage students to request a “brain break” when they feel those paralyzing feelings coming on. Sometimes, simply closing the test booklet for a few minutes can be helpful. You can also teach students to complete the mpors they do know and come back to those that are tricky to ensure they do not completely shut down (McDonald 2018). Something different will work for every student, so try introducing several options.

Build confidence

Once the testing window arrives, there is nothing else we can do but reassure our students that they are ready and they can do this. If students are feeling particularly nervous, try having them write a confidence statement, such as “I’m going to rock this test!” or “This test is going to be a piece of cake!” Even if it seems corny, this positive selftalk can really help your middle schoolers feel good going into the testing situation (Wolpert-Gawron 2017).

Bringing it all together

All standardized tests involve reading, so by teaching reading strategies such as identifying main ideas and using context clues, as well as key vocabulary and metacognitive strategies, you are giving students a leg up. Also, remember to expose students to concepts and content throughout the year to reinforce what they have learned in your class. Finally, make sure you are incorporating time to show students what to expect once they are looking at the test. This should include familiarizing them with the format of the test, various forms of visuals, and test-taking strategies. Possibly the most important part of test prep is teaching students how to avoid frustration and building their confidence so that they feel they are going to do well on the test. With these strategies, your students will feel prepared to show what they have learned in your class all year long, not just the week before the test.


Findley J. 2018. Online testing strategies: Prepare your students to take online assessments. .

Kittle P. 2007. Eleven elements of effective adolescent writing instruction. .

Larson M. 2018. A developmental approach to preparing students for standardized or state tests. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. author/larson1_hmm05.pdf.

McDonald E. The new teacher advisor: Help students survive standardized tests. Education World. .

Wolpert-Gawron H. 2017. Test prep doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Edutopia. .

Test-taking strategies—

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