FSA Writes for Parents: How to Help Your 4th & 5th Grader
For many students, standardized testing is very stressful. Younger students often have anxiety before taking the test – especially if it is their first time taking the test. The fear of the unknown can be powerful.
In Florida, students begin taking the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) Writing test in fourth grade. The basic format of FSA Writes is the same in both fourth and fifth grades. Often parents associate writing tests with writing a narrative story, but in Florida, students are expected to write text-based essays.
FSA Writes Format
FSA Writes can be either an opinion or an informative topic. Students are given 1 – 4 nonfiction reading passages to analyze. Students need to use information from the texts to write an essay based on a given writing prompt.
For example, students might be asked to write an opinion essay on school uniforms. Students would have to take a position for or against uniforms and support their choice with evidence from the reading.
An informative prompt might be how animals adapt to their environment. Students would have to write an essay explaining different ways and support each way with evidence from the reading.
In fourth grade, the total number of words for the texts falls between 100 – 900 words and the Lexile Level is between 740L – 940L.
In fifth grade, the reading articles total between 200 – 1000 words, and the Lexile Level is between 830L – 1010L.
In comparison, this article is almost 1400 words. From the title to the numbered tips for parents are about 930 words.
All testing in these grades is done as a paper and pencil test. The state legislature has taken away computer-based testing in the elementary grades.
Writing the Essay
This writing activity focuses on using text evidence. Students must develop a thesis (topic) or opinion statement, then support it with evidence from the articles provided.
Students also have to provide a citation for the text evidence, but in fourth and fifth grades the citation is fairly easy. If students are able to use text evidence, they tend to do well with the citation, too.
Unlike the old FCAT Writes test, there is no recommended length for the FSA Writes essay. (Honestly, the five-paragraph essay was an overused template.) The essay length should match the number of reasons or facts students have.
If the students have three reasons for or against uniforms, then their essay would have an introductory paragraph, a body paragraph for each reason, and a conclusion. If students have four animal adaptations, then they would need four body paragraphs in addition to an introduction and a conclusion.
Where Students Struggle
Some students find it easy to write an essay based on what they’ve read, but many students struggle at first. The biggest problem students have when writing a text-based essay is sticking to the evidence in the reading.
For example, for the uniform topic I mentioned, some students have strong feelings about uniforms and just write an essay about how they feel or how they are unfair. However, the purpose of this essay is to synthesize information in multiple articles to develop an opinion. Students must support their reasoning with text evidence.
The same problem happens with informative prompts. If the student happens to know facts about the topic, in my example animal adaptation, they tend to write what they already know. Again, the goal of the essay is to support the topic with text evidence.
The other place students struggle is organizing their writing. Usually, students struggle because they don’t want to spend time organizing – they just want to start writing. Students think that outlining their essay is just a waste of time – that they can finish faster if they just start writing.
I always model how fast I can write my essay if I create an outline first. If my thoughts are organized, and I have planned which pieces of evidence I am going to use, I can write a five-paragraph essay in 5 – 10 minutes. That usually convinces most students to use an outline.
How Parents Can Help Their Students
As a parent, it can be difficult to understand how to support students at home – especially when what the students need to do is so different then what parents did in school. My best advice for parents is to work on reading and writing stamina.
What exactly does that mean? Students today are expected to read multiple articles and remember what they learned in each. Strong readers find this easy – because they already read a lot. Students that don’t read a lot often get tired before they finish all of the articles. By the time they get through the last passage, they can’t remember what they read.
Since the essay must be based on the reading, it is crucial that students are able to read and recall what was in the texts.
The same applies to their writing. Some students love to write and will work on a piece for hours. Other students get tired after writing one paragraph. Students need to build their ability to focus on writing for an extended period of time.
So how can parents help their student build stamina? First of all, avoid making it skill and drill. Coming home and drilling on things for hours won’t help students who already come home tired. Second, start by modeling and discussing topics orally. Talking through an issue and using facts to support a position will help students build an understanding of the strategy.
Some specific ideas to do at home are:
- read at home. Ask students to read with you or independently, and slowly lengthen the amount of time that he or she reads. Students need to build up to at least 15 – 20 minutes, and that might take a long time to achieve. This reading does not have to be passages. In fact, it is better if students read something that interests them – books, comics, kid-level magazines, etc. Students will read more if they read something they enjoy.
- for weaker readers, start with watching nonfiction shows on television (like Animal Planet or National Geographic.) Use the same reading strategies mentioned below in number three.
- read nonfiction stories and/or articles from newspapers and magazines. Ask your student to explain:
- what the story or article was about.
- why the author wrote the story/article (inform/entertain/explain/persuade).
- how the author supported their thesis or opinion – what evidence did he/she use?
- read picture books on the same or similar topics. For example, students could select two books on historical women, such as Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman. Parents could ask students to explain how they were alike and different. Other paired texts could be two inventions, events, or cultures. Students could also read two books on the same topic and then compare the information that was included in each book.
- model writing at home. This doesn’t have to be an essay – the goal is to model organizing your thoughts on paper. For example, when I make a grocery list, I organize it by the sections in the grocery store. Explain to your students why you are organizing it that way – because it makes it easier not to miss something, it makes the trip faster because you can find everything in the section, etc.
- have students write at home. It doesn’t have to be an essay – it could be a journal or an email. The more students write, the easier it will get. Again, start with small amounts of time and build up to longer periods.
There are information and practice tests available at the fsaassessments.org. I recommend parents look at the sample tests for their information, but don’t give them to the students. Most teachers will use that as a practice test in class.
Please focus on students giving their best effort during testing – not acing the test. The goal of these tests is to see where students are in mastering this skill. If they don’t do well, then they need more practice and support. If students feel a lot of pressure to be perfect on the state test, they may actually do worse because of anxiety and nerves.
Remember, teachers and parents both want students to succeed. Parents can help their students in many ways, but the best way is to work on reading and writing stamina.
For more information on building reading stamina, check out How to Get Better at Push-Ups and Reading on KIPP.
Looking for Teaching Resources?
To help students, I created card games and skill practice that coordinates with common games. Students are much more willing to play games than to complete worksheets – and it helps them remember the information faster. These games are great for parents who want to support their students’ learning in a family-friendly way!
Greek & Latin Roots Card Game Build A Word Prefixes, Root Words, and Suffixes$3.00 Quick ViewAdd to cart
Latin & Greek Roots Morphology Editable BOGGLE Bulletin Board$8.00 Quick ViewAdd to cart
ELA Test Prep Shades of Meaning Review Card Game 3rd 4th Grade FSA AIR$3.00 Quick ViewAdd to cart
ELA Test Prep Vocabulary Kerplunk Review Game 4th Grade FSA AIR$4.00 Quick ViewAdd to cart
ELA Test Prep Vocabulary Kerplunk Review Game 5th Grade FSA AIR$4.00 Quick ViewAdd to cart
ELA Test Prep Grammar & Spelling JENGA Review Game 4th Grade FSA AIR$4.00 Quick ViewAdd to cart
ELA Test Prep Grammar & Spelling JENGA Review Game 5th Grade FSA AIR$4.00 Quick ViewAdd to cart
ELA Test Prep IDIOMS Go Fish Card Game 3rd 4th Grade FSA AIR$3.00 Quick ViewAdd to cart
If parents would like more information about the FSA Ela test, the FSA portal is an excellent resource. It also includes a sample test, which helps parents to understand the design of the reading passages and test questions. (Teachers often use the sample tests in class. Please do not give your students the test without checking with his or her teacher.)