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Teaching multiple-choice test strategies

New York Teacher

Last year, the English language arts midterm I gave my middle school students consisted of two parts. The first part was 39 multiple-choice questions, and the second part was an evidence-based essay. When they received their midterm scores, the students and I were surprised to see failing grades. But I noticed that my students had fared better on the essay portion.

We had covered the content on the multiple-choice section of the test for three months straight, so why didn’t my students do better on that part? How could I prepare my students to answer multiple-choice questions on material I was sure they knew?

I decided to review each and every one of the multiple-choice questions together with my students. I wanted them to gain confidence by sharing their ideas with their peers, with the assurance that they wouldn’t be laughed at if they struggled.

We dissected and analyzed each question and, as a class, came up with the following strategies. These strategies allowed them to take full ownership of their learning, make meaningful connections and understand the importance of the Common Core standards.

1. Read the question carefully. We all agreed as a class that we had to know first what the question was asking of us before we started analyzing the question collectively.

2. Next, analyze or break down the question in parts. The students suggested underlining words or phrases that jump out at us, such as text-dependent questions, w-questions (what is different from why) and words that give us clues as to the type of question.

3. Then, look for clue words. Clue words are often words that seem to go unnoticed, such as not, most strongly, most probably, contrast, compare, mean, define and infer.

4. Next we have to figure out what type of question it is. In a question such as: “What can you infer about Maud Martha’s attitude toward Papa?” we know that it is an inference-based question because of the clue word infer. The question is asking us about the character’s attitude toward Papa, so it should remind us of a literary element we have learned, characterization. Because we have to infer, it’s indirect characterization. Is her attitude toward Papa negative or positive?

I modeled all these steps out loud for students so they could see the thinking process that goes along with these strategies. Slowly but surely, my students experienced “aha!” moments where they connected questions to standards they remembered being taught.

5. Up until this point in a test, students focus only on analyzing the question. Now, they begin skimming through the answer choices. Now that students fully understand the question, it is easier for them to eliminate choices that make no sense.

  • For example, if they are looking for positive words, then they can eliminate the negative answer choices.
  • They typically will be left with two answer choices that make the most sense, and they will decide between the two.
  • But before they select the answer, they must go back to the question and to the text to make sure they find specifically what the question asks for.
  • They pick the answer that best answers the question.
  • Finally, they should be able to cite evidence from the text for the final answer of their choice.

With much practice, students will be able to train their brains to do all of this unconsciously. Last year, some of my English language learners who came to me at level 1 or 2 passed their ELA state exams at level 3 or 4 at the end of the year.

By guiding them, I helped them overcome their insecurities about answering multiple-choice questions. Even my lowest-achieving students gained confidence, as they asked for more multiple-choice questions to practice these strategies.

If you would like to get a better sense of how my students tackle these multiple-choice questions and would like to see pictures of my students’ work, please email me at