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“In the passage, it says…”

(llustration: David McLiman)

This week, I received an email from a parent. The email contained a link to this article: “A Test You Need to Fail’: A Teacher’s Open Letter to Her 8th Grade Students.” Firstly, I want you to take a few minutes to read the letter.

Okay, now that I have your attention…

For the most part, I try to keep my opinions about test-prep and teacher politics out of my blog, but this letter really hit a soft spot.  I want to share about an experience that I have dealt with repeatedly over the past few months. So much of teaching has become test prep, and so much of test prep has become what I call, “In the passage, it says…”

I have been working with a lot of students who have been taught to write, “In the passage, it says…,” in every long response question. When I ask them if they can phrase it in a different way, their response is often, “but my teacher wants me to say it like that!” This worries me for a few reasons.

  1. It gives children the idea that evidence can only be presented in one way.
  2. It makes children sound like robots.
  3. It makes children fear what will happen if they stray from routine and try something new.

I have been in a variety of classrooms where test-prep needed to happen. It is so tempting to teach students to use lines like, “In the passage, it says…,” or “According to the article,” because many of us are told that it is a surefire way to get kids to add 2 details and raise their score. BUT, we need to remind ourselves that being able to regurgitate a line like, “In the passage it says,” does not make our kids strong readers and writers. In fact, it often persuades students that they don’t need to think, they just need to underline two parts of the text. This is what can end up happening…

Question taken from NYS ELA Book 3, 2010

How does the girl in “Butterfly House” feel at the end of the passage? Why does she feel that way? Use details from the passage to support your answer.

Possible Response

In the passage it says, “We carried out the box and raised the lid.” In the passage it also says, “I watched her falter as she felt the first warm touch of sun, saw trees, felt breezes brush across her wings.” 

Note: This response demonstrates that the student can find and copy two sentences from the text, but this response does not answer the question. Too many times, I see kids become so focused on underlining and copying their 2 quotes, that they forget to think about what the question is actually asking and offer a response that makes sense.

For those of you who say to me, “But we need to do test prep even though we don’t want to”…I hear you!

Here Are Some Things We Can Do

  1. I always like to tell students to imagine that I am standing in front of them asking the question verbally, and to think about how they would respond if this was a conversation. Most students would not respond by immediately referring to the text.
  2. We can remind students to underline the last few words before the question mark and to stop and think what the question is really asking before running to find a quote.
  3. We can teach and remind students that a response is strongest when it is an original idea that has been supported by quotes. We can also point out that using quotes is not an alternative to offering a thoughtful response, but rather a way to use text evidence to support a thoughtful response!
  4. We can model using a variety of ways to use different language to prove a point using text evidence. This can happen on a daily basis in non-test-prep activities for example: when responding to a read aloud, when discussing how to approach a word problem, when using a non-fiction science text, etc.

It is okay to teach students how to refer back to  a line from the text so they can offer strong evidence to prove a point. This is a skill they will need in the future. Using text evidence can make a reader’s opinion stronger!

It is NOT okay to teach students that every time they see a question that says, “use details from the text,” to start their sentence with, “In the passage, it says.”

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