Integrating Test Prep into Reading and Writing Workshops



Integrating Test Prep into Reading and Writing Workshops
By Nancy Jennison
(Scholastic, Inc., 2011 – Learn more)

Linda-Biondi-120Reviewed by Linda Biondi

Teachers are collectors. Collectors of books. Collectors of arts and crafts materials. Collectors of teaching resources and ideas to use. As collectors, we have to be wary of new professional books that guarantee life changing scores on standardized tests.

Good news. Integrating Test Prep into Reading and Writing Workshops by Nancy Jennison is NOT a book written by a “snake oil salesman,” claiming to have some miraculous way to beat the tests. Instead, it provides educators with authentic and practical strategies to use with students to help them become successful lifelong learners.

Jennison is a veteran in the field of education. She has 23 years of experience teaching and coaching in kindergarten through eighth grade. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, has served as a literacy specialist and language arts staff developer in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia and received the Celebrate Literacy Award from the International Reading Association. This is her third book for Scholastic.

The Workshop connection

intergrating test prep biondiWe all realize that the job of a teacher is not easy. Many states are changing their teaching evaluation systems to include student achievement data. Some districts are already awarding teachers merit pay based on student achievement on standardized tests.

Every teacher faces a daily balancing act – trying to keep students excited about learning, differentiating to meet the needs of all students, providing meaningful experiences within the classroom, and preparing students for standardized tests.

Jennison uses her extensive teaching and literacy specialist background to analyze standardized tests from a selection of states across the continent. What is unique about her book is that test prep is not set aside as a genre to be taught but serves as a conduit to apply strategies students are learning through Reading and Writing Workshop. Her book assists teachers in helping students raise their test scores without compromising their own beliefs about quality teaching and learning.

Obviously, Jennison could not analyze standardized tests from every state, but her analysis of tests from states such as New Jersey (NJ ASK) and Massachusetts (MCAS) is right on!  She has done a very detailed, introspective analysis of the type of questions that are posed on standardized tests and documents her suggestions for skill-based lesson plans using current research.

Each chapter is designed with consistent text features and sections to help the teacher organize and adjust the instruction to meet the needs of all students. The following sections occur in each chapter:

  • Highlights – summary of the major topics in the chapter
  • Try it – ways to apply ideas from the book into individual classes
  • Read How It Worked – vignettes from teachers showing how they designed their lessons to integrate test prep into reading and writing workshop
  • Food for Thought – discussion topics for professional learning communities and/or study groups
jennison author integrating test prep

Nancy Jennison reaches teachers in Tenafly NJ

Collaboration can improve test performance

The U.S. Department of Education funded a study, recently published in the journal Sociology of Education, which found that many elementary students’ math performance improved when their teachers collaborated in professional learning communities.

Jennison encourages teachers to meet together to become familiar with their standardized test to find common patterns of questioning, formats, language, time demands, skills required and strategies to meet them. “Food for Thought” offers discussion topics that can be used as a springboard for collegial discussion and reflection.

Michael Fullan, author of Change Forces, states that every teacher “…must be a change agent,” but we must do that not in isolation but in a partnership with other educators. Jennison’s book encourages that collegial discussion and sharing.

Begin with a few of her ideas

I found the book to be overwhelming at first because I wanted to incorporate each idea Jennison presented into my teaching repertoire. After numerous late night note-taking sessions, I took a step back and thought about how I would implement the many strategies into my fourth grade classroom. I remembered the old adage, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Neither is teaching students to become better test takers without sacrificing their desire to learn.

My personal strategy was to begin with a simple exercise she uses that will improve students’ open-ended responses (ROPE):

R=Read the Question
O=Give your Opinion
P=Give your Proof
E=Explain how your proof fits your opinion

This compelling book demonstrates that educators don’t have to compromise and give up their best practices to make way for test preparation. Instead, effective test taking strategies can be interwoven into an authentic reading and writing program. She shows how to improve performance on tests without “teaching to the test,” using “gimmicks,” or doing workbook page after workbook page from one sample test to another.

So what about the Common Core?

My only apprehension is that current standardized testing is getting an overhaul, at least in states that plan to participate in the assessments now under development that will be aligned to the Common Core State Standards (PARCC and Smarter Balanced). All of Jennison’s strategies are consistent with best practices in education, but with the advent of technology-based testing, I am concerned that the examples she has provided from sample tests might be dissimilar to the updated tests.

However we feel about standardized tests, they will be around forever. Jennison’s book is a “keeper,” useful now as a direct tool and later as a supporting resource. The lessons are authentic, tested by teachers in the field and based on current research. I caution you…Stock up on Post Its© and Post It© flags. You will want to identify the sections that you can use and feel are valuable. Enjoy the book and look forward to preparing your students with quality instruction.

Linda Biondi is an upper elementary teacher at Pond Road Middle School in Robbinsville, NJ, a Teacher Consultant with the National Writing Project and a participant on the NJ Department of Education Teacher Advisory Panel. She reviews regularly for MiddleWeb.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

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