Page 1 High School English I: Writing Study Guide for the STAAR® test

How to Prepare for the Writing Questions on the STAAR® High School English I Test

General Information

This study guide is one of three preparing you for the STAAR® English I test you’ll need to pass to graduate from high school in the State of Texas. Our other two guides cover the Reading questions on the test and the composition portion.

For a passing score, you’ll need to achieve either level II or III of the following score designations:

  • III—Advanced Academic Performance
  • II—Satisfactory Academic Performance
  • I—Unsatisfactory Academic Performance

For best results, it is recommended that you opt for the test date that is as close as possible to your completion of the English I course. Note that test dates for the STAAR® English tests are typically about one month before those for other STAAR® tests.

The English I test has 18 multiple-choice questions that assess your skill in revising and editing written material so that it is clear, well-organized, and grammatically correct. Your performance on these will make up 26% of your total English I test score. Just as you will be expected to use writing skills from English I in your composition, which accounts for 24% of your English I test score, these writing questions ask you to use those same skills when evaluating the writing of others.

Working on this is actually great practice for revising your own composition. In the questions, you may be asked to replace a word or a sentence, choose the correct punctuation mark, or correct spelling, among other tasks. Or, you may decide that the part in question is correct, as written, and that will be the correct answer.

Specifically, these are the things you’ll be dealing with:

  • While you will generally be working with only a small portion of each passage at a time, the total passage can be rather long, anywhere from 350 words to more than 500.

  • Each sentence in a passage will be numbered, from the beginning to the end of the passage, for your reference.

  • There will be four to five questions about each passage.

The following outline covers the types of skills you’ll need to do well on this test. If you struggle with any of them, seek assistance from your teacher or other local resource. Also, try your hand at our practice questions and flashcards and see where you stand.

You will notice that there are two main sections of this study guide: Revision and Editing. They correspond to the two main areas assessed on this test and represent the two very different skills we use to evaluate a writing product. Reviewing these will also help you reply, review, and edit your composition during that part of the English I test.

Revision

Good writers know that “once and done” does not generally produce good writing. Writing is a process that includes planning, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing and usually involves several rounds of revising and editing. So what does that revision step entail, anyway? How is revision different from editing? Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are elements unique to each and they are not synonymous.

To revise a piece of writing means to look at a text as a whole, reflect on its strengths and weaknesses in terms of focus, organization, and support, and look for ways to improve or strengthen the piece overall. Mechanical issues may also be addressed in the revision step, but the focus is more “big picture”—is the content strong and the message clear? The revision step is when writers work to focus their arguments by including more information, adding evidence, considering counterarguments, and so on.

Revision may call for major reorganization of the elements in a text like moving, adding, or deleting entire paragraphs, or minor tweaks like combining some sentences here and there or choosing different words that are more appropriate for the audience, purpose, or tone. Revising is most effective when the writing can be shared with a reader, who can provide feedback and questions for the writer to consider during the revision process. But even working independently, a writer can put on the hat of a reader and ask those very questions of his or her own writing.

Strong revision skills are important on the STAAR® test as half of the writing questions (9 of 18) are designed to assess your revising skills. You may be asked to revise a variety of texts, fiction and non-fiction, including expository and persuasive writing. The other half of the writing questions assess your editing skills. More on that will follow in a subsequent section. For now, here’s a brief review of the elements of revision.

General Revision Tasks

The act of revision can apply to any sort of passage or text. You can revise anything, from a text message to a grocery list to a novel. The STAAR® assessment does not ask that you apply revision techniques to your own writing during the multiple-choice questions, but assesses your ability to apply revision techniques to the writing of someone else.

Revision questions on the STAAR® may ask you which answer option best replaces a sentence that is currently in the text, the most effective way to combine sentences, or which transition word would be best inserted at a particular point in the text. Determining the best change to make, whether it’s where to add a specific example or which sentence to delete to cut down on redundancy, the answer options are provided for you. But you must determine, using your knowledge and skills, which is the best revision to make and have an understanding of why or how that would improve the overall effectiveness of the writing. It’s not just a random choice.

Purpose, Audience, and Genre

Writing can sometimes get confusing for a reader if the author drifts off-topic or forgets his or her target audience. When you evaluate the texts provided and answer revision-type questions, remember that the text must remain consistent in terms of purpose, audience, and genre if it is going to be effective and understood by the reader. This means that all of the ideas and sentences in a text should serve to advance the writing for the given purpose (to persuade, to entertain, to inform, etc.), to a clear audience (this can be broad—global citizens of the world, or specific—California surfers), and be in the same genre (consistently sound like a short story, newspaper article, or report, for example).

As the reader, you should be able to determine the author’s purpose, his or her intended audience, and what genre the writing is presented in. Any parts of the text that distract from these findings should probably be deleted in the revision process.

Style

The author’s style refers to the way in which he or she uses words to present ideas to the audience. Some authors have a matter-of-fact style, while others may choose a sarcastic tone, which is part of their style. An author’s style is determined by his or her word choice, sentence structure, and tone, each of which is designed for a particular purpose, within a specific context, to a certain audience. Revising for style means ensuring that all parts of the text do this effectively and work together harmoniously.

Word Choice

There are thousands of words in the English language. Some of them are synonyms for one another or are very similar in meaning, at the very least. However, one important revision skill is being able to determine the best word choice. What word is the most precise, the most exact, and portrays exactly what the author wants to get across to the reader? There may be subtle nuanced differences between several similar words, but which one is used matters.

Remember, the STAAR® assessment questions will ask you for the best option, even though there may be two (or more) that technically work based on their definitions. But keeping audience, purpose, and tone in mind, you are asked to determine which word would be the best based on its denotation (literal meaning) and connotation (emotional connection).

Figurative Language

Figurative language includes words and phrases that are not meant to be taken literally by a reader, but which help to artistically represent the author’s ideas or message to increase their impact on the audience. Figurative language includes things like metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, etc. Figurative language is appropriate in fiction and can be used in non-fiction to help an author convey a particular meaning or to help the reader gain a new perspective. But too much figurative language starts to leave the reader wondering whether the author can be trusted, or if the author has anything of substance to say, as the writing becomes tedious to read.

Sentence Variety

They say that “variety is the spice of life” and this holds up for sentence variety as well. Good writers purposefully structure their sentences to engage the reader and that usually means using a variety of sentence styles and length.

If every sentence is short and basic, a text can seem insultingly easy for experienced readers. But an author may use a series of short sentences to make a point or to draw attention to an idea or issue. Alternatively, if every sentence is long, reader can get lost in the words. On the other hand, an author may use long sentences to increase the sense of authority with which they are speaking.

When you are revising for sentence variety, it is a good idea to make sure that there are a variety of sentence types and styles, with some longer, some shorter, but all serving a thoughtful purpose.

Subtlety of Meaning

Subtlety of meaning refers to the idea that words and phrases have slight nuances from one another. Being aware of the subtlety of meaning of words that seem similar suggests that you can detect the best word choice for a particular situation or sentence.

The subtlety of meaning often comes from a word’s connotation, or the emotional baggage it carries for a reader (i.e., how someone will feel when he or she reads the word). There is a subtlety in meaning between thin and skinny, for example. While they mean basically the same thing, there is a slight (subtle) difference between how they are perceived by a reader (thin = more positive, skinny = more negative).

So questions on the test that assess your ability to discern the subtlety of meaning between answer options may provide several answers that could work, but you’ll need to select the one that works best based on context, audience, and purpose.