FSA Writes for Parents: How to Help Your 6th Grader

by | Mar 28, 2019 | Teaching Strategies | 0 comments

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

The sixth-grade test is very similar to what they did in fourth and fifth grade. The biggest change is that students move from writing an opinion essay to an argumentative one.

FSA Writes can be either an argumentative 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 argumentative essay on school uniforms. Students would have to take a position for or against uniforms and support their choice with evidence from the reading. In an argumentative essay, students also have to discuss the opposing view(s) and explain why they believe those views are incorrect.

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 sixth grade, the total number of words for the texts falls between 200 – 1100 words and the Lexile Level is between 925L – 1070L.

In comparison, this article is almost 1800 words. From the title to the numbered tips for parents are about 1200 words.

All testing in sixth 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 argumentative statement, then support it with evidence from the articles provided.

Students also have to provide a citation for the text evidence.

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, a paragraph rebutting the opposing view, and a conclusion. If students have four animal adaptations, then they would need four body paragraphs in addition to an introduction and a conclusion.

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How to Write an Argumentative Essay

If you are unfamiliar with argumentative writing, there are four key parts to the essay:

  • Claim – The claim is the thesis statement or the argument that is being supported. Ex. All middle school students should wear uniforms. This thesis should be written in the introductory paragraph.
  • Supporting Evidence – The body paragraphs should have specific evidence to support the argument in the thesis. A strong argument will have multiple pieces of support from different sources.
  • Counterclaims – The counterclaim is the opposing point of view. Ex. Students should not be forced to wear uniforms. The counterclaims should be stated and refuted in one paragraph.
  • Conclusion – The thesis should be restated, as well as the most convincing supporting evidence.

Where Students Struggle

Just as in earlier grades, one of the most difficult things for students is sticking to the evidence in the reading in a text-based essay. In sixth grade, students also have to understand the opposing arguments and argue against them.

For example, if the student happens to know facts about the topic, in my example animal adaptation, they tend to write what they already know. However, the goal of the essay is to support the thesis statement with text evidence from the provided reading – not to simply state what they already know.

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. Again, students must support their reasoning with text evidence.

Students who struggle with using text-based evidence sometimes also have difficulty acknowledging and explaining the opposing view. Students cannot simply write their opinion – they have to support their position with evidence from the texts as well as be able to explain why the opposing view is incorrect, misinformed, or out-of-date.

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 first check their student’s 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.

Parents can observe their students doing homework. How well do they stay on task? How long can they focus on a reading or writing assignment before they try to do something else? It is normal to rest your eyes for a minute or so, but watch to see if your student completely wants to shift to a new task or tries to stop before they are finished. By sixth grade, students really need to be able to stay on task for 30 minutes.

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:

  1. read at home. Ask students to read with you or independently, and slowly lengthen the amount of time that he or she reads. Sixth-grade students need to build up to at least 20 – 30 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.
  2. 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.
  3. read nonfiction stories and/or articles from newspapers and magazines. Ask your student to explain:
    1. what the story or article was about.
    2. why the author wrote the story/article (inform/entertain/explain/persuade).
    3. how the author supported their thesis or opinion – what evidence did he/she use?
    4. the opposing argument.
    5. their opinion (argument) on the topic and what evidence from the reading supports it, as well as the opposing claim and why they believe it is incorrect.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. investigate high-interest topics and debate them. Middle-school students are often interested in topics that affect them such as uniforms, school start times/calendars, cafeteria food, etc. but find topics that interest your student. Families could discuss the issues in the car, at mealtimes, etc. Parents should play Devil’s advocate and argue for the opposing claim to develop a student’s understanding of both sides.

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 and understanding arguments and opposing claims.

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!

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.)

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FSA Writes for Parents: How to Help Your 6th Grader
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