5 Alternatives to Multiple Choice Test Prep

Ten years ago when I first entered the classroom, we started prepping for the state test a few weeks before. That has slowly crept back every year until this one, where test prep was mentioned in January. That's right, January! It's definitely important to prepare our students for the state test, but weeks or months of multiple choice test prep questions is a surefire way to get students burnt out on the test before they even take it.

In my experience, students that struggle academically don't benefit from the traditional test prep questions. These students struggle as it is during the regular lesson, so they are bound to get frusterated when given random questions that they have to decide which process to use in solving the problem and then get the answer correct.

There are ways that you can prepare your students for the test without frustration. Here are five ideas to try during this year's test prep season!

1. Play Games

Instead of giving students multiple choice questions, give them problems in game problem. Stick with problems that need modeling or are open-ended so that they can't just circle a letter and move on. Having math or reading problems in game form will motivate your students to have more persistence when solving them. Keep their notes nearby so that they can refer to them to get help solving tough questions!

The I Can math games from One Stop Teacher Shop come in lots of different grade levels and standards. Decide which standards your students really need to focus on and purchase that game! You can use it whole group, in small group, or in centers.

Read the blog post about these math games here.

There are a ton of different games you can play, especially with math. The novelty will help students practice the standards they need to know on the test, without the burn-out. 

2. Use interactive notebooks to reteach skills

Reintroduce the skills that students struggled with using interactive notebooks. This is a great strategy even if you've already done interactive notes for the standards. Giving new notes with different and explicit examples will be helpful for the students that didn't get it the first time around. You can also use interactive notebooks to further practice the skills. Add any activity to a notebook and you have a novel way to practice the standards.

My interactive notebooks always include definitions of terms, explicit examples, and a ton of modeling. They're great for both the first lesson and reteach!

Interactive Math Notebooks Metric and Customary
Find interactive math notebooks for grades 3-5 here.

Find interactive reading notebooks for grades 4-6 here.

3. Get moving

Math facts play a huge role in how they'll perform on the state test. Practice math facts with movement. Get students up and doing exercise while they yell out the answers to math fact questions you put up.


  • Jumping jacks
  • Squats 
  • Burpees
  • Running in place
  • Table push-ups
  • Windmills
  • and more!

In addition to exercise, try taking the math outside. Have your students meet in groups to do centers outside. You can incorporate your math games from before and even pull groups for extra small group help!

4. Apply the math to real-world situations

Answer the question "Why do we need to know this?" by showing students how math is used in real life. Provide students a long term project that includes small tasks that involve math calculations and critical thinking. I like to use project-based learning in particular because it gives student a voice and choice, in addition to providing them real-world practice with our math standards.

5. Celebrate Success

During test prep season, we often get so focused on having students pass the test that we don't recognize the small victories. Take time every week to celebrate a success for each student. Even if they've mastered just one skill this week, that might be a few questions they get correct on the test. And the test isn't the end-all-be-all for this student. If they're just working on behavior goals right now, celebrate those! I always try to focus on what will help them most in real-life, even if it doesn't directly correlate to the state test.

Finally, don't forget to have fun with your students! Enjoy them before they're off to the next grade!


Modal Auxiliary Verbs... An Anchor Chart and FREE Posters!

Modal Auxiliary Verbs... I have to admit, when I first ran across this term in the 4th grade Common Core language standards, I had no idea what modal auxiliaries were. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.1.C  Use modal auxiliaries (e.g. can, may, must) to convey various conditions.

Other than the three examples, the standard itself didn't provide much information for me, so I had to do an Internet search on the topic... and I quickly became overwhelmed! I knew immediately that it would be difficult to teach the subtle nuances between these words in this special class of helping verbs- especially to my English language learners! 

Ultimately, I decided that students will gain proficiency in this area if they are introduced to the modals, and then have plenty opportunities to interact with the modals themselves. Today, I'm going to share my modal auxiliary verbs anchor chart and a followup activity that will help your students understand how to use modal auxiliary verbs.

First of all, here's the anchor chart I created to accompany this standard. (I always introduce new standards with a PowerPoint presentation, so I would create this anchor chart on the second day of my unit, when students have some prior knowledge on the subject.)  I recommend getting your students involved in the creation of this anchor chart by having them help you create the example sentences.

Modal Auxiliary Verbs Anchor Chart- This blog post also contains 4 FREE posters!

I also created the following "politeness" activity to do with students after the anchor chart has been created. One of the articles I ran across on the Internet addressed how different modals convey different degrees of politeness in certain situations. As a teacher of English Language Learners, this is something that I wanted to be sure to point out to my students. While these nuances may seem obvious to native English speakers, they can be quite confusing for ELLs.

I would begin by telling my students that we are going to play a little game to test our "politeness" levels. I would stress that this game isn't for a grade... it's just for fun! I would display the first poster using the document camera, briefly discuss the directions, and then have the students record on a scrap of paper which character's statement was more polite.
Modal Auxiliary Verbs: This blog post contains 4 FREE posters that address how different modals can convey different levels of politeness!
Then I would display the other three posters:
Modal Auxiliary Verbs: This blog post contains 4 FREE posters that address how different modals can convey different levels of politeness!

Modal Auxiliary Verbs: This blog post contains 4 FREE posters that address how different modals can convey different levels of politeness!

Modal Auxiliary Verbs: This blog post contains 4 FREE posters that address how different modals can convey different levels of politeness!

After students recorded their answers for all four posters, we would return to each poster individually, and discuss the correct answer. (Click on any of the posters above to download your FREE posters, and to access the answer key!)

If you are looking for additional student-friendly materials for teaching your students about modal auxiliary verbs, feel free to check out the bundle that is available in my store!
Address the common core standard L.4.1.C (modal auxiliary verbs) with these resources! This bundle includes a PowerPoint, craftivity, task cards, posters, and worksheets!

Thanks for stopping by today! Come back soon!


Studying Dialogue to Deepen Understanding

teaching dialogue
One thing I have really tried to do this year is help my students understand that "faster isn't always better"--and this is particularly true when reading challenging texts.

We are in the midst of our historical fiction unit where are reading historical fiction now--and will be writing it next.  We've done all the important work of studying different eras to help us understand our settings...and now I want my students to really dig into their characters to help us with our writing next week--where we will rewrite a key section of their book club books as if they were a different character telling the story.  It's a ton of fun!

In the interest of true "close reading", we dug into a few pages from a recent read aloud to see what we could learn about WHAT the characters were saying--HOW they were saying it...and what we could learn about them or the story from their words.  Again--I reminded students that sometimes reading is more than merely finding out what happens--it's UNDERSTANDING what happens and connecting to the characters.

Attempt 1:  I sent them off in trios to read the page and to "notice" the dialogue.  I encouraged them to interact with the text--to underline, highlight, add annotations, and so on.  They got to work right away and I circulated...but I noticed something.  Although they were FINDING the dialogue, they were talking about the EVENTS.  I let them work a little bit longer, then I threw the text under the document camera and we did some sharing.
teaching dialogue
 I got a few "a-ha' moments when I started to get after that initial direction--"Find out WHAT the characters were saying, HOW they were saying it, and what we could learn from it.

I sent them back to their groups...discussions got more focused.
studying dialogue
After a while, I could tell that we still weren't getting deep enough so I grabbed another section of text and put it back under the document camera and we really picked apart the first few paragraphs.  I read aloud slowly, paused for some think time, and asked students to raise their hand if they had anything to say about WHAT was said, HOW it was said, or any insights they had after I read it.

Along the way, I started to highlight the actual dialogue to separate it from the descriptive narration, and we started to notice some things--first, the words the author has the characters speak are important.

"It must be lonely, when your best friend is gone forever."

...but the other words are JUST as important.  The word "sighed" really helped us feel Elise's angst.  Earlier, we noticed this sentence;

We sat, but didn't start talking.  I looked at the smooth water, dark and far away.

We talked about what NOT talking told us...about how the characters were being reflective...and thoughtful...and calm.
deep thinking
 As we worked our way through the rest of the second text, we noticed all the different things characters' words "taught" us about them...and how different the text would have been if the author simply TOLD us these things as a narrator might.
reading comprehension
I think the most powerful thing about the lesson was how empowered my students felt...the felt like "grown up" readers who had the power to think deeply and really think about the characters--and what they believed the author was trying to do by carefully choosing the words to have the characters speak.

I can't wait until we start our own writing so students can try their own hand it this!  We learned how to write dialogue earlier this year, but I'm going to repeat my lessons with a new lens--what as authors are we trying to SHOW about our characters.  I'm hoping the dialogue my students write to enhance their historical fiction stories will be more meaningful and relevant than the work they did earlier this year. Here are the tools I used then if you want to take a peek!
Thanks for stopping by!  Give this lesson a try and see what you think!

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Encouraging Reluctant Writers to Write

So I had this really incredibly elegant post that I was going to write all about the intricacies of writing. Seriously, I was planning on making it this period piece that would stand out more than any other writing idea that’s existed since the invention of parchment.

But then something happened. I got distracted. I decided not too. Besides, writing is not fun. It has to be incredibly structured. I need to have main ideas. I needed to have topics and reflect on the structural differences between personal narratives and persuasion. So I didn’t do it.

Instead, you get this...

How do I get my reluctant writers to write?
How do I get my kids that struggle to write a single sentence in 20 minutes to be a better writer?

It’s a problem that many teachers face. It’s a problem that I actually have myself. I don’t like writing. It takes time, effort, practice, revision, and sometimes it actually makes my brain hurt.

Would it shock you to know that some of these sentences you’ve read have been erased six different times because I felt like I was never able to get my point across. If I’m having these issues, I wonder how my students are feeling.

So I gotta change it up with my students. I don’t need them to love writing, like I love coffee. But I need them to write, and I've got to find ways to encourage them along the way. I could stop hear and talk a lot about how important a growth mindset is for kids when it comes to writing…but I won’t…you already know. So instead, I’ll share some of my simpler techniques I use in my classroom to get kids putting pen to paper (or voice to text).

Round Robin
Each student gets a paper and we all write the opening sentence salvo together. Then they add their own portion of the story with another single sentence. (let me add that most of these writing activities involve creative/free writing).

Next, pass the paper to the student next to you. The next student reads the story and they continue the story by writing their own sentence. Then pass it on again. Read the story, write a sentence, pass it on. This can happen however many times you want.

On the last pass, I give the stories back to the original student so they can close out the story. Then we read our stories. And the kids love it.

FreeWrite Friday
One of my favorite writing activities is what we like to call FreeWrite Friday. This year I’ve backed off of it some, but it’s making a comeback.

We turn down the classroom lights, turn on some loud(ish) soundtrack, and write while the music is on. I typically set a timer (for myself) of 8-12 minutes in length but if students are still quiet we let it ride.

Many times I’ll give them a topic or story starter like waking up in a video game or the time they got to ride on a t-rex, real heavy hitting stuff that will bore them.

Sometimes we'll watch part of movie trailers and make predictions. Honestly, we never know what we're going to do, but it normally revolves around pop-culture.

Embed It Like Inception
I’m a project based learning kind of guy, so I like to use my resources as a gateway to get my students writing. I love to use the “why” in PBL because it forces students to tell me exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Students will fill the pages with their own ideas because it’s the only way they can share what they’ve learned. Sure, I could go over and let them tell me, but that’s not what I want. I want them to write without realizing they’re doing so and project based learning is one of the ways we get it done.

One of my favorites is where they create their own story, which you can do if you don’t write. So we go to The Island; from their they read a top secret government report, and create a story and characters from there. The less they write/produce -the smaller the story is.

Share Their Works
Whatever we write, we share. Writers need to hear others and they need to be heard. We celebrate every written work by being specific with our praise and also giving feedback for areas that will continue to need work.

Students need to be reading their works out loud.

Google Voice Typing
Writing doesn’t have to be with a pen, pencil, or keyboard. Google’s voice to text is an absolute game-changer with some of my students. For my students that write slow or have lower writing/reading skills this is a must-use. Students can speak and it writes, but you have to be using GAFE, Google Education.

I just had a student (a fourth grader) "write” his entire report with Google Voice and the whole thing took him 15 minutes to complete. (Editor’s note: This does not include editing) If he did it the traditional way, it would’ve taken 3-4 hours.

And let me just say, that this isn’t cheating. We’ve all got those kids that are filled with so many ideas, but they lack the organization skills to ever get it on paper. A beautifully thought out phrase is turned into a seven word sentence. That’s not fair for those students. Give them a tool to get them going.

For me, the core purpose of writing is to coherently get your ideas into an organized form for others to understand.

Write With Your Students
Seriously, write with your students. Or just practice writing.

I’m an honest person, I know my writing isn’t always up to par. Yet, that’s one of the main reasons I started blogging/writing in the first place—because I knew I was ungood at it. And every day I can get a bit better.

What are you’re ways that you get your reluctant writers going?

You can find more from me at Digital: Divide & Conquer where I tackle project based learning, technology,  and at home reminding my kids to turn off the lights in their rooms.

Valentine's Day Ideas for Upper Grades

Valentine's Day and the days leading up to it can be a fun time for lower grades, but why should lower grades have all of the fun? This can also be a fun-filled time for upper grades as well. Here are just a few ideas and activities that your upper grade students may enjoy that will also keep them engaged and learning.

Write Valentine's Day Poems

Holidays are a great time to read and write poetry, and Valentine's Day is no exception. Poems about love for their parents, grandparents, pets, or even friendship are perfect topics for Valentine's Day. I personally enjoy having students to write a haiku or an acrostic poem (to spell V-A-L-E-N-T-I-N-E). For years, my students have written these in their writing journals and have drawn pictures to go along with each poem. This year, I'm excited to have my student try this Haiku Poem Interactive  from Read, Write, Think. This is a free interactive page in which students can brainstorm, compose, customize, and publish their haiku poems. Of course, this fun website could be used anytime of the year.

Create Valentine's Day Bulletin Boards

Getting your students involved in creating a Valentine's Day bulletin board can be a fun activity. If you have visited my blog, you probably know that I love decorating my classroom. I don't change it up very much throughout the year, but holidays often call for a cute new bulletin board. Well, this Valentine's Day, I thought that our hall could use a little Valentine's Day cuteness, and so, my students helped to create this one to brighten up our hallway.

I love my school "beary" much!

Each student was given a heart and asked to write something that he/she loves about our school. I reminded them that the people are what make up our school: our students, faculty, staff, parents, and volunteers. I asked them to not write about the stuff that we have (for example the playground equipment), but to instead write about the people that make our school so special. There responses were full of thoughtfulness and sweet praise for others in our school. We have had so many compliments on this sweet bulletin board, and the students' responses were precious!

Have Fun with Valentine's Day Mad Libs

Students love mad libs, and this is sure to bring laughter and fun to your Valentine's Day grammar lesson. I like to use a mad lib as a whole group activity. I simply call out the part of speech needed, call on a student to name an example for the part of speech, and write the word on the board. When complete, I read the story, filling in the blanks with the words the students gave. There is always laughter and giggles with these nonsense stories. This is a great time filler that takes only five minutes or less. For some great free Valentine's Day Mad Libs simply visit here.

Valentine's Day Parts of Speech Quilt

Another fun way to review grammar during the days leading up to Valentine's Day is to use this Valentine's Day Parts of Speech Quilt Packet with your class.  This is not only a great way to review the parts of speech, but my students love having an excuse to color! They have enjoyed these printables so much, and I love seeing my students having fun reviewing the parts of speech. Having these colorful quilt pieces to decorate my walls and hallway is an added bonus. They make a bright display that will be sure to get noticed in your hallway or on your bulletin board. 

By the way, I'm Kelly from Teaching Fourth, and I am thrilled to be back with this amazing group of educators on Upper Elementary Snapshots, and I am looking forward to blogging and posting with this awesome group! 

4 Mini-Lessons For Getting Started With Informative Writing

I have always found writing to be one of the most challenging subjects to teach. More specifically, informative, or explanatory writing has always been my biggest nemesis!! My students often come to me with varying levels of writing background, their own unique styles, and a variety of topic interests. It has taken me many years to fine tune my craft for teaching informative writing. Over the years, I have developed mini-lessons to help my students to better understand this particular genre of writing, and to be able to effectively craft informative essays of their own. Today I would like to share 4 mini-lessons that I use in my classroom to get my students started with informative writing.

Understanding the Genre

First off, it is important that students understand the genre of informative writing. They need to be exposed to a variety examples of what informative writing looks and sounds like. I like to start off my unit of informative writing by "Diving Into Informative Texts." I provide my students with tons of books, magazines, newspapers, and other texts. I give them time to flip through the pages, skim the text, and just "explore" the contents. Once they have had a chance to explore, I ask them to record their observations. From there, they share in small groups, and eventually whole-group, continuing to add to their lists. Following this lesson, I usually have my students take notes on "What is Informative Writing?" This is much more teacher directed, but I know that I am getting across the information that I want them to have. Once they have experience with real life examples, and after our discussion, they have a much better understanding of the genre and what is expected of them when they start to write their own.

Selecting a Topic

You would think that selecting a topic would be easy for students. After all, they have so many interests!! However, it can be difficult to guide students toward selecting a topic that will lend itself to a meaningful informative essay. I like to start off by having students create lists of their interests. To guide it a bit more, I give them specific topics to focus their lists so that they don't end up with a list of their favorite video games!! (See pic below) Students are encouraged to list interests based on things like people, places, animals, historical events, hobbies and interests, and technology. This usually takes a bit of time, research, and discussion. Sometimes students are not prepared to think of ideas off the top of their heads. I like to give students time to take their lists home and discuss with family members. I give them time in class to discuss different ideas in groups and eventually as a whole group. Once their lists are complete, I have them hang onto them for the year, so that they can refer back to them when it comes time to choose another informative writing topic. They can also add  to them throughout the year, especially as they learn more and their interests grow in subjects like social studies and science.

Once students have their lists together, they eventually have to pick a topic. I like my students to start out with a few. I explain to them that they want to choose a topic that is not too broad, but that will also allow them to write about a variety of subtopics. I have them pick their favorite three topics, and list either subtopics or more specific topic ideas that fall under the umbrella of their overall topic. I sometimes take it a bit further by having students create a T-Chart to show what they already know about their topic and what they hope to learn. (See pic below). If they are not able to generate subtopics, or complete their T-Chart, then we have to have the conversation about whether their topic is a good choice for a meaningful essay. Completing their lists of subtopics and T-Charts gives students a great starting point for the direction they want to take with their essays.

Finding Reliable Sources

Unless students are already experts on their topics (which might be the case with a how-to), a fair amount of research is necessary before they begin writing. With so many online sources out there, it is very important to teach students how to find those that are credible and reliable. I tell my students to look for the following indicators:

  1. Is the information current? 
  2. Are sources cited on the page?
  3. Are credentials provided for the author?
  4. Is the website maintained by a reliable news source or organization?
Students often need a lot of guidance and practice with this. We usually select a group topic to walk through each of the steps of informative writing. This gives us the chance to do some research as a class. We open up different sites, look for the indicators above, and critique the reliability and credibility of each source. By the time students get to their own topics they have become internet "detectives", and know exactly what to look for!!

Writing a Lead

I find that my students have the hardest time writing those first and last sentences of an essay. To help them out with writing a lead, I like to provide them with different strategies and examples. Some of my favorites for informative writing are:

  • Ask a Question
  • Interesting Fact
  • Quote
  • Set the Scene

The examples help to give them an idea of how these sentences might look and sound. We also come up with examples for our whole-class topic that we take through the whole process of writing an informative essay. I then ask that they write a lead for each type, so that they have the opportunity to choose the one that would best fit their topic and the direction they want their essays to take. My students are always pretty excited about their leads, and this gives them the confidence they need to move forward with writing the rest of their essays!!

These mini-lessons are just the tip of the iceberg. When I first introduce my students to informative writing, we usually spend several weeks going through the whole process. If you would like to learn more about other lessons for writing, visit my teacher shop. There you can find units for Informative Writing and Opinion Writing to help guide your students through these mini lessons, plus many more!!