So often, teachers in testing grades come to a point in the year where they have to make the decision to spend valuable class time teaching students how to take a test or continue building their foundation as readers. Unfortunately, the two are very different. End of year state tests are not written in a way that allows students to pass simply because they can read, comprehend, and apply on grade level. Without some explicit teaching on testing strategies and preparation, students go in to testing environments with a disadvantage.
I teach third grade, the first year that students have to take an end of year reading test. It is nothing like they have seen before and they have a ton of questions about it, usually starting in August. I have always been, especially this past year, the “Fight the Man-I Hate Testing” teacher. In meetings, I have even responded to the question of who in my class I don’t think will pass with DRA scores and phenomenal reading growth I’ve seen. I hate thinking of my kids as a test score and focusing my instruction all year on them passing one test.
However, although I may be stubborn, I am not stupid. I know that my students will need explicit test direction in order to be successful and I really do want them to pass. This past year, my students did AMAZING on their end of year reading test. I had higher scores than ever before and I was blown away. This was definitely not the highest group I have ever had. So, like every teacher has been trained to do, I reflected. I thought about what I did differently this year that may have made a difference, and one thing stood out.
*side note: I also saw a jump in my scores the year I started teaching QAR, but more on that another day.
I have always taught my kids strategies for answering questions and a method to reading text, understanding questions, and finding evidence. However, this was the first year I required students to take notes before answering any questions. This was a strategy I poured a lot of time into, because I realized it’s value not just in helping students better comprehend passages, but in slowing students down and allowing themselves more think time to analyze and grow as readers.
This idea, which we call “4-square notes” in my classroom, may not be new, but I wanted to share how it evolved in my room to best fit the needs of my students. Below are the anchor charts I created for my class.
Thoughts on Teaching Note-Taking:
-I spend a couple weeks teaching fiction note-taking before moving on to nonfiction.
-I always use the strategy with read-alouds first and go slow. We don’t start using this note-taking strategy with comprehension passages until we are weeks/months in. I want my students to see this for what it is, a great reading growth tool, not an easy way to pass a test.
-I usually spend a week modeling whole group and week with buddies/small groups before moving to a week of complete independence with the strategy (then after 3 weeks, I move to nonfiction).
(We only use these fancy note-taking sheets until the students memorize what should go in each square for fiction and nonfiction, then we just fold a piece of notebook paper into 4 sections.)
-Getting students to actually stop reading and jot down notes before returning to the passage takes a lot of practice. Many students don’t have that patience, they want to just finish reading and by the time they get to the end, they are unable to recall details/facts because they flew through with no self-monitoring.
-When teaching students to scan and chunk in fiction, I tell them that the beginning and end should be smaller sections and the middle should be the largest chunk.
-When teaching students to scan and chunk in nonfiction, I tell them that chunks can be one big paragraph, or a group of smaller paragraphs. We also focus on headings and sometimes chunk that way.
-I also make the anchor charts into a booklet that can be glues into their interactive notebooks for reference when needed and taken home to use as homework help.
-Students are basically writing mini-summaries when they stop to jot. I tell students that it doesn’t have to be in a complete sentence and that it shouldn’t be more than 1-2 sentences (some of my kiddos would write all day and spend more time doing that than reading). I also tell them that they cannot copy the author’s sentences or phrases, their brain has to create the retell.
-Whenever we have reading unit tests, the students receive two grades for the test score and one grade for their notes. This is great because the lazy/lucky learners have to slow down and apply more effort while the poor test-takers get credit for being able to read and comprehend.
This strategy worked really well for my students and made them better thinkers. As they got better at note-taking on their own, I noticed that our conversations about literature in whole group and small groups became deeper and more focused. I am not allowed to remind students to do note-taking or use any particular strategies on their end of year test so practicing this strategy until every student could/knew to do it independently really paid off.
The only problem I did see is that some students had trouble differentiating a nonfiction passage from a fiction passage. They would follow all the right steps, but set up their paper for the wrong type of text, which would lead to confusion mid-way through the process. One thing I plan to do about that is focus more on differentiating between the two types of text. We always do surface fiction vs. nonfiction lessons and my kids can tell you the difference between the two. But, when faced with a 4-page passage with no pictures, they sometimes struggled. That’s why I created this Fiction vs.Nonfiction unit
that I will be kicking off my year with. As soon as we finish this up, I will move into note-taking.
I hope this post has been helpful for someone out there. I was really pleased to be able to fine-tune a strategy that would help my kids feel successful on tests, but also help them grow as readers. The validation I received from both their test scores and DRA reading growth this year was outstanding and I had to share.