New Teacher Advocate — KDP New Teacher Advocate Winter 2016
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6 Skills To Improve ELLs’ Test Scores
Shad Bell

In 2012, 28% of the students who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) were English language learners, or ELLs (Abdul-Alim, 2012). English learners often become frustrated with not understanding questions or not finishing the test. These students also often have poor scores on standardized tests (Abedi & Linquanti, n.d.), which influence their acceptance into universities or colleges. Two keys to improving ELLs’ scores on these tests are teaching prereading and test management strategies.

Prereading Strategies

One of the most important strategies for successfully navigating assessments is prereading. Prereading means reading through the questions and answers, searching for keywords and context clues, before performing the actual exam tasks. By using these three skills of prereading, the ELL has a better chance of answering the questions correctly.

1. Find keywords: Read the questions and answers first, looking for words in the questions that will be in the answers.

2. Recognize sight words: Identify high-frequency words in the questions and answers.

3. Know synonyms: Recognize several words that match or are similar to the keywords.

Teach ELLs the usefulness of finding keywords and sight words in the questions and answers (Lougheed, 2013). Short-term memory works well with visual cues (Educational Testing Service, 2012b).

Another skill that ties in with prereading is synonym study. Many assessments evaluate the test takers’ comprehension by using a synonym for a keyword in the questions or answers. For example, if the ELL knows only the phrase “dramatic increase,” but the exam uses “upward motion,” the ELL may not understand the question (IELTS Exam Tips, 2014) . By reviewing synonyms, the ELL will gain another prereading advantage.

Teaching these strategies increases the ELLs’ exam scores and their overall competency in the classroom. When the English learner can recognize keywords, sight words, and synonyms, he or she will be able to understand the content more quickly.

Test Management Strategies

By combining prereading strategies with the skills of skimming and scanning, ELLs can manage their test-taking time better when tackling the reading sections of exams.

1. Scan: Quickly find the keywords from the prereading.

2. Skim: Read around the keywords to gain contextual understanding.

3. Manage Time: Use various strategies to maintain pace and allow time to complete the test.

If the ELL takes the time to read every word of each passage, he or she will never have enough time to complete the questions for each passage in the allotted time. The student who scans and skims will save test-taking time and be able to finish the reading section of the exam. For example, if the question mentions a historical event, then asks which year the event takes place, the ELL would first use scanning to find all of the dates in the text that are provided in the answers. Once the date is found, the ELL would use skimming to read the lines in the passage that mention the historical event in the question. This will help to improve the overall exam score.

The best way to teach scanning and skimming in the classroom is to give sample reading assessments and have students use their prereading skills to pick out the main keyword in the question and in each answer choice. Teach them to scan the passage for those keywords, or synonyms. They can then skim for the correct answer. Have students initially practice by using questions and answers that ask for specific terms, such as dates or names (IELTS Exam Tips, 2014).

One way to improve time management skills during testing is to first set timed activities for the ELLs to complete in the classroom setting. For example, give students 20 minutes to read a passage and answer several questions. By practicing this technique, students will be prepared for any length of text they may encounter on an exam (Educational Testing Service, 2012a). Learning effective time management will also help in other areas of study by giving them a regimen to use.

Teaching ELLs test-taking skills as well as the test content will improve their test scores. Preread-Ing and test management strategies are easy to coach and can help students demonstrate their knowledge more accurately both in testing situations and in daily course work.


Abdul-Alim, J. (2012, September 25). SAT scores dip slightly, test taker diversity edges upward. Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Retrieved from

Abedi, J., & Linquanti, R. (n.d.). Issues and opportunities in improving the quality of large scale assessment systems for English language learners. Understanding Language. Stanford, CA: Stanford University School of Education. Retrieved from

Educational Testing Service. (2012a). The official guide to the TOEFL test (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Educational Testing Service. (2012b). TOEFL iBT overview. Retrieved from

IELTS exam tips. (2014). Retrieved from Lougheed, L. (2013). Barron’s IELTS: International English language testing system (3rd ed.). Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series.

Mr. Bell has recently re- turned to the United States to complete his Master of Arts in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) after teaching English in Japan for 9 years.