6 Test Prep Strategies for English Classes

Quick secret: Most students who struggle on the English, Reading, and/or Writing sections of a standardized test have the same exact problems: can’t finish on time, think they’re “slow readers”, make silly grammar mistakes, and write semi-persuasive essays that are more rant than rhetoric.

Teachers already know and teach certain test prep skills well: test prep vocabulary words, modeling close reading practice, writing essays, and giving multiple-choice assessments. However, over the last 10 years as a test prep tutor, I have fine-tuned several techniques that I wish were mainstreamed into every classroom.

The following tips are ones that have made SUCH significant differences for my ACT/SAT students that I’m trying to integrate them more into my middle school ELA classes.

DISCLAIMER: Adapt these tips to your state or country’s exam. For example, these were designed for a paper-and-pencil test that DOES allow you to write in the test booklet. 

Tip 1: Cross out the words that make an answer choice wrong. 
Most high school students lose MORE time than they realize on multiple choice questions; they falsely assume they’re not READING fast enough, when in fact they are wasting too many seconds debating between answer B and answer C.

In their heads, they’re thinking things like, “Oh, that sounds right… but that one looks right too… and I remember reading something about elephants in the passage, so that one might be right…”

SO, my technique is to make students cross out the words within the answer choice that cause it to be incorrect. Students who do this often become faster because they spend less time wavering between two or more options.

Download THIS FREE LESSON to teach students the strategies from this blog post (AND practice them on a sample reading passage)!

Concisely teach test prep with one FREE lesson!
Tip 2: Skip questions often (and soon enough)
Another bad habit that prevents students from finishing on time is when they don’t skip questions, and instead dwell on a single question for far too long, not realizing how long they’ve remained on the question.

Thus, I coach students to FIRST skip questions that look difficult, keeping in mind the student’s personal weaknesses. For example, if the student tends to miss inference questions, then the student should skip those and come back to them later.

I also encourage students to skip the question SOON enough. If the student reads the full question, thinks about it for a minute (and maybe even tries it), and THEN decides to skip the question, then that’s a lot of time wasted.

Plus, given what we know about the impact of stress on the brain, it’s in a student’s best interest to skip any questions that could trigger the student to believe the test isn’t going well.

Tip 3: Lightly annotate while reading
When a student tells me that (s)he gets bored, zones out, or can’t finish a reading passage on time, I can cure them 9 times out of 10 with a specific annotation strategy.

Students do NOT have time to do hardcore annotations like we might normally preach in an English class, BUT they can lightly annotate for main ideas; namely, I ask students to circle the word or phrase in each paragraph that pinpoints what the paragraph is about. Benefits of this include:
  • Circles “pop” more than underlines, especially when using a pencil
  • Students now have a visual “trail” of the structure of the text
  • The passage is now easier to skim when going back to find a text-dependent answer
  • Students have been actively paying attention for main idea, “filtering” out things that are less important, and can now answer main idea multiple choice questions more easily
  • Fewer minutes overall spent reading, due to better focus

In addition to circling keywords, I welcome students to minimally underline whatever they instictively feel is important. (I'm a huge advocate for NOT over-underlining to the point where students no longer know which words are important and why.)

Circles "pop" more than underlines to make the main idea of a paragraph visible.

Find more reading-specific test strategies in my companion blog post, 5 Standardized Test Tricks for READING Sections.

Tip 4: Stop choosing based on “what sounds right”.
This is an old piece of grammar test prep advice, but there’s a bad inherent assumption: that the student has enough of an understanding of standard English that he or she even knows what is right. If the student doesn’t code-switch well or has gaps in knowledge, then going by “what sounds right” is terrible advice.

Plus, test prep makers will purposely insert wrong answer choices that will “sound right” to students. For example, the test will offer “should of” instead of “should have”.

If students have gaps in grammar knowledge, it is worth your time and theirs to fix it. Get help with this set of common errors bell-ringers, OR steal my entire grammar program!

Tip 5: Know the writing test rubric, and give them what they want. 
Most students don’t know EXACTLY what that particular test’s rubric for the writing section looks like; they assume they know how to write “a good essay” or that they are “a good writer”, they wing it on the standardized test, and then they feel surprising disappointment when their writing score isn’t as high as they predicted.

For example, the ACT’s writing rubric wants students to analyze alternative viewpoints, analyze the context and/or origin of the situation, and examine "implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions." That's a pretty tall order that a typical five-paragraph essay might not accomplish unless students know that's the expectation.

To help your students meet advanced writing demands, check out my ACT Writing Unit or a not-test-specific Timed Essay Writing Unit.

Tip 6: Show your practice test to a teacher or tutor. 
My biggest frustration as a tutor is when students take too long to ask for help and their scores don't increase. English teachers can make it "safe" for their students to bring their practice books to class and ask questions before the ACT, SAT, or another standardized test.

For more English teacher test tips, you might like the blog post Secrets from the Tutor: What Your Secondary Students Really Need From You.

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