Stand up to Standardized Testing with Effective Reading and Writing Instruction

Shara Sarnelli is an English major with minors in Education and Women’s Studies. She is graduating this May, and will begin chasing her dream of becoming an inspiring high school teacher soon after. She is heading to Boston College to pursue her Master’s of Education, which will help her fulfill her career aspiration.

Imagine being a sophomore student in a high school English course. You are thoroughly engaged in the class, which is assessed through individual and group projects, interactive class discussions, and papers that deviate from the five-tier standard essay. Your favorite project was acting out a scene from Hamlet in a group. Through a project like this, you are able to better relate to the characters of Shakespeare’s play, grasp the writing style and language of the author, and understand the underscored themes.

Unfortunately, such dynamic projects do not directly teach to high-stakes standardized tests. As a result of enjoying class, your testing scores or ability could suffer, and thus your diploma is in jeopardy. Furthermore, your passionate teacher’s job could be threatened. On top of that, if a majority of students score low on standardized tests, but perform well in class and even enjoy learning, the school itself fails to meet its AYP. The school’s reputation is damaged, and funding is at risk.

Standardized testing is a reality in the realm of education, whether we like it or not. We can challenge tests like MCAS and SATs until our energy is extirpated. Or we can simply prove that teaching good reading and writing skills can prepare students for standardized tests without necessarily teaching to the test.

High-stakes testing tends to obliterate student-centered learning, and narrow the curriculum, as well as take away from the reading and writing experience. The student-centered approach and teacher flexibility have been displaced by focus on test preparation and accountability (Higgins 310). But does this have to be the case? Can we maintain quality education while preparing students for the tests they are bound to take?

“High-quality, evidenced-based instruction need not be sacrificed in preparing students to succeed” on standardized writing assessments (Higgins 310); yet these sacrifices occur too often. If teachers are encouraged to instruct with best practices “rather than explicit teaching to the test” (Higgins 310), then students may be able to perform well on standardized writing tests. This instruction should be comprised of writing in a variety of genres, giving students choices of topics to write about that relate to their interests, providing time in and out of class for writing and revising, incorporating writing conventions (Higgins 310), and making use of peer evaluation.

Some studies show that students who have effective writing instruction score higher on formalized writing tests than those who receive instruction based solely on skills assessed on the test (Higgins 310). Effective writing instruction can be implemented by giving attention to the social nature of language, recognizing the importance of a student-centered pedagogy, and using developmentally appropriate practices (Higgins 311).

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A Lesson at the Chalkboard

James Tackach is a professor of English at Roger Williams University.  He taught at the Rhode Island Adult Correctinal Institution from 1979 through 1981 in a program offered by Rhode Island College.



Teaching prison inmates, which I did for a couple of years three decades ago, was serious business. But whenever anyone asks me about the time I spent teaching in the maximum security unit of the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institution (ACI), through a federal program housed at Rhode Island College, I generally recall the lighter, less serious moments.


The forbidding maximum security unit of the Rhode Island ACI does not appear to be fertile ground for humor. The main building is a big, gray, ugly stone structure that might suggest a mid-19th-century factory at best and a medieval dungeon at worst. To get to the section of the unit that held a couple of seedy classrooms, I had to pass through a metal detector and two sets of barred doors, then walk past the rows of confining cells that housed the inmates. It was a very serious place.


Yet some of the funniest moments of my teaching career occurred in this humorless place. One comes vividly back to my mind every time I have to hunt for a piece of chalk in a classroom.


The classrooms at the ACI were minimally equipped: student desks, a desk in front of the room on which I could sit during class, a paint-stained blackboard on the front wall. Sometimes there was chalk in the blackboard chalk tray; often there wasn’t. I like to write terms, draw pictures, and do all sorts of scribbling on the blackboard during a class session, and the lack of chalk was a serious impediment to my teaching style. And try to find a piece of chalk in a maximum security prison—finding a snow shovel in a Florida garage might be easier.

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My Moment with Chopin

Lance Eaton  is a college instructor at several colleges in the greater Boston area, teaching courses on literature, world history, comics, and even monsters.  He writes for several magazies and websites. His areas of research include comics, popular culture, audiobooks, and film.  His musings can be found at http://hitchhikingadjunct.blogspot.com.


I got hooked on reading because Kate Chopin turned me on in a way that I’m still not sure I can talk about in public, not without my cheeks going red.  Keep in mind, Chopin, having been born in 1850, is about 110 years older than me, but she still knows how to press my buttons.


Stories have always been seductive to me.  I hate giving up on a story for fear that I will miss the opportunity for it to redeem itself in the last chapter, leaving me smiling, triumphant and looking for more.  This has of course led me to enjoy some rather questionable stories, graphic novels and TV series, as well as to feel abysmal for sticking to the end of some stories.  But the sinister moment that I knew I was forever fixed on stories—and books in particular—came at the end of Chapter 9 in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.”


I was reading the book because someone recommended I incorporate it into my American Literature course.  Now, at face value (actually on pretty much every level), it would seem unlikely for me to fully appreciate it or to have such a deep intimate moment. The book is written by a woman over a hundred years ago about a class of people that are well-enough distant from my own experiences.  Chopin wasn’t writing for me or maybe, if she was, it was to say, “stupid privileged man; this is what your presumptions about the opposite sex lead to.”


It’s hard to say or fully know.  But needless to say, the idea that I would be moved so deeply by a passage from a text about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage seemed unlikely.  Going into it, I figured this was the 19th century’s “chicklit” and I would appreciate it for its relevance to women’s literature, but not actually be moved by the story.  That dirty woman proved me wrong.

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Poetry as Treatment

Richard Gold founded and runs the Pongo Teen Writing Project, a writing therapy nonprofit that works with teens who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives. An award-winning, published poet himself, Richard has taught remedial English and run a writing therapy program he developed at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. The Odd Puppet Odyssey, a collection of Richard’s own poetry, with illustrations by his wife Celeste Ericsson, was published by Black Heron Press in 2003.


Poetry can heal traumatized youth. It also creates a community of openness, connectedness, and strength, which helps treatment providers. In the Pongo model, poetry particularly serves teens who have a hard time expressing themselves. Here is a poem by Payton (pseudonym), a first-time writer in juvenile detention:

I am 15 and I am lost don’t know
what to do.  lost because I get no love.
lost because I messed up my life.
lost because my dad left for some
women.  lost because I got caught
up in gangs.  lost because I lost
real friends my family.  lost
because I screwed my life
up.  lost because I lost
respect and trust.  lost
because I am a kleptomaniac.
lost because I don’t show enough
love or respect to peers or elders.
lost because I am always in detention.
lost because I got nowhere to hide.
lost because I got no guardians.

This young man not only wrote with insight and feeling about his life, he was also excited and proud to write. He shared his writing with others, youth and adults in juvenile detention. He discovered a new skill and a new way to address life’s difficulties.

In this blog, I’d like to give the quick context of the Pongo Teen Writing Project, suggest benefits I’ve observed in 20 years of doing this work, and finally give some insight into the Pongo methodology and resources.

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