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Before we turn to specific strategies for taking tests, we need to understand the nature of a first-grade child. It�s no accident that most cultures begin a child�s formal academic studies by about age 6. Although most North American children have already had at least one year of kindergarten by age 6, first grade is when the emphasis on academics usually begins.
A First Grader�s Development
By the end of first grade, a child�s brain is about 90 percent of its adult weight; the areas of the brain that govern reading, language, and mathematics have grown to the point that children can begin direct instruction in academic skills such as reading, writing, and math. As the 6-year-old�s brain continues to mature, parents who were frustrated because they wondered if little Johnny would ever learn the alphabet or little Janey would ever learn left from right begin to see their children abruptly develop those skills.
One of the most serious though well-intentioned mistakes parents of first graders make is to struggle to get their children to master skills for which they aren�t neurologically ready. For example, although most children at this age are ready to learn to read, some just aren�t. No amount of pressure will make them ready to read.
It�s fine to help your child develop academic skills, but if you find you�re trying to teach the same skills over and over and your child just isn�t getting it, perhaps you are trying to teach a skill for which your child isn�t yet ready.
Moving the Body
Almost all children have decided whether they are left- or right-handed by this age, although some may still switch from one to the other, such as writing with one hand but drawing with the other. Compared with older children, many 6-year-olds seem to be somewhat clumsy. They may have some problems staying within lines when coloring, and they may have problems keeping their eyes on the same line when reading. But they are growing steadily stronger and better coordinated and are developing a much stronger awareness of their body positions and movement.
How They Think
The late Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget spent decades observing children at different ages and noting changes in their learning abilities. His theories about how children learn have had a major influence on Western education. According to Piaget, the child entering first grade tends to be very intuitive; that is, he tends to be influenced more by what he feels than by what logic tells him. Jamie may argue with his last breath that all snakes are poisonous, and no amount of logic may convince him otherwise. When his father asks how he knows this, he responds, "I just do." Children at this age have acquired many skills, but they can�t describe how they acquired them. They "just know."
Symbolic reasoning also begins to emerge at this age, as children begin to recognize the squiggly lines on the page that stand for apple and others that stand for the number four. The development of the ability to think in terms of symbols is what allows most children to begin to learn to read at about age 6.
First graders also begin to develop much more flexible classification skills: When presented with pictures of a boat, an automobile, and a bicycle and asked to tell how these things are alike, many younger children will state with conviction that they are alike because they are all green or that they are all good. The concept that they are similar (they are modes of transportation) may not occur to them until about first grade. You will notice your 6-year-old becoming more able to recognize abstract qualities and to consider more than one characteristic at a time.
Emotions and Behavior
Many first graders are simply not prepared to sit still and concentrate for an entire school day. They would prefer to be running through leaves and playing with the dog instead of sitting at their desks. Even children who don�t have attention deficit disorders may find paying attention to be a very difficult thing. Children at this age also view "I don�t want to" as a legitimate reason for not doing things that they find boring or unpleasant. They may simply stop activities they don�t like and pull out a toy they brought from home or doodle on their papers.
Parents of many first graders will grow weary of the word fair: It�s not fair that they must go to school; it�s not fair that they have homework; and it�s not fair that they must take those long, boring tests.
Basic Test-Taking Strategies
Sometimes children score lower than they might on standardized tests because they approach testing in an inefficient and unproductive way. There are things that you can do before the testand that your child can do during the testto make sure that he does as well as he can.
Before the Test
Be Patient. Perhaps the most effective strategy to use in preparing your child for standardized tests is patience. Remember that no matter how much pressure we put on children, they won�t learn skills until they are neurologically, physically, cognitively, and emotionally ready to do so.
There�s a delicate balance between challenging children to try difficult tasks they are ready for and pressuring them to perform tasks that are beyond their ability. Try to challenge your child, but if you see that he isn�t making progress or he�s getting frustrated, perhaps it�s time to back off.
Be patient. Your child is just beginning a lifetime of learning. Normal children differ quite a bit in the speed at which they develop different skills. Many children whose parents thought they would never learn to read when they were in first grade become excellent readers later on. Realize too that you can�t possibly be objective when it comes to your own child.
Talk with Your Child. Children at this age can have great insight into how they are doing in school. Your first grader may be able to tell you that he understands math but has trouble learning his vocabulary words. Remember too that problems with vision and hearing can surface at this age. Your child who passed vision and hearing screening last year may tell you that he can�t see the chalkboard or that he can�t hear the teacher this year.
Talk with Your Child�s Teacher. It�s amazing how many parents contact psychologists frantic to have their child evaluated for learning disabilities or emotional disturbance because of problems they think their child might be having in school, without ever speaking with the teacher about their concerns. Don�t wait for an invitation or for problems to develop before you meet your child�s teacher. Get to know the teacher as early in the school year as possible.
If your schedule permits, volunteer to help chaperone students during special programs or on field trips. Help bring refreshments on party days. Help your child�s teacher to see you as an ally, someone he�s comfortable contacting before small problems become big problems. Most teachers are eager to keep you updated on your child�s progress, and they can give you materials and suggest activities for helping your child at home.
Don�t Change the Routine. Many guides to standardized testing that schools send home to parents give mistaken advice about how to prepare children for a test, such as recommending that children go to bed early the night before or eat a high-protein breakfast on the morning of the test.
In fact, you should change as little as possible in your child�s routine the day before and the morning of the test. If your child isn�t used to going to bed at 8 p.m., then putting him to bed early the night before the test will only frustrate him and may actually make it more difficult for him to get to sleep by the normal time. If he is used to eating highly sugared cereal or just some buttered toast for breakfast, forcing him to eat a big breakfast will only make him feel sleepy or uncomfortable.
If you think an earlier bedtime is a good idea, make that change weeks before testing. If your child isn�t eating a healthy breakfast, introduce better choices as far in advance as possible.
Neatness. Yes, neatness does count. Observe how neatly your child can fill in the bubbles, squares, and rectangles at the bottom of this page. If your child fills them in sloppily, overlaps the lines, erases a lot, or presses the pencil so hard that he gouges holes in the paper, you may want to have him practice fine-motor kinds of activities. If you have a computer, you can easily create sheets of capital Os, squares, and rectangles that your child can practice filling in. Have him color in coloring books and complete connect-the-dots pages.
Rewrite Math Problems. Sometimes children find it difficult to solve math problems when they are written in linear fashion. For example, consider the following problem:
19 3 = ___
Make sure you spend time practicing with your child now to solve all kinds of math problems, using a variety of math formats, before the standardized test.
Translate Word Problems to Math Problems. Sometimes students try to solve math word problems but have a difficult time translating the elements of the problems into mathematical expressions. For example, consider the following problem:
Samantha had 12 pennies. She gave her little brother 5 of them. How many did she have left?
If a student rewrote the problem as:
he might solve it more readily. Spend time before standardized tests take place to work with your child on these skills.
Strategies During the Test
There are some strategies your child can use during standardized testing that have been shown to result in some degree of improvement in their scores. Talk about the strategies listed here with your child and remind him of them from time to time. Opportunities to practice with time for feedback and discussions are quite useful for young learners.
Bring Extra Pencils. Even if students are allowed to get up and sharpen pencils, the very act of getting up, sharpening the pencils, and returning to their seats will take away precious time that could be used answering several more questions. If your child breaks the point of a pencil and he only has to reach into his desk for another, he�ll have more time to work on test questions.
Listen Carefully. It�s astounding how many mistakes children make during testing because they simply don�t listen to instructions or don�t pay attention to demonstrations. Some children may circle the bubbles instead of filling them in; others don�t put their names on the test answer sheets despite the fact that proctors guide them through this step. Still others begin marking their answers on the wrong side of the form or go to the wrong section to begin marking.
Mark the Bubble for the Correct Question. Many children simply make a mark without making sure they are marking the correct bubble. As a result, some answers have no bubbles marked, and others have two or more marked. At other times, a child may mark answer D when he meant to mark C. Convince your child that the machine used to scan the answer sheets won�t be able to read minds, so he must make sure that the machine knows which marks to score by putting them in the correct bubbles.
Read the Entire Question before Answering. Many children simply begin wildly filling in bubbles without reading the entire question. The last few words in a question sometimes give the most important clues to the correct answer.
Read All Possible Answer Choices. Children tend to be impulsive. They may very well select the first plausible answer before reading a much better answer farther down the list.
Skip Difficult Items; Return to Them Later. Many children, especially perfectionists, will obsess about problems that cause them difficulty. They may spend so much time on these problems that they never get to problems that they would be able to answer correctly if they only had enough time left. On the first-grade level, many of the tests involve listening and therefore don�t lend themselves to saving difficult items until later, but some do.
Refer to Pictures for Clues. Test publishers don�t put random pictures in test booklets. The pictures may provide valuable clues that children can combine with what they already know to find correct answers.
The First Answer Isn�t Always Best. One of the great myths of standardized testing is that you should stick with your first answer. In fact, research has found that students more often change incorrect answers to correct ones than the other way around. It�s also possible for your child to improve his score by flagging answers he isn�t sure about and returning to them after he completes the other items.
Use Context. Students can often find clues to correct answers by looking at descriptions, wording, and other information from the questions themselves.
Infer Word Meaning from Context. When we run across unfamiliar words, most of us rarely stop and run to the dictionary to look them up. Instead, we try to figure out the word�s meaning in context. That is, we look for meaning in the other parts of a sentence or paragraph that gives us clues to what meanings would be appropriate. For example, consider this: "Johnny thought Maria was gregarious. She had so many friends that she never walked home alone." Even if we don�t know the word gregarious, we can figure out some clues from the context, and we can figure out that the passage must be talking about something related to having friends. Children can frequently figure out unfamiliar meanings from such clues.
Use Key Words. Look at the questions and try to determine the parts that are important to answering the question and those that aren�t.
Watch for Absolute Words. Absolute words may be a clue that the answer using them is less likely to be correct. For example, an answer that says "Horses always live in suburban areas" is false, and the clue is the word always.
Eliminate Answer Choices. Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying, "Eliminate the impossible, and what remains is the truth." Children can often narrow down their choices among multiple-choice options by eliminating answers they know can�t possibly be true. On practice tests, begin by allowing your child to actually cross out answers that can�t possibly be true, and then ask him to start mentally eliminating answers. This practice is critical, because most standardized tests will not allow your child to mark his test booklet other than to indicate his final answer.