How to Use Creative Writing to Prepare Students for Standardized Tests

It’s testing season, which means that students everywhere will be reading prose and poetry passages and filling out little bubbles to show what they understand about those pieces. While standardized tests seem difficult and mysterious at times, what students are expected to do on those exams can be boiled down to two answering two main questions: What point does the author make and how do they make that point?

In my experience, students have a pretty easy time pinpointing the main idea of a text, and they are usually pretty capable of finding the important literary or rhetorical elements of a piece—but it’s getting them to connect the two that’s tricky.

I would guess that when most teachers think about the best way to prepare their students for the common core, SAT, or AP tests, they think about practice multiple choice questions modeled after the tests and practice essays, modeled after the test as well.

But to me, that’s like saying that the best way to train for a mile race is to run a mile every single day. Instead, what students need are different ways to train their literary analysis muscles. One of my favorite ways to train their brains? Creative writing exercises.

But just as I wouldn’t send my athletes out to run without any coaching of their technique, I also don’t just assign a creative short story and leave it at that. Students need structure, they need guidance, and they need to think about the specific aspects of creative writing in order to truly understand them.

Let them experiment for themselves. 

In my experience, students are likely to dismiss any literary elements as decoration or added but meaningless difficulty. So I start off by getting them to simply experiment with writing. So rather than asking them to analyze the point of view of a passage, I have them write a scene from two different perspectives. Or rather than telling them to unpack figurative language, I have them play with writing some of their own. What they learn by starting from the inside out is that writing is challenging but it’s also fun, and that’s how I get them onboard for the next steps.

Get them talking, thinking, and writing about meaning.

Once they have tried some exercises for themselves, we come back to a discussion of meaning. Real writers don’t write because they want to confuse a reader with difficult vocabulary and obscure allusions—they write because they have something to say. When students make the connection between the special effects of writing—vivid description or intricate syntax or complicated sentence structure—and meaning, then they understand writing from the inside out. So we always take the discussion back to the main point.

Take that understanding to an analysis of a professional text.

Once they have had the experience of writing for themselves, they are much more likely to notice how a text works. If they have tried to write a dialogue between two people that shows their relationship without any narrative explanation, then they will be more likely to notice the ways that a published piece utilizes dialogue. If they have experimented with word choice for fun, then an author’s choices of words with interesting connections will pop for them. So after they have had the chance to try it for themselves, we look at how the professional writers do it.

Task students with explaining how an author creates meaning.

The hardest part for any student is to connect what they notice about the way a text is written with the point the author is trying to make. They can often state the main idea, and they usually do a great job finding the important literary elements, but figuring out how those elements work to create meaning is not easy at all. So I’d suggest starting with their own work. They might not think that they had a point to make when they wrote a fun metaphor about friendship, but with a little prompting, they will easily notice their beliefs that trust is important but difficult. And once they can make that connection, they are one step closer to understanding how just about any kind of writer creates meaning.

Test season is far from the best part of teaching, and figuring out how best to prepare students for those tests is not easy. I have literally stood in front of a class and debated with myself whether or not I would spend the class period working on practice multiple choice passages. So to say that I am conflicted about the value of this kind of work is an understatement.

Ultimately, what it comes down to for me, is what I want students to remember five or ten or twenty years from now. Chances are, they’ll remember that day that they played around with describing a setting where a mystery had taken place. They definitely won’t remember that the answer to question #25 on the practice test that we completed on May 7th was D.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids, meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village, or writing in her blog, Gil Teach.

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