News Articles, Mentor Texts, and the OSSLT

As a literacy coach, I am often asked about how to prepare students for the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. In fact, at times (especially second semester) my job seems to be a flurry of last-minute preparations for students and teachers. When I work with teachers, we often talk about whether or not we are”teaching to the test.” I would like to say “no” because I believe that our instruction reflects our primary goal to generate confident readers and writers, but when I looked at my practice, I could not say this was true. My beliefs and my methods did not align.  This realization sent me on a reflection spiral where I re-evaluated my instruction and discovered some misconceptions about the OSSLT that were preventing me from preparing students adequately for the test and, more troublingly, distracting me from focusing on developing the skills of my student writers.

There is a difference in how I’ve taught the news report in the past to prepare students for the test versus how I would teach the news report if I wanted my students actually to write for a newspaper. There really shouldn’t be a difference, but there is.

My number one instructional strategy for teaching students how to write any genre is mentor texts. If you are going to write a personal narrative, you should read personal narratives and scour them for techniques to use in your writing. If I’m going to write a blog about teaching, I should read other teachers’ blogs. Mentor texts need to be used for news articles as well.  In the past, I’ve heard this strategy rejected(and rejected it myself!) because news articles today do not look like the ones that EQAO wants on the OSSLT.  However, I think this a misconception about the way the test is evaluated.

When planning instruction for the news article, teachers often talk about the lead where students should put the who, what, where, when. Some teachers tell their students to start with the word “yesterday,” others insist they start with the date.  Some school plans involve making sure their students include at least two quotations in their news articles. Others insist that the quotations should go in paragraph 4 and 5. But here is the thing – none of this is reflected in the rubric used to score this section.

The evaluation tool requires students’ work to have a clear and consistent focus on the event, supporting details, and logical organization.  A consequence of not using mentor texts is that we artificially control the news article form.  For many of our students, this type of instruction leads them to write mechanically, which means that we aren’t teaching them to use”thoughtfully chosen” supporting ideas with  an organization that demonstrates a “thoughtful progression of ideas.” It is difficult to organize your ideas thoughtfully when you know your quotation must come in paragraph 5! The rubric itself provides students with quite a lot of organizational freedom.

So what do we do instead? We teach the news article form in all of its complexity.

Instead of using the sample articles that we wrote or the ones we pulled off the OSSLT website, we should flood the classroom with examples of real news articles: reports about sports, the weather, crime, tragedy, and good news stories. There are a variety of conventions and mini-genres under the umbrella of the news article. If we want our students to become better writers, we need them to see that the basic structure of the news article stays the same while the vocabulary and content shift depending on the purpose of the article.

And don’t forget about the reader! Students should think deeply about the type of reader their article may interest. What will that reader want to know? Can we assume they already have some background knowledge? How can we meet the needs of that reader with the way we write?

In our efforts to prepare students for this standardized test, we have controlled the form and developed artificial formulas for writing. If all of this leaves you concerned about your next lesson, feel free to try out my eight-day news article plan  for this semester, and let me know how it goes. Let’s shift our focus from “passing the test” to nurturing thoughtful students who can handle the complexity that comes with the act of writing.