Teaching Reading - Crunch Time Tips for Testing

High-stakes testing means different things for different teachers in different settings. Let me share with you the setting that I teach in to better understand why I address testing the way I do.

In the state of Florida, in order for students to graduate high school, they are required to pass their 10th Grade reading assessment or a concordant score on the ACT or SAT. My population of students is typically reading two-three grade levels below. They are 98% minorities, 50% immigrants, and from low socio-economic households, so meeting this state mandate is a must for them. So it does not matter how I feel about these tests, I need to make sure my students are equipped to master them because for many of them, their quality of life is dependent on it.

So here are some things that I do to help my students make learning gains.

It is crucial that they use their time wisely since most of their tests are timed. Especially for struggling readers since they spend the bulk of their time reading and not leaving enough time to answer questions. Much of the focus during crunch time is helping them to be strategic readers by doing the following:


Previewing the text is key to determining what type of passage they are reading. If you preview and recognize that the text is fictional, then your focus is to recognize the development of the characters’ traits, their motivation, theme, conflict, and other plot elements since that is what the questions will more than likely be about.

Questions for non-fiction are typically aimed at the author's viewpoints, arguments, organizational patterns, or central ideas. You may ask, why does it matter and this is how I explain it to my students;Your brain needs a little assistance to know what to key in on as you read. Our brains are doing a million things to keep us breathing, sitting, and alert while it is also reading which in itself requires a heavy load for it to do. Narrow down for your brain what to focus in on by recognizing the type of text and say to yourself, “I need to look for fictional details” or “I need to look for non-fictional details.” 

Download the FREE What Readers Notice Reference Sheet I provide my students to reference as they are working!

Reading with a Purpose

By April, my students can finish this sentence that I say repeatedly, “it doesn’t make sense to read to the end then realize you don’t understand what you read.” A good majority of my students are what I call word callers. They can read every word on the page and they believe that is all reading is. They get to the end and lack a deep understanding and sometimes, not even a surface-level understanding of the text. 

So we practice chunking the text by stopping and asking questions about a section. Chunking could be at the paragraph level or even sentence level.  The goal is for them to recognize when comprehension breaks down and fix it then and thereby identifying what is causing the breakdown instead of waiting till the end. 

Students are also taught to process what they read by doing a quick summary of 5 words or less. They begin the year annotating or writing in the margin but over time I remove that requirement to write it once I realize that it is becoming an automatic practice in their heads. Most state testing platforms are not built to accommodate students annotating on the passage which is why the written annotation is not the end goal.

Decoding Questions

Have you ever read a student’s response and asked yourself, “what question were they answering?” If you are like me then the answer is MANY MANY TIMES! Because most of the year, I only do free-response short answers, I know students struggle with knowing what a question is asking them. 

We spend time teaching a skill but that skill can be asked a number of different ways on a test, so empowering students with the following steps helps them to think through the question. 

  1. Teaching academic language such as convey, or address.

  2. Having students underline keywords in the question.

  3. Put the question in their own words

  4. Answer the question in their minds before looking at any choices 

Lastly, in order to help our students make gains on reading assessments, there are some tips that I would like to share aimed at teaching best practices.

Knowing and Understanding the Standards

Even after years of teaching the same standards, I still pull out my state Item Specifications, review the wording of the standard, as well as to look at the sample questions and how the standard could be asked depending on the question type. In Florida, students are not just assessed using multiple-choice questions but also question types such as multi-select and drag and drop.

Also, we get caught up in remediating missed skills from prior grades, and we forget to hone in on the required skills for our grade-level standard. Case in point, let’s look at the following Common Core Standard:

CCCS.R.5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

Now ask yourself, have your secondary students only been identifying cause and effect, problem-solution, or sequence text structure or have they also analyzed the role a sentence plays in a paragraph or the contribution a paragraph makes to the development of a passage?

Grade 5 requires students to “Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.” Meanwhile, Grade 7 requires students to “Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to the development of the ideas” and Grade 9-10 requires students to “analyze in detail how an author's ideas or claims are developed and refined by particular sentences, paragraphs, or larger portions of a text (e.g., a section or chapter).”

Notice the staircase in what is required of the students and the difference by grade level which is why it is essential that as teachers, we know the standards and prepare students appropriately.

Depth Of Knowledge Levels

Another key strategy is using crunch time wisely and spending it where it will be most effective. Most teachers do not have enough time to cover all the standards much less time to go back over them so figuring out which standards to focus on in our limited time is key. 

That is why, my students only do short answer responses the majority of the year because as we work on our reading skills we are also working on our writing skills. Their writing score is a big chunk of their overall reading score and when you think about what is required of them to produce an evidence-based essay, then you recognize it is a DOK Level 4. The value of a DOK Level 4 question will weigh more than simpler tasks. 

In a nutshell, if a question requires one step of thinking it falls low in terms of depth of knowledge but a question that requires a student to process multiple ideas and connect them are higher on the depth of knowledge chart. For the writing task, students are asked to read and comprehend, choose evidence, identify and analyze patterns in the evidence across multiple sources, and then create/ synthesize a written product. That is the epitome of a demanding task. There are also reading standards that require a deeper level of thinking from students and those are primarily the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas standards. When deciding what texts to use, choose to use paired texts so that students can connect ideas across them and analyze each author’s claims or perspectives.

Thematic units throughout the year especially in book clubs are a great instructional tool to have students constantly thinking through multiple perspectives on the same topic. My favorite thematic unit is one we do on the role of Upstanders which you can find in my TPT store. 

Small-Group Instruction

I am a big proponent of small group instruction even at the secondary level. In order for students to make adequate learning gains, their needs have to be met. Some students need remediation at the phonics level, some need fluency skills, and others need enrichment at the comprehension level. During crunch time, most of my instructional block is broken down into small group time with the exception of the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes. For the rest of the year, there is whole group guided instructional time as well. The goal is learning gains and until we drill down to the root of the issue and address them, the students will produce the same result. 

The last tip is to always keep students at the front of our instructional practices. Testing season can be nerve-wracking for them and us and it happens at the time of the year when we are ready to bolt to summer break. So if it is packet after packet, they will become disengaged. There is still a place for novels paired with non-fictional texts during crunch time. There is still time for high engagement by making test prep fun by gamifying. Yes, it is necessary to drill skills but we shouldn’t drill our students to boredom.

Huge thanks to Samantha for sharing her wisdom and experience with us! Samantha spent the first seven years in a high school working as an Intensive Reading teacher before moving to middle school as an Instructional Coach. She's now back in the classroom teaching 6-8th grade, covering everything from Cambridge English to Intensive Reading.

Want to read more from Samantha?

Check out her fabulous blog where she shares so many helpful tips, strategies, and books.

Also, be sure to check out her TeachersPayTeachers store where she shares engaging resources that help students find success with reading and writing.

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