10 Mini Lesson Topics for the New Texas Assessment (STAAR)

At the end of February, I was honored to join sixteen of my English teaching peers to work on the STAAR Writing Performance Standard Setting Committee. It was our job to take the English I, II, and III Writing STAAR assessments, look at the Performance Descriptors and recommend the standards for passing and advanced performance on the writing assessments students will begin taking this month. Currently, I work with pre-service teachers at the university level, but if I were in the classroom, I would definitely want to review a few things before students took this test, so I made a quick list of the 10 topics I would teach a mini-lesson on if I were still in the classroom.

10 Mini Lesson Topics for the New Texas Assessment (STAAR)

  1. Sentence Combining: A strong sentence combining lesson should include not just how to put two simple sentences together to create a compound sentence, though it would be helpful for students to be able to make this combination (See #8). The lesson should also include ways to combine sentences that remove duplicated ideas or provide a more efficient way to state the ideas that are found in two or more sentences.
  2. Transitions: Let’s help our students use transitions to increase the fluid reading of their writing. This should include both sentence-to-sentence transitions and paragraph-to-paragraph transitions.
  3. Thesis Statements/Controlling Ideas: Thanks to our school board’s overtime work on our TEKS, the 9th grade skills include both of these terms, and they are both used on the assessment. Please help your students understand that these terms are synonymous.
    Our students need to be able to not only include a clear thesis statement in their writing (and it doesn’t have to be the last sentence of the first paragraph – just present), but they should be able to recognize a thesis statement in writing and decide if can be improved considering the whole text (note: students should read the entire texts of the editing section of this assessment to answer these types of questions).
  4. Story Structure: Students in 9th grade will be required to write a story. They understand narrative structure from their years of personal narrative writing for the TAKS, but they need to be refreshed on story structure to organize their piece. Remember they have to tell a whole story in just one page. They should know the parameters of their stories before they start. Many picture books are the right length and would make great mentor texts for this mini-lesson.
  5. How to Develop a Character: We often look at characterization in the literature we teach, but for this assessment, the students will need to develop a character in their own story. Help the students make this connection. What works in literature works in our own writing as well. We are all bored by authors that rely on physical description, so we want to encourage characterization through dialogue and actions as well.
  6. Dictionary Use: The TEKS say that our students need to be able to edit using available resources including a dictionary, so the new assessment includes full availability of the dictionaries for the ENTIRE assessment. They can use them to check spelling; yes, there are spelling questions. If there’s a style guide in the dictionary, they can use that as well. Dictionaries are terribly handy and full of information. It would be worth some class time to preview the dictionaries that are provided on assessment day with the students, so they know where to find assistance during the test.
  7. Common Writing Errors: This mini lesson should appear in the editing phase of the writing process and could include a checklist for students in a peer editing setting. Connors and Lunsford created a list of the most common mistakes found in their research with freshmen compositions, and here is a checklist written in student-friendly terms. I would move apostrophes and homophones closer to the top of the list for this assessment.  Also, not on this list but still worth a really quick review is the use of apostrophes with plurals or words that end in s. Students will need to be able to both correct these mistakes in the essays provided and edit their own essays on this assessment.
  8. Punctuation in regards to sentence types (compound, complex, and compound-complex): I’ve always taught this mini lesson with sentence strips. I let the students build their own simple sentences, and then they insert the pieces of punctuation (commas, semi-colons, and periods) and conjunctions (subordinating and coordinating) with peers to help their sentences “mature.” I like to do this activity right before I have my students peer edit for comma usage. This is the only way I have ever been able to trust my students as peer editors on this skill.
  9. Supporting Evidence: This year’s 9th graders will need to write an expository essay. From what I’ve seen, students write better expository pieces if they chose one or two really well connected pieces of evidence from content they have learned in school or from their own experiences to support their thesis. The best evidence seems to be extended and specific, so I would encourage students to avoid multiple small pieces of support or listing in favor or one of two well-developed ideas.
  10. Sustaining Focus and Specificity in a Concise Essay: One of the biggest changes between TAKS and STAAR is the one-page essays. This is a concise piece of writing. There isn’t any room for students to get off topic. The student should be sure that all of their evidence supports their stated thesis and that it is focused from beginning to end on the topic at hand. Students can practice this by cutting down pieces of writing they have previously completed. This is a good revision opportunity for students to remove redundancy and empty phrases. They can also accomplish this task by replacing long drawn out sentences with more efficient sentences that have specific word and active verb choices.

These are the mini-lessons that I would teach, but it’s imperative that our students do the work of these mini-lessons in their own writing. These mini-lessons belong in the revision and editing (done separately) phases of the writing process. Any of these skills taught in isolation on a worksheet or out of a textbook would be a waste of time for everyone involved as demonstrated again and again by researchers and teachers in the field for over fifty years . These mini lessons need to be 1. Mini – no more than 15 minute lessons 2. Practiced in the students’ own writing 3. Demonstrated with models (professional, peer, and teacher), and 4. Taught in writing assignments that are purposeful – not test prep. We must hold ourselves accountable for good teaching practices and strategies under the increasing pressure to prepare our students for these assessments. Reading and writing assignments should incorporate the joy of communication that is naturally present in our students, whereas test prep destroys the love of learning and desire to question in our students. We have all seen the results of test prep education practices, and though we are required to prepare our students for success, we must trust our training and teaching abilities to assure that success will occur with students that are fully engaged in interesting and authentic literacy experiences.

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