Posted in Assessment, Reading

A New Resource To Help Students Read Old Classics

Getting a Grip on Classic LitClassic literature is tough for today’s students. The formality, complicated sentence structures and use of archaic words is intimidating. It’s a pretty safe bet, though, it will be part of your state or district’s end-of-year testing. When reviewing my state’s released tests, I found that every one of them—from grades 5 through 10—included text written over a hundred years ago. So, how can we help students prepare, not just for the reading skills they’ll need to master, but for the stamina and confidence required to tackle these uniquely complex texts?

First, it’s important to understand just what makes classic literature so daunting. Take this excerpt from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Seventh graders at our school must tackle this text, and even though it doesn’t contain the even more forbidding thee, thou, and thine (a triple-threat which actually has to be translated into present-day English pronouns), it brings my struggling readers up short every time. Does “Mind!” mean the author is being introspective, addressing himself (as he certainly appears to be later in the paragraph)? Is “Mind!” a command to behave? (My students are apparently familiar with this usage.) In fact, here it means neither and “Mind!” is instead a lost meaning of the word asking the reader to “pay attention.”  Forging ahead, students are then derailed by “ironmongery” and the less familiar use of “trade” to mean business (not a swap).

Old English is quite verbose. Whereas today’s communicator often wants to “get right to the point,” many classic texts feature a great deal of introspection and complex sentence structures that often interrupt one idea with another, parenthetical thought. At times it can be redundant, “…I know, of my own knowledge…” or “I might have been inclined, myself…” It is also painfully formal “You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically…” Obviously, Dickens was never influenced by the Nike motto: Just do it!

All of this is to say, Old English is troublesome because it is not something students encounter every day. Which got me to thinking… what if they did?  What if I could indoctrinate my students in the ways of Ye Olde Tyme texts with brief, but repeated exposure to same? For just a few minutes each day, we’d apply a reading skill they’d already learned to a couple of paragraphs of more challenging classic literature. It was also important to me that they get vocabulary support, where needed, and immediate feedback on their efforts. I combined this idea with my desire to review the important reading skills we’d been working on all year and started creating daily warm-ups that feature challenging texts.

This is how I’m prepping my kids for the state test. Every day, they complete one half-page activity during the first four or five minutes of class. I leave a stack of them at the front of the room, and—with minimal direction—students quickly learned to pick one as they entered and immediately work on it. After I’ve taken attendance and handled whatever pressing business presented itself (inevitably), we review the answers together. I call on student volunteers (or volun-tolds) to share their answers along with their thinking. This creates an opportunity to model valuable test-taking strategies. “What is the question asking for?” “Why isn’t ____ the right answer?” “Why is the answer you chose correct?” The review can be as brief or as extensive as your time or situation requires. If I have time while students are working, I circulate—making a point to consult with any student who seems to be struggling.

I mix it up a little. Some days they get a literary text, other days it’s informational. Even many of the nonfiction pieces are more challenging classics: a speech by Amelia Earhart, a political cartoon from the 1920s, the classic “Yes, Virginia…” New York Sun editorial. That variety, too, is good preparation for year-end assessments.

Using these warm-ups, my students grew more confident and more proficient reading complex texts. A colleague who spotted them at the copier one day asked to use them, too. Our classes couldn’t be more different. She teaches gifted and advanced sixth graders, while I was teaching 7th and 8th grade struggling readers. When we compared notes later, both groups benefitted (and we enjoyed how engaging the task was… truly bell to bell learning).

Even better… this activity takes very little time—about five minutes a day. With so many standards to cover and review before test day, this was a no brainer. We covered dozens of different skills, built vocabulary, and increased student confidence and stamina with complex texts.

If you want to try it in your classroom, I’m including a link to a free one-week supply—five unique warm-ups to give your students practice with classic and complex texts. Since they’re basically targeted mini-assessments, you could also use them as exit slips or quizzes, too. I’d love to know what you think!

Posted in Assessment

ELA Assessment Made Easy

Today, I wanted to address the topic of assessment.  Maybe it has something to do with the state writing test my kiddos just took, or maybe it’s because I just finished writing an end-of-quarter exam for my intensive reading students.  But, it’s been on my mind a lot lately.


I’ve always thought test-writing for English teachers was especially challenging.  Not only do we have to author the questions, but we’ve got to search through mountains of passages–or write our own–to find texts having the qualities we’re assessing:  figurative language, text organizational structures, plot and conflict, theme… you get the picture.  (Of course you do.  If you’re reading this, you are either an English teacher or someone with a vested interest in the profession.)  Not only do texts have to model the right content, they must also be at the appropriate reading level.

Another consideration of mine is making sure classroom assessments use question stems and types that mirror those on high-stakes exams.  That way, my students gain experience with the testing format as well as the content.  For years, this was the most onerous part of writing tests for me.  Multiple choice?  Sure.  But, how was I supposed to add drop-down boxes to a paper test?  Or drag-n-drop questions?  Or specify choices of “hot-text” answers?  A few online test creation programs offered these tools, but none allowed me to add passage sets, or even scrollable texts that students could re-read when analyzing questions and answer choices.  And they certainly didn’t do it at a cost that I, a lone teacher, could afford.

Then… I found Edulastic. Edulastic

I’d been searching the internet (yet again) for online testing platforms, when it came up in one of my searches.  I clicked, and began measuring it against my wish list.  Question style variety?  Matching, fill-in-the-blank, essay-style…check, check, and check.   Drop-downs, hot-text, drag-n-drop… yes, yes, yes.  Passage-based questions with onscreen, scollable text (dare I hope?)… YES! It’s all there!  At this point I was sold, and my inner skeptic started kicking in.  “Yeah,” it whispered, “but I’ll be you have to create an account for each kid and manage all of those passwords.”  Nope.  They can log in with their existing Microsoft 365 or Google accounts.  “Well, then,” my cynical internal dialogue continued, “It’s going to cost a fortune once your free trial is up.”  Nope… nada.  It costs me nothing.  “It’s probably hard to use, then.”  Easy-peasy.  I created my first test in about forty minutes, and it was a smorgasbord of question types.   To this day, I have only good things to say about Edulastic.


Once I had entered my team’s common assessments into the test library, I could choose to share them schoolwide (or district-wide) and we all enjoyed the immediate feedback on student performance.   Our school also lets us differentiate test content, so struggling readers and advanced students take slightly different versions of the same assessment.  Once one of the tests was built in Edulastic, we could easily duplicate it and modify the questions as needed.  The reports on results are easy to interpret, and we can quickly identify the most-missed questions.  Since each question is associated with a learning standard, we can see which standards have been mastered and which ones need revisiting.


I know what you may be thinking.  Edulastic made our job as teachers a bit easier, but did it really benefit the students?  Absolutely!  When the results of the state reading assessment came out, our grade-level team had the highest-scoring students of any school in the district (and our district is #1 in the state).  Do I work with a highly-skilled cadre of educators? You bet.  Did Edulastic help familiarize our students with the online testing format, allowing them of focus their energy on reading and critical analysis.  It did.

Over the summer, Edulastic asked me to be an ambassador (unpaid, though I did get a free upgrade to their pro account and a branded travel mug).  I would be recommending the product to other teachers regardless.  The pro account did give me access to some even more powerful features, like text-to-speech for students who get that as an accommodation.  I have even more reports at my fingertips, too, so I can measure their mastery of standards across multiple tests.  If you can swing the $99 upgrade fee, I think it’s worth it.  They even had a BOGO sale this fall, and several peers took advantage of it.