Preparing for NAPLAN

Preparing for NAPLAN can look very different from school to school for a number of reasons. Some schools take the teach to the test approach and others don't. There is a big focus on NAPLAN through the media and this puts vast amount of pressure on the government, schools, principals, teachers, parents and ultimately the children taking these tests. I have put together some ideas, strategies and resources to help teachers prepare their students for those somewhat dreaded 3 days. 

Hi all! I am back on the Australian Teachers blog this time to help, hopefully, you in preparing your class for the upcoming NAPLAN tests. Although the following post has strategies and ideas used in Year 3 and 5 some would also benefit those students in year 7 and 9. I am definitely not an expert in the upper grades. I have spent time in year 3, 5 and 7 classrooms during NAPLAN prep and while the tests are being taken at four different schools. (Some were on prac) I have accumulated and seen things done in a number of ways and have seen kids on both end of the stress scale.

What is NAPLAN?

First of all lets talk about what NAPLAN is. NAPLAN is an acronym that stands for the National Assessment Program- Literacy and Numeracy. It is a test taken annually by students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. There are four tests that students are expected to take. Numeracy, Reading, Writing and Language Conventions (includes spelling, grammar and punctuation). The test have a time limit and strict rules that must be followed. Teachers are given a script of what they can and cannot say. My class last year (year 3) said I sounded like a robot.

The tests are used to provide the government, schools, parents and teachers information on how individual students are performing in each test area at the point in time. Are they above, on or below national average. Each state or territories education leader then uses this information to target specific areas for improvement and schools can then focus on improving both teachers and students for those 'problem' areas.

NAPLAN tests are not the only means of reporting and are not supposed to replace the assessment and reporting made in the classroom by each classroom teacher. It is one aspect of gathering data. So why do schools and parents make such a big deal out of it? Does it really show us anything conclusive about our students? The media and websites like myschool are increasing the NAPLAN hype. Parents can access results and compare their child to other schools across the country. Does this make both schools and students stressed? I believe so. Is that how we want our students to be feeling coming into the NAPLAN tests? I don't think so.

Incorporating NAPLAN in a Stress Free Way

Now onto what you can do to prevent this hysteria and tizzy on the test days. I am not going to tell you to do a practise test every week, day or month. I am not going to tell you to explicitly teach to the test. I do not believe that is beneficial to anyone. I am however going to let you know some strategies, tips and resources that are embedded in what most teachers are already doing or take up minimal time in our busy school days. I want you to take away ideas that make your kids less stressed, worried and anxious on those testing days. They are familiar with what's going on but are not overwhelmed and feeling like it is an impossible task ahead of them.

I've seen a year 7 girl open the writing test and cry for the duration of the test while trying to write her persuasive piece. I've seen a year 3 boy frantically trying to finish his reading test in the time allowed when he saw he had five minutes left and was still on the second passage. I have also seen the complete opposite. Kids coming in saying it's just another test, one test one day. Those are the kids that do well. The student that approaches it without worry or fear. They just do what they always do. It should just be another test on another day not the be all and end all.

NAPLAN maths comprises of all the different strands of mathematics from the Australian Curriculum.  They start off simple and progressively get harder. The wording of the questions can trick a lot of students, especially in the lower years where reading skills are still very new. Last year I had kids get one or two right and I also had a student who only got one wrong. We had done one practise test in class. Would those students who got hardly any right have gotten more if they had done 50 practises? Maybe? Would that be more stressful for those children though if they had gotten test after test back where they only got one or two correct answers? I think so.

My suggestions:
-Don't just focus on one maths skill. Review them all. Kids will see something in the test and go oh I remember that but because you haven't reviewed it in so long they will have no idea how to do it anymore. Obviously if the students are successful at something move on to the next topic but make sure you are constantly bringing up old lessons as you go.
- PROBLEM SOLVING! Kids may know all the concepts but if they can't read the problem and figure out what they need to do with it they will have little to no success. Teach them strategies of pulling out the most important information. Circle the numbers, underline the question etc.
-Make it a engaging and fun. Don't go the repetitious rote learning approach.

Here is what we do at my school to engage students before their test. This idea came from the math specialist at my school and it made my kids want to do NAPLAN Math questions all the time. He played the game with both the year 3 and 5 students at my school but it could easily be played with year 7 and 9 students as well.

2 Minute NAPLAN Maths

How to play-

-Arrange students into mixed ability groups of about 4 and have them choose a group leader. (they will more than likely choose someone they see as a high achieving math student)
-Give them a group name or number (e.g. group 1, group 2 etc)
-Display a question from a previous NAPLAN math test onto the interactive whiteboard.
-Give students 2 minutes to discuss with their group which answer they think is correct. (At this time you can walk around the room and join in the discussions)
-After the two minutes is up ask each group what they chose and why they think that answer is correct.
-Go through problem and tell actual answer and give a point to those groups that were correct.
-Display another question and continue process.

PS- Students will not want to stop playing so it's best to set a time limit for the game. We would usually play for 30 minutes then stop.
PPS- My students would rarely get questions wrong. Only one or two occasionally.


-Low stress, if a child doesn't know they have their peers to support them.
-It's fun and engaging, as I said my kids loved it and thought it was the funnest thing ever.
-Familiarises them with the test format, you are showing them questions from an actual NAPLAN test and having them respond with and ABCD response.
-Familiarises them with the time they have to answer each question, students are getting familiar with quickly answering the questions. In the test they only have around 2 minutes to answer each question.

I am going to say something most schools including mine will be unimpressed by but ditch the guided reading books and round robin groups. They are not going to be beneficial to students in the reading aspect of the tests. Students need access to all kinds of text types. Fiction, informational, brochures, signs, timetables, poetry etc. Students need to find text evidence with highlighters and post it notes. Unless your school has a super reading resource room you will not find or be able to do this in typical guided reading books.

Does this mean you are teaching to the test? No. It means you are teaching for real life. You do not go to the train station and see a guided reading fiction story on when you need to be on your train and when it will arrive at your station.

What I suggest instead. 

Using old NAPLAN magazines is a place to start. See what type of texts are in them and what the questions are asking students to do with the text. Do they need to be able to infer? Do they need to be able to find answers straight in the text? Do they need to use both text and picture to draw a conclusion about a character? Then ask your self do my students know how to do any of these things?

You can get lots of great passages on Teachers Pay Teachers both paid and free. Another great place to source reading passages is ReadWorks which has free passages and arranges them by each skill you are working on. Both have a range of text types and have various levels for students of all ages.

These were also great for my Year 3's because they had to highlight in the text how they knew or where they found their answer. You can find so many great texts like this on Teachers Pay Teachers. 
Here is a great example of what this would look like in the upper grades and her website has a lot of amazing ideas for reading.

Explicitly teach them how to find the answer in the text. 

-Get copies of some of the texts for your students to be able to interact with. Their own photocopied sheet, on their iPad or laptop where ever they can do whatever they want to the passage.
-Display a question, only one at a time, about the text and have the students show you in the text (with coloured pencils, highlighter or even little arrow post it notes) how they know or where they got their answer from.
-Some students will not be able to do this. They will give you the old I just knew the answer routine. These are the kids that you need to watch for. The kids who are great readers and think they already know how to do it all. They won't check back to the text. They won't go searching for their answer and will a lot of the time get the most simplest of answers wrong.
-Do this as a whole group, small group and even give them passages independently. Keep your expectations the same for everyone. Don't just assume they know how to do it.
-Discuss why an answer is wrong or right. Get students to use text evidence and strategies to prove they're right. Use conversation starters like I agree with this because in paragraph 3 the text told me this or I disagree with that because the character was feeling this way because of this event.
-I would not give students a whole magazine and expect them to just sit and do it all straight away especially the Year 3 students. Practise a one passage at a time and slowly build their stamina so they will be able to get through them on the day. This isn't asking too much my year two students this year can read independently already for about 30 minutes. Yes some look at the pictures and try to just find words they know but that's ok. Use those skills to their advantage as some of the text types in the NAPLAN magazine rely on using the pictures for meaning.


-Students will start coming to you telling you about things they've found in their texts, they'll have discussions about why one answer is right but another is even better. My year three students last year used to have heated discussions using text evidence to prove that they were right about their answer choice. My top group had 4 boys and one girl and she used to blow them away with her skills.
-They need to be familiar with different text types for not only NAPLAN but for real life.
-Some children automatically make text connections when they are reading a text and their prior knowledge can get in the way of the correct answer which can be found in the specific test. So teaching children to find the answer in the text usually sorts this problem out.
-Students need to be taught how to use reading strategies. They don't just automatically know how to use them.

The NAPLAN spelling test are very closely correlated with the Australian Curriculum standards for each grade level. Which makes sense. I mean it is what we are supposed to be teaching the children.  The year 3 tests usually have a big focus on high frequency words, vowel patterns, doubling letters when changing tense as well as that tricky -ed with c, k or ck (ACELA1485) (ACELA1486)(ACELA1826). When you look at the year 7 test it is completely different. The misspellings move into root words, prefixes and suffixes (ACELA1539)

Punctuation and grammar are the same. If you are teaching to the Australian Curriculum your students should find the test no surprise. Students by year three should know about capital letters, contractions, commas for listing items, where to put punctuation when using quotation marks and of course singular and plural nouns.  It is all the basics that you teach throughout the writing process. As we move up to the upper grades it is far more complex. Where do we use a semicolon, the who vs whom dilemma and some tricky verb tense questions appear as well. I was looking at a year 9 test and still can not decide which tense I should be using and where the clues are to help me figure it out! 

My suggestion-

The hardest part about this test is the format in which questions are organised. It is totally unfamiliar and unlike anything they have seen before. Weekly spelling tests do not prepare them for the spelling section and everyday writing is not related at all to the colouring of bubbles as to where to put a comma. 

Teachers should be using and teaching a spelling program that targets each of the spelling patterns or derivations addressed in the current year level and one prior. Not random word lists to suit the theme of your classroom or science topic etc. Making sure kids are familiar of the focus by intentionally making sure you know where they are in your daily/weekly reading practise. If you see the spelling focus in the passage pull the word out and discuss the sounds or meaning behind the word. My class at the moment is obsessed with finding soft c and -tion endings. Reading and noticing patterns in words is one of the best ways to help kids spelling. 

Throughout last year before my class had even done a practise NAPLAN I started putting these worksheets into their literacy rotations as one of the activities. I didn't let them know that it was the same set up as NAPLAN I just put them in to familiarise the kids with the test format. When we did our first practise the kids had no problem, no stress about what to do or how they worked. I heard students in the class next door who were panicked and the teacher explaining what to do a number of times to different students. On the test day my kids weren't nervous about this part of the test because it was something they'd done and not even realised was a challenge.

Grammar and punctuation is something that is also hard to pinpoint. I have seen teachers writing sentences on the board that the students have to correct in their books. I have seen teachers photocopy students writing samples and get the children to edit their peers work. I have seen teachers run off copies of text books. Grammar and punctuation is just one of those things that some kids get and others don't. Explicit teaching is almost always required. I thought that I had taught and addressed all the grammar and punctuation skills before the test last year and then saw a question everyone was struggling with. Hands were going up and students were asking what is singular and plural. I couldn't believe it! When I told the kids after the test they were all laughing because it was actually something they knew but didn't know what it was called. Of course students didn't only get that question wrong. My class wasn't perfect and we are not at a high achieving school. 

What worked for my class last year was similar to the maths game mentioned above. We used to do PowerPoint practise with each skill. I would always use students names and interests and have them displayed in a fun colourful way. Students would get an a, b, c or d choice of which sentence was right. They would then take turns telling me which they had chosen and why? The best ones were when all of them were wrong. It may seem cruel but the best learning is had in that situation. The best discussion. Imagine students debating that one can't be right because it doesn't have this punctuation or the quotation marks aren't used correctly but in the other sentences they are used correctly but a persons name does not have a capital letter. It's great. 

Here is an example of one with mistakes in each choice. We discussed this for about fifteen minutes. We then fixed each sentence. They were so interested in something so simple. 

We also got some practise of both spelling and grammar with these quick five minute filler type sentences. Again it's just quick and simple. Students would say they were done and then I'd tell them how many mistakes they should have found and they'd keep going until they had found them.

Now onto the writing test. This is the one that makes students and teachers cringe. As a teacher walking around the room you see all types of weird and whacky things getting written onto those pages. What you are also likely to see is weird and whacky looks on the little faces. 

NAPLAN writing tests in the previous years have required students to write persuading the reader of a certain thing. Why they should take up a new sport or activity. Why someone is a hero. Many people believe one year they will change to narrative writing but if they will or when they will no one knows. Well the creators of the test probably do but I have no interaction with them and even if I did why would they let me know :). 

So what do students get marked on? Below is a table taken from the NAPLAN website that shows the  10 criteria markers are looking for. The narrative criteria is exactly the same except persuasive devices is changed to character and setting. 

The writer’s capacity to orient, engage and persuade the reader
Text structureThe organisation of the structural components of a persuasive text (introduction, body and conclusion) into an appropriate and effective text structure
IdeasThe selection, relevance and elaboration of ideas for a persuasive argument
Persuasive devicesThe use of a range of persuasive devices to enhance the writer’s position and persuade the reader
VocabularyThe range and precision of contextually appropriate language choices
CohesionThe control of multiple threads and relationships across the text, achieved through the use of grammatical elements (referring words, text connectives, conjunctions) and lexical elements (substitutions, repetitions, word associations)
ParagraphingThe segmenting of text into paragraphs that assists the reader to follow the line of argument
Sentence structureThe production of grammatically correct, structurally sound and meaningful sentences
PunctuationThe use of correct and appropriate punctuation to aid the reading of the text
SpellingThe accuracy of spelling and the difficulty of the words used

If you would like to see the in-depth version of what exactly which aspects of writing equate to a certain amount of points you can download the marking guide here. I have heard teaching saying you can write any random stuff as long as you have 3 to 4 sentences in each of your five clearly set our paragraphs. This is exactly what we do not want to be teaching our children to do. Kids are naturally interested in persuading people. Each Friday morning I can assure you that I will have 3 or 4 little cherubs trying to convince me that they did complete their homework but for some reason it did not arrive at school.

NAPLAN usually tries to tailor the test as best they can to fit students interests. Last year I had a girl in my class who when we did our persuasive writing unit in class on the stolen generation got a below average mark. When it came to the NAPLAN test about convincing someone that your sport or game was great she did fantastic. She wrote her introduction, her 3 reasons and finished with a strong conclusion all about why gymnastics is great. She knew everything about the topic and could give details about the floor routines, the bars and all the other 8 year old gymnastic fun you could imagine.

When I was teaching year 7 the topic was heroes. There was a student in the class who wrote all about Steve Irwin and how even though he was no longer with us his legacy lived on. She had a passion for animals and regularly visited the zoo. Other students wrote about their parents. A girl who was taken by her grandparents to Australia because it wasn't safe to live where her mother was working wrote about her Mum being strong and and a hero to live without her youngest daughter. When you give children a topic relating to themselves they create amazing pieces of writing.

My Suggestion:

-Focus on the structure! You can use the oreo, hamburger, the four square model whatever way that you know your kids are going to understand. If they know the structure they can instantly gain marks no matter what their ideas are.
-Switch up your focus when writing. Grammar, punctuation, spelling and vocabulary make up almost half of the points your students can get on the written test. If they have poorly constructed sentences with lousy language they will not do well. Have focused lessons on these important areas as they arise. Put focused lessons into your literacy groups. Send words like said, good, nice and bad to the grave and explore interesting alternatives.
-Persuasive devices. Even year three students can use persuasive devices. We spent a lot of time looking at modal adverbs to persuade our audience. We worked on how to build empathy and evoke emotion when we write. We were using rhetorical questions. Using facts and statistics in our writing. Kids love making up facts to support their argument. We wrote about why we should wear helmets when riding a bike and kids came up with some brilliant statistics about kids getting head injuries.
-Finally and most importantly MAKE IT ENGAGING AND RELATABLE. Writing about why the Prime Minister should support a certain policy is not going to be relatable to year 3 students. Why the wiggles are the best band ever is probably not going to appeal to many year 9 students. You know your kids. You know what their interests are. Some of the best discussions and arguments in my classrooms have come from what would you rather questions. Would you rather have a broken arm or a broken leg? Would you rather go swimming in a pool or at the beach? They come up with fantastic reasons and can argue about these type of things for days. I have had kids come up a week later saying I changed my mind I would rather have a broken arm than leg because I need my leg to do this. If it's interesting they will write about it and not forget it.

Things you can try?
-On Demand Writing (pg 12 of that document gives a great explanation).
Give students a topic. They have 5 minutes to plan. 10-50 minutes to write. 5 minutes to edit. This gives kids the opportunity to write within a time constraint. They have their time for planning, just like NAPLAN. They have a specific time where all they do is focus on their actual writing. No editing, rubbing out and all that stuff that gets in the way. Then they have a clear time to edit their work. They can make small changes. You would not want students to be changing a whole paragraph in their editing phase. You also do not want students doing the opposite and just sitting their during editing. Everyones writing needs editing.
-Writing Prompts- These are great for students to get into the routine of NAPLAN in a fun way. Project the prompt onto the interactive whiteboard and have students brainstorm ideas and start the writing process. You can do it as formal or informal as you like. It is all about familiarising the students with the parameters of the test. Here are some examples of prompts from the NAPLAN website. Animals, Books or TV and City or Country. Paula's Place also has an extensive range of writing prompts here that are great because they are topics relatable to kids. It even includes ways to plan your persuasive text!

Final Thoughts

We know NAPLAN is both important and not important for all different reasons. Some schools change their first term to NAPLAN prep while others do one or two practise tests a few weeks before the big days. What ever avenue your school takes you need to do what is best for the learners in your classroom. It is just one test (four/five parts) in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. It is a test in one format to suit one learning style. Don't beat yourself up if some students don't do as well as planned. Last year we spent a whole half day discussing the results of our students. What questions they all missed and why they didn't know it. How we were going to better implement those questions into our classrooms. If you are reading this I can tell that you are doing a great job and want the best for your students. Don't stress. Multiple choice tests aren't for everyone. I had a boy in year two who had difficulty counting to ten who also only knew two letter sounds get the highest result on a multiple choice quiz and only get one wrong. Some kids are just lucky that way. 

-Make your prep engaging and entertaining so that come test day your kids are not in a flurry of panic. 
-Yes practise the tests. No don't do a practise everyday over analysing the data and what the kids get wrong on every test. Focus on how many more they get right or how close they are to moving up to the next band. We want them to know they can do it and we know they can improve. 

I hope that you have found this information useful and are feeling a bit more at ease come NAPLAN day. If you have any strategies or tips that have helped your learners I am sure everyone would love to read about them in the comments! 

Australian Teachers 


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