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Teach to the Test to Teach Writing

With the new emphasis on the ability of students to write an analysis of a given informational text, it's incumbent on teachers to rethink their methods of instruction.  It's not that teaching other forms of writing is irrelevant.  On the contrary.  But they will not be rewarded on standardized testing ("Why the new SAT is a reminder to improve the teaching of writing," The Conversation, Mar. 31).

I submit that the best way of preparing students for the new demands is to provide them with appropriate practice using informational, rather than literary, material.  That means helping them identify the argument and evaluate the evidence given to support it.  When I was teaching senior composition, I used The New York Times and Los Angeles Times as my secondary textbooks.  The editorials, op-ed and letters to the editor engaged students because they dealt with timely subjects.

Did this strategy constitute teaching to the test?  Absolutely.  But it was sound pedagogy.  Students never knew what the text on the test would be.  But I felt confident that they had developed the wherewithal to write a critical analysis.  On the other hands, if I had given my students practice writing descriptive essays, for example, that would not have constituted appropriate practice for the ultimate goal. 

When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, I quickly learned the difference between reportage and commentary.  Although both required basic writing skills like grammar and sentence structure, they demanded different abilities.  I submit that a similar difference exists between, say, writing a personal diary and writing a critical analysis.  That's why teaching to the test is so poorly understood.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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