Within the next few months, students across the state of Texas will be taking the STAAR test. Teachers usually review relevant information in class and conduct practice sessions, but because kids typically don’t have as much experience writing essays, the essay portion of the 4th and 7th grade STAAR tests can present unique challenges. Today, I’ll discuss how to practice writing for the STAAR test and also how to generally practice writing with younger students.
The STAAR test for 4th grade and 7th grade requires that students compose an expository essay within 26 lines. To clarify, essay “genres” fall into a two main categories:
Expository = informative (you are describing facts)
Ex: Textbook article, newspaper report, description of a person, how-to guide
Argumentative = persuasive (you are trying to convince someone to think or act a certain way)
Ex: Book review, newspaper opinion piece
The STAAR test is somewhat strange in that you often are presenting your opinion but you are not necessarily trying to persuade the reader to agree with you. You often are describing “the best invention” or “what makes a good friend.”
At any rate, the best method for studying the STAAR essay outside of school involves three steps:
1. Gather sample materials from the STAAR website from past exams.
The STAAR website offers great resources for understanding the basics of the test. You can see last year’s exam and several before that. These exams include the prompt as well as scored responses and grader feedback. So you can see what kind of essay generally scores a 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Before getting too far with practicing the writing itself, I like to have younger students see samples of good writing. First, we will read a past year’s official prompt and brainstorm how we would respond. Then, we keep in mind our brainstorming and review the 4-scoring essays. With those samples, I will explain the different parts of the essay, such as the thesis statement, topic sentences, the examples, and the commentary. The goal here is to provide a “model” of good writing.
During the modeling stage, you don’t necessarily need to go through each and every test. Reviewing the most recently released test should work well since there are multiple examples for each score.
2. Practice writing paragraphs and short essays that include all the essential parts.
Younger students are going to struggle a lot with writing the basic structure of paragraphs and essays. To keep things simple, I like to break down a paragraph as follows:
TOPIC SENTENCE - a broad statement of the key idea of the paragraph
TRANSITION/CLAIM - a more specific statement that introduces evidence
EVIDENCE - a specific example that supports the claim/topic
COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS - an explanation of how the evidence supports the claim/topic
CONCLUSION - a statement that reiterates the main point of the paragraph
Not every paragraph needs to include all of these elements, but for the sake of practicing strong paragraphs, it is best to get students in the habit of including all of these parts. Often, younger students will write about 3 out of 5 pieces, usually forgetting to include a topic sentence and a conclusion.
For basic practice, I have students practice writing simple paragraphs, responding to prompts like “What is the best way to serve a tennis ball?” or “Describe your favorite class at school.” I recommend that they write at least once a day for 30 minutes to an hour. At this point, the information itself does not need to be perfect (and there will most likely be spelling and grammar errors); again, writing the structure correctly is the goal.
3. Once the structure is consistently correct, then focus on refining the content.
With practice, the student should be able to more consistently produce the structure of a paragraph and also a multiple-paragraph essay. Then you can start focusing on improving the content within the paragraph. (Of course, you can still guide the student on content before this stage.)
Usually students struggle with clarity in expressing their ideas and including examples that support their topic sentences and claims. Often, younger students rely too much on vague pronouns or phrasing that doesn’t precisely explain an idea or situation. Sometimes this lack of clarity happens because what they are describing is too abstract or the example is too complicated to explain. So you may need to help them brainstorm, too, if the content proves too tricky to write about.
When reviewing the essays during this stage, try to pinpoint areas in the student’s writing that leave you wondering what exactly they meant. Ask the student if they can clarify. Also, demonstrate and work together to come up with an improvement so they can see the process firsthand. I like to type up what the student has written and then break the essay down into parts, revealing what the student needs to improve.
Through this three-step process you should be able to more systematically help younger students with writing paragraphs and essays. Once you have done practice for a few weeks, you can then “benchmark” the progress by handing out another official STAAR essay prompt and having the student write a response. After reviewing, you can once again look at sample essays and compare, determining the student’s score and what to focus on for future practice.
Preparing for the STAAR test? Need help on the writing section -- or maybe just need writing help in general? Our tutors can assess your student’s weaknesses and help them build their skills for the test and beyond!