State Test Prep Reading Strategy for Middle School


Give your middle school students this 7 step process to use when taking the state tests in reading.

When state testing comes around, I find that many of my students and their parents become anxious and want a way to review at home.  I used to just say things like "You are a good reader.  You know how to think things through.  You'll be fine."  But then I got to thinking, what if they are not "fine" because their anxious mind begins to overthink things? So that's why I decided to break down this process.

Reading Process

Just like there is a writing process, there is also a reading process that people use when reading texts. They may not even realize they are using a process because it's something that most people do naturally once they reach middle school.  

Notice I said "most".  There are some students who have never thought about this before and once they do, it unlocks a new way of thinking and these students have a "eureka moment" that knocks their socks off!  :)

So what is this process?
1.  Read the directions, text features, and captions.
2.  Establish a purpose for reading based on the questions
3.  Read the text and identify clue words
4.  Determine if the text is fiction or nonfiction.
5.  Slash the trash
6.  Select/Write the Best Answer
7.  Review Answers

I like to give my students a text with some questions and then go through each step using a flipbook so I can stop and explain things as I go.  We refresh our memories on what text features are, how we can read the questions and get a kind of preview of the text, and even what the idea of clue words means.  

Then we get to step 4, I am always asked "Why does it matter if it's fiction or nonfiction?"  To which I answer "Because there are different kinds of structure based on that.  If it's fiction, then think plot diagram.  If it's nonfiction think about the 5 types of structure."  And this, of course, affects the way one might answer the questions too.

The last 3 steps are probably pretty much expected steps but I think students have to be explicitly taught to do these things and practice them so that when they get to the test, they have a frame of reference.

Finally, after we've gone though all the steps, we have a conversation goes something like this:

Me:  "So this process is what readers use when they read anything - fiction or nonfiction."

Them:  Incredulous looks

Me:  Grabs book (Tangerine by Edward Bloor) - 
"Think about it.  When we read this book in class, we first looked at the pictures and read the back - that's step #1.  Then we decided why were were reading this book - we knew we wanted to determine what?  

Them:  Offer ideas 

Me:  (If needing follow up:  What did we put in our double-entry journals?  Evidence for...)  Right - we wanted to trace character development and determine the theme.  That's step #2.  Then we read the book.  As we read it we found keywords, we knew it was fiction but we compared it to what we know real life is like, right? That's steps #3 and 4.  Because we're in class, you used the rest of the steps for various activities but even if you weren't in class, you would use steps 1-4.  Be honest, how many of you "judge a book by its cover" when you pick out one for yourself?

Them:  Raise hands and comment that the back of the book helps them know if the book sounds interesting.

Me:  Of course!  And then you have a purpose for reading - maybe it's because someone recommended the book and wants to talk about it with you or maybe you like the genre or topic, or maybe you're in Battle of the Books, or maybe you just like a good dystopian fiction book.  Any way you look at it those are the first 2 steps!  But then as you read, you notice important things and you compare them to what you know.  That's how readers make meaning of what they read and that's called comprehension.  Pretty cool, right?  How many of you have just realized this for the first time?

Them:  Most of the class.

Me:  And now you have learned a new reading "secret".

It's like teaching magic when I can get through to my students on a level like this!

If you'd like to use this process with your students, my flipbook is all ready to go in both printable and digital formats.  The idea is that students read the included text and then need to place all the pieces for the flipbook onto the correct tab.  It's highly interactive and students get a lot out of it.  The digital version requires the same piece placement but in a digital environment using Google Slides.

This printable and digital flipbook gives middle school students a chance to interactively practice with using the reading process to prepare for state tests in reading.

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Use this 7-step process with your middle school students to help them practice working through the material found in a state test for reading.

Teaching Middle School Students To Plan An Essay


The essay planning phase is a very important part of the writing process.  Make sure your middle school students know how to overcome the 3 essay planning hurdles!

My middle school students always say "I don't need to plan."  To which I respond " If you fail to plan, you plan to fail".  Confused looks.  Blank stares.  Eyerolls.  

But seriously, I say, without a plan, how can one be sure to have everything that's needed?

Then I start to ask questions to get over Planning Hurdle #1:

"Ok - so if you don't need to plan, where is the evidence you found for your first reason?"

"What transitions are you using?"

"What is the second piece of evidence you found for your third reason?"

Suddenly the need to plan becomes more clear!  That's the first hurdle...

Planning Hurdle #2

The second hurdle is finding a good planning sheet.  I personally prefer a flow map type of planning sheet but I know some people prefer an outline kind of plan.  I teach using the flow map but offer the outline as well.

A key to good essay planning in middle school is having a good planning sheet!  Get a free one here!

Planning Hurdle #3

The third hurdle is ensuring that students do not write out complete sentences for their plan so they do not feel as though they need to write the essay twice.  In fact I tell them that if they write out complete sentences in those body paragraphs, that I won't accept it.  (I really will but I want them to try not to write out complete sentences.)

I teach my students to write out their thesis and maybe even the other 2 sentences of the introduction paragraph.  Then for the body paragraphs, I have them write out their transitions, and the location of the evidence.  So for example, if their evidence comes from the first article, second paragraph, I ask the students to write 1.2 on the evidence blanks with the first 3 words from the quote.  That's it.  Then just a few words for the commentary.  I tell them we're abbreviating sentences and that it's like leaving breadcrumbs for themselves.  Then they look at me funny again and I have to explain the story of Hansel and Gretel.  Middle schoolers love these detours.  :)

When we plan our first informative essay, I usually model the introduction, 1 body and the conclusion.  Then I ask them to plan their other two body paragraphs as a formative assessment.  We sketch out each paragraph just writing the bare minimum (again, bread crumbs) so that the bulk of our writing time is actually spent on writing the essay.

Take a look at this video to see how I teach it:

Did you like what you saw in the video?  You can get 2 weeks of video instruction along with digital notes, organizers, texts and more with my essay writing units.

Now the next thing that needs to be accomplished is taking the plan and turning it into an essay.  But that's another post.  :)

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Help your middle school students get over these three essay planning hurdles!

Writing Essay Conclusions


Use this plan to help your middle school students write a great conclusion paragraph for their essays!

Once I have taught my students to read & flip the essay prompt, read and mark the text, write an introduction paragraph for informative and argumentative, write the body paragraph and the counterclaim, the last part of the actual essay is the conclusion paragraph.  My students typically are worn out by the time they get to the conclusion and just want to say, "Thanks for reading my essay." or "In conclusion, this essay is finished."  Both of these statements are like nails on a chalkboard for me!  

So, I came up with a plan.  I thought to myself, what's the last thing students probably grab from home before they leave the house?  Their cell phone!  Now how do I connect that to the conclusion as the last thing they do before they call an essay finished?  With this mnemonic that outlines the 3 sentences (minimum) that a conclusion needs to have:

A - Affirm the thesis

T - Trim the point

T - The Call to Action

AT & T - Ok not everyone has AT & T but they get the idea!

1.  Affirm the Thesis

This is the first sentence in a conclusion.  By affirm the thesis, I mean restate the thesis.  If in the introduction the thesis ends with the reasons, then the affirm begins with the reasons.

For example, if the thesis is:

After reading multiple texts, it is clear to see that these places should be protected because of their natural, historical, and cultural benefits.

Then the Affirm is:

Natural, historical and cultural benefits are reasons why Pipestone National Monument and Mount Rushmore are so significant that they should be protected.

2.  Trim the point

This is the second sentence in the conclusion and students are tasked with telling the main idea of the essay.  I tell my students to ask themselves "What's the point?"  The answer is the sentence they should write here.

3.  The Call to Action

This is the last sentence of the conclusion and should tell what it is hoped that the reader has learned or what it is hoped that the reader will do as a result of reading this essay.

I give my students sentences starters like "Now the reader may understand why..." or "Now the reader may understand how.." or "Now the reader can choose..."

Watch this preview of how I teach the call to action from the conclusion here:

Now that students have a plan for their conclusion, I hopefully won't hear those nails on the chalkboard any more!

Want to try this with your students?  I have a complete plan for both informative and argumentative essays with my printable and digital units that include the expanded version of the video above plus videos for every other section of the essay too!

Middle School direct instruction for writing argumentative essays in printable and digital formats!Middle School direct instruction for writing informative essays in printable and digital formats!

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Give your middle school students a plan for writing essay conclusion paragraphs!

Hacks for the Argumentative Essay Counterclaim


Find out how I help my middle school students remember the structure of a counterclaim in an argumentative essay!

When teaching the counterclaim to my middle school students, there are actually two ways we could go:  embed the counterclaim in the body paragraphs OR write a separate counterclaim paragraph.

I taught at one middle school in my district where they taught the embedded counterclaim and I am currently at a school that teaches the separate counterclaim paragraph.

Embedded Counterclaim

I have to be honest with you, I think that this is the most academically sound way to teach counterclaims because I am convinced that this creates a stronger argument and a stronger essay as a whole.  Why?

1.  When you write a body paragraph for an argumentative essay, you are already providing evidence for the essay's position and it makes sense to admit in that paragraph that there is an opposition to the idea but clearly the evidence that has been provided refutes it.  There creates a smooth progression that literally leads the reader down the path of your argument.  It's a very tight organizational structure.

2.  In Florida, this is what is shown as an example of a perfect paper and is even evident in the papers slightly less than perfect.  In fact, in none of the example essays does one find a separate counterclaim paragraph.

So what hacks did I use to teach the embedded counterclaim?


A - Answer with the claim + one reason from the thesis

R - Respond to opposing claims

G - Give evidence for the essay's position

U - Underscore the evidence with commentary

E - End with a conclusion

This is exact pattern I used to teach my middle school students in the first middle school I mentioned.  Of course, students had to repeat the G and U for a second piece of evidence but they made a little song/chant to go with it and it wasn't an issue.  And when it came time for them to take an essay test, they didn't freeze because they had a pattern on which to rely.

Want to use ARGUE with your own students?  I have a full unit that uses this pattern to teach an argumentative essay complete with a prompt, texts, foldables, notes and a PowerPoint.  

If you teach middle school students to write argumentative essays with embedded counterclaims, then this easy to use unit with texts, foldables, notes and organizers is for you!


A - Answer with the claim and one reason from the thesis

C - Cite evidence

E - Explain with commentary

I - Ingeminate (repeat the cycle of cite and explain with new evidence)

IC - Insert counterclaim (Some say___ but this is not accurate because_____)

T - Top it off with a conclusion.

The year that the school went to the counterclaim paragraph idea they allowed me to continue with the embedded counterclaim using ACE IIT to see if the test scores would prove that embedding counterclaims would score better or worse than a separate counterclaim paragraph.  You know what?  I had the highest scores.  And I didn't have all honors classes.  In fact, I had two classes that were only beginning English Language Learners.

This way to embed a counterclaim was in an effort to streamline my mnemonics that I use with informative essays and increase retention and usability by the students.  I used to tell them that there were just 3 key differences between the informative and argumentative - which is so much easier to remember!

1.  Introduction paragraph bridge has to state both sides

2.  The essay must take ONE side

3.  Add in an extra I in ACE IT for counterclaim.  (I teach an ACE IT mnemonic for body paragraphs that do not have counterclaims.)

The idea that the two kinds of essays have the same basic structure (with the 3 exceptions) actually helps students feel more confident in their abilities.  Of course, it helps to practice by having students just take out a blank sheet of paper and write our the mnemonics and what they stand for too.  I did this and on the day of the state test, that's exactly what I saw students do - and they scored better than some of their "advanced" peers!


Separate Counterclaim Paragraph

Now that I am in a Special Needs Co-Teaching type of position, I have to go with the flow and support my team in their endeavor to teach students to write a counterclaim paragraph.  To help them, I came up with another hack - aka mnemonic  - based on how they teach this paragraph:

F - Feature the other side (the opposing claim)
A - Affirm the opposing claim with evidence
U - Underscore the essay's position (refuting the opposing claim)
C - Cite evidence (for the essay's position)
E - Explain with commentary
T - Top it off with a conclusion

I tell the students that the mnemonic is FAUCET because this is the section of the essay where we "pour it on" or "turn it up" in terms of making the case for our position in the essay.

This paragraph becomes our third body paragraph in an argumentative essay.   Our other 2 body paragraphs follow the same structure as the informative essay with the pattern I call ACE IT.  You can read more about that by clicking here.

Need lessons to teach argumentative essay writing?  Click here to view my argumentative digital and printable unit that teaches separate counterclaim paragraphs.  

How did we practice this?

I have had great success with this collaborative argumentative essay writing activity with a separate counterclaim paragraph using task cards:

There is a task card for each sentence in the essay.  Students work in groups to determine the correct answers and to write out the correct answers on a special planning sheet.  Then, they determine where the paragraph breaks are and write out the essay.  If students have chosen the correct answers, all pf the essay should be identical which means MUCH LESS GRADING for you!

I also have some great organizers and sentence starters to give students a reference to look back on as they are writing essays or working with practice materials for both separate counterclaim paragraphs and embedded counterclaims.

So, now you have all my examples of how I have taught argumentative essay counterclaims.  Obviously there is no one right way to do this and I hope that some of these ideas help you in your essay teaching journey!    Thanks for stopping by!

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There are two great ways to ensure your middle school students have a counterclaim in their argumentative essays!

Teaching Middle School Students to Write Essay Body Paragraphs


Your middle school students will ACE IT when they write essay body paragraphs using this structure!

When I teach my middle school students how to write essays, I first go through the entire process with them.

First we read and flip the prompt.  Then we read and mark the text.  Instead of going head long into planning, I pause the writing process and teach them what goes into an introduction (one type of essay at a time) and then what goes into a body paragraph.

I always start with informative essays.  So after I have taught the student an informative introduction (argumentative introductions have a critical difference), I teach the body paragraph.  I teach that this paragraph has at least 8 sentences.  Could students write more?  Sure, but no less.  This is what those 8 sentences are:


Answer is a transition with the restatement of the prompt with one of your reasons.

For example, in my digital informative essay unit, students will create a thesis that tells that Mount Rushmore and Pipestone National Monument are such significant places that they should be protected because of their natural, historical and cultural importance.

So the answer would be:  "Initially, natural benefits are one reason why Mount Rushmore and Pipestone National Monument are significant".

Cite Evidence

Given the reason from the answer, students will now be directed to look at the texts and choose a piece of evidence for "natural benefits".  Then we discuss how to "prepare" the quote.  By "preparing", I mean to set it up with the name and author of the article and where it can be found.

For example: In "Pipestone National Monument" by E.C. Spangler, the text asserts "...nature has been protected and can be enjoyed by all people for generations to come". (1,3)  

The (1, 3) refers to the first article, third paragraph.  

My students have tended to need more practice with this concept and so I developed some notes that help walk them through this concept with an activity. (There is a printable and digital version.)

Give your middle school students a 4 step process to follow every time they need to cite evidence!  Combine that with some practice activities and your students will be citing evidence like champs!

Explain with commentary

This is the hardest part for most of my students.  I have them answer two questions when they write commentary:

1.  Why is this evidence important?
2.  How does this evidence show that the reason supports the answer?

An example of commentary based on the thesis and information above would be:  "This is vital because if the natural elements were not protected, then they might not exist in the future.  This proves that by protecting Pipestone, many plants, birds, and mammals are also protected."

This doesn't always prevent the redundancy that occurs in this section of the paragraph, but it helps.  The clincher to ensure less redundancy is to tell the students that they cannot repeat the same words (other than the proper nouns) from their topic sentence at all in this section.  They groan and moan but it really helps them think about what the evidence really proves.

I also give each of my students a "toolkit" with loads of sentence starters for evidence and commentary as well as tons of transition words to give them ideas of ways to say things differently.

Reduce redundancy in your middle school students' essays with these sentences starters for evidence, commentary and more!


This is a fancy word for "repeat" as in repeat the cycle of cite and explain.

I tell my students they start this with a transition, followed by a new piece of evidence for the same reason with 2 sentences of commentary that answer the 2 questions from above.

Top it off

This is the last sentence of the body paragraph and is the conclusion.  I teach my students to reverse the first sentence of this paragraph to write the conclusion.  So if the first sentence starts with the reason, the last sentences ends with the reason.

So for example, taking the sentence from above, I would show my students how to write the conclusion this way:  Mount Rushmore and Pipestone National Monument are significant because of their natural benefits.

Now the paragraph has come full circle.

Did you notice?

The first letter of each of these sentences spells ACE IT - and students will surely ace their essays when they use this structure!  I might get some eyerolls on this one but it sticks!

This is the mnemonic that you will find in all of my essay writing resources in both my printable and digital units.  These units include detailed notes of the steps above as well as the writing process plus the prompt, texts, organizers and more.  The first time I teach essay writing in the school year, it is in this way so that the students have a model for the rest of the year.

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Use this mnemonic to help your middle school students remember how to structure an informative essay body paragraph!

Teaching Argumentative Essay Introduction Paragraphs


Teach the Argumentative Essay Introduction Paragraph to your middle school students with ease!

While the first step of reading the prompt is the same for argumentative essays as it is for informative essays, there is one seemingly obvious difference - students must choose a side.  But my 8th graders always want to see both sides and give me "the look" when I tell them they must pick ONE side, and that this side, or claim,  must be found in their thesis.

So when I teach my students to flip the prompt into the thesis, I model the concept of choosing a side.  Then I explain that they must be sure to highlight or underline evidence for that side as they are reading and marking the text.  I also tell them we have to keep a look out for the opposing claim and mark that differently.  (Generally, in my class, we choose to circle opposing claims and write opposing in the margin.)

After reading and marking the text, then we're ready to write our introduction.  While the same basic structure is the same as the informative - at least 3 sentences with a hook, arch/bridge, and thesis - the critical differences are in what the bridge and thesis contain:  the position.  


This is the first sentence and contains background information about the topic from the texts.  A nice way to start this sentence is "Throughout history" or "In recent years". Of course the minimum number of sentences for a hook is one, and I always tell students that more than one is sometimes necessary and preferable to really set the stage for the reader.


This is the second sentence and should state both sides of the argument.  A good way to write this is Some scholars argue____ while others assert_______.


The last and arguably most important sentence is the answer to the prompt with the reasons.

So, for example, if the prompt reads "Write an essay in which you take a position on whether the lost city of Atlantis was a real place", then the thesis might say "Atlantis was a real place because it is based on myths and there is no scientific evidence to prove its existence."

I teach my students to take the same words from the prompt and include them in the thesis to help them make sure that they are writing an essay that actually answers the prompt.  

Did you see the pattern?

H - Hook
A - Arch/Bridge
T - Thesis

It spells HAT and I tell my students "Just like you put a hat on the top of your head, you put a hat on the top of your essay!"  It's corny, yes - but corny enough that they remember it!  

I use the same mnemonic for informative essay introduction paragraphs.  This way the introduction is always a "hat" with the big difference being in the arch and the fact that the writer must take a position.

How do I teach this?

First, I give my students notes with examples for all 3 sentences so they have something to refer to as we practice this part of the essay and also for much later when they write a full essay.

Then we practice writing argumentative introduction paragraphs based on small texts.  I give the students one small text a day for 3 days. The students write an introduction on their own, then we go over it and discuss it. 

On the 5th day, we have an assessment.  

Most students seem to feel fairly confident about this paragraph in an argumentative essay when we finish this week of activities.  Not only have they had the definitions explained with an example, but they have done the work and climbed the hill.  And now I can know if they have grasped the concept and are ready to move on the next paragraph - the body!  But that's a post for another time.  :)

Want to try this lesson, practice and assessment with your own students?  It's available here in printable and digital form:

Teaching middle school students how to write an argumentative essay introduction paragraph has never been easier! Use this printable and digital lesson with notes, 3 days of practice and an assessment to get the job done!

I hope these ideas help your students get a great start on their argumentative essay introduction paragraphs!

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Teaching Middle School Students how to write an Argumentative Essay Paragraph is easy to do with these tips!

Teaching Informative Essay Introduction Paragraphs


Find out how I use a hat to teach my middle school students how to write an informative essay introduction paragraph!

After I teach my students how to read and flip an essay prompt and how to read and mark an essay text, I pause before planning and teach them the paragraph structure of each kind of paragraph in the essay.  First up, the introduction!

When teaching the introduction, I tell my students there introductions have at least 3 sentences.  I make a big deal about this saying that this is the smallest number of sentences and that as they (the student) mature, their writing will mature and their introductions will get longer and more developed.  

So what are those 3 sentences?  They are the hook, the arch, and the thesis.  We first focus on the informative essay type.


This is where I have the most work in breaking bad habits.  Students like to use rhetorical questions and/or onomatopoeia as hooks.  So it is a bit of a transition for them to learn that a hook will now be background information about the articles they read for the summary.

To teach them how to write background information, I ask them to use this sentence starter:
[article name] by [author] and [article name] by [author] are about _______.

Then we practice our summary skills!


The arch, or bridge, is the sentence that connects the hook to the thesis.  The only way to do this effectively is to know what you thesis will be.  That's why I teach my students to create a thesis skeleton when they flip the prompt and then fill in the skeleton after they read the texts.  In this way, they already have their thesis written and can write an arch more easily.  

I tell my students that the arch can be a "fun fact" about the topic that relates to the thesis.  For example, in my digital informative essay unit, students will create a thesis that tells that Mount Rushmore and Pipestone National Monument are such significant places that they should be protected because of their natural, historical and cultural importance.

The arch is a fact that connects the topic of nationally protected places --> 
to the idea that these are important places to all Americans --> 
which connects to the ideas of natural, historical and cultural importance.  

I think of it as a chain and explain that the student's job to to connect all the links in the chain together.  


This is the last sentence in the introduction and should already be ready to go from the time when the student finished reading and marking the text.  

I teach my students to use the same words from the prompt in their thesis and then add in the reasons.  I also teach them that the thesis is a road map for their reader.  The thesis tells the reader what your overall point is and what each body paragraph will be about.

Did you see the pattern?

H - Hook
A - Arch
T - Thesis

Put those 3 together and they spell HAT.  I tell my students just like you put a hat on the top of your head, you put a hat on the top of your essay.  I tell them I know it's corny but it's just corny enough for them to remember it!  We all have a laugh, I tell them I'm a nerd and then start wearing a hat in class.  And you know what?  They remember it!

How do I teach it?

I start by providing my students with notes for each of these sentences so they have something to refer back to when we are practicing in class.  

Then we have 3 days of practice.  They read a small text that includes a prompt and then they write an introduction to match.  We go over one each day and discuss it.  Then on the 5th day, we have a quiz.  

Want to try this lesson, practice and assessment with your own students?  It's ready to go in print and digital form:

Make the tricky concept of writing informative introduction paragraphs easier for your middle school students with these notes, 3 practice activities and an assessment!  It's the perfect recipe for success!

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Using this mnemonic may make your middle school students roll their eyes at the corniness of it, but it's just so corny that they will remember it!