The 2023-2024 school year is a challenging year for students writing the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, also known as the OSSLT. Over the past few years, Ontario secondary students have faced many disruptions in learning. The Ontario government launched its Plan to Catch Up in July of 2022 to address the learning gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For secondary language teachers, these gaps serve as an obstacle as we continue with the return of standardized testing in the fall.
What is the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT)?
The Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) is a compulsory standardized test that all secondary students in Ontario must write. The test evaluates English language skills in the areas of reading and writing. These are skills that reflect the Ontario English curriculum for up to and including Grade 9.
Ontario students are required to pass the OSSLT in order to graduate from high school in Ontario; however, there are several supports in place for students who don’t pass. These supports can help them succeed in meeting the province’s literacy requirements.
Who can take the OSSLT?
The OSSLT is typically administered to students in Grade 10. This is because the OSSLT evaluates skills that are taught in the Ontario English curriculum from K-9. In 2022, several students in Grade 11 were also eligible to write the OSSLT exam. This was because of cancellations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The OSSLT can also be written by students who have already completed the exam but were not successful in achieving a passing grade. Students have unlimited attempts at the OSSLT; however, if students are unsuccessful, there are other options available.
What can students do to prepare for the Ontario Literacy Test?
In theory, all students begin preparing for the OSSLT from the time they start school. This is because the OSSLT is designed to assess the skills taught in the Ontario English curriculum from kindergarten to Grade 9.
In reality, not all students are equipped with the necessary skills to be successful. This is especially true of English Language Learners who have not been enrolled in Ontario schools for a portion of their lives. ELL students may require more experience with the Ontario curriculum in order to be successful on the OSSLT. Fortunately, your ELL students can access special accommodations. Click here to learn more about ELL Participation in the OSSLT.
Oftentimes, native English-speaking students also benefit from extra preparation for the OSSLT. Teachers may begin to prepare for the OSSLT well before the exam date in Grade 10 – this preparation is especially vigorous in the 9th and 10th Grades. Through various reading and witing activities, teachers can “teach to the test” in order to help students prepare for the OSSLT.
Additionally, students can practice for the OSSLT independently or with a tutor. Students are encouraged to work on the practice exercises in the OSSLT section on the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) website.
How to practice for the OSSLT
1. Review the skills assessed on the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test
There are a series of mandated skills required to pass the OSSLT. Typically, focussing on the following areas will help students sharpen these mandated skills:
- Expressing and developing an opinion
- Writing a series of paragraphs
- Identifying main ideas and supporting points within a text
- Using main ideas and supporting points to support an opinion
- Writing introductions and conclusions
- Interpreting different types of narrative texts (ie. news reports, magazine stories, short fiction)
- Interpreting informational texts (ie. opinion pieces, textbooks)
- Summarizing ideas and information that are explicitly stated
- Understanding ideas and information that are implicitly stated
- Identifying bias, purpose, reliability, and audience
2. Prepare using OSSLT Practice Tests
One way to review literacy skills is to utilize OSSLT Practice Tests. Several school boards in Ontario have compiled archives of previous OSSLT exams. For example, Northview Heights Secondary School has an OSSLT Practice Test webpage dedicated to preparation for the OSSLT.
3. Teaching to the Test: Multiple-Choice Questions
The multiple-choice section of the OSSLT is geared towards assessing a number of literacy skills. The questions include everything from identifying the purpose of a text to evaluating the context of a word in order to select an appropriate synonym. There is no way of predicting multiple-choice questions. This means you can’t guarantee your students will be successful with this portion of the test.
Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that you can use to practice for the multiple-choice section of the OSSLT. The most straightforward strategy involves practicing with reading passages and multiple-choice questions that resemble those on the test. While the OSSLT no longer includes the news report on the test, these expository reading activities use present the same sentence stems as the exam. Students can also practice multiple-choice questions using information texts and real-life narratives that resemble the types of texts included on the OSSLT.
Another strategy incorporates practice for the multiple-choice section into your everyday lessons. When you read a text together as a class, you can pause to ask questions similar to those on the OSSLT:
- Request that students explain how they interpret new vocabulary so that they can model this process to their peers.
- Ask students questions that prompt them to summarize the text.
- Challenge students to make inferences about the text.
- Move through the text paragraph-by-paragraph to identify the purpose of particular sections or sentences.
- Encourage them to evaluate the text as a whole by writing a title or suggesting how they would summarize it in a single sentence.
3. Lesson Plans to Practice for the Ontario Literacy Test
There are a number of project-based assessments and engaging lessons that you can use to practice for the OSSLT. You can start with a mandated task and utilize backward design to scaffold the necessary skills.
One major assessment in the OSSLT involves reading real-life narratives. This narrative unit includes everything you need to build foundational literacy skills for real-life narratives. Students can demonstrate these skills by completing the Community Interview Project, a project-based assessment inspired by the iconic Humans of New York. They can also apply these skills to post-secondary pathways by practicing writing cover letters.
Another major assessment on the Ontario Literacy Test involves writing an opinion essay. This essay must express an opinion and use different forms of evidence to support the main idea of each body paragraph. This main idea and supporting details mini-unit scaffolds the development of main ideas. Students can also apply this knowledge to engaging activities like a Lincoln-Douglas Debate.
This nonfiction writing bundle also scaffolds the skills necessary to summarize an informational text. Students will also learn to identify informational texts and differentiate them from other forms of writing. This will prepare them to write their own informational paragraphs.
Finally, focussing on reading comprehension will also sharpen essential literacy skills for Ontario students. The more practice students have with different types of texts, the more prepared they will be to interpret these texts on the Ontario Literacy Test. This reading comprehension unit focuses on making inferences, making predictions, and summarizing several different forms of texts.
What happens if you fail the OSSLT?
If a student fails the OSSLT, there are a few options. For one, students can attempt to write the Ontario Literacy Test again. If your student has an IEP, they are also entitled to the accommodations listed on their file. Be sure to review this to ensure that accommodations are met for their second attempt.
Another option is to complete the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course, also known as the OSSLC or OLC4O. This course assesses the same skills as the EQAO exam, meaning that if students pass the course, they meet the requirements to graduate high school.
The Ontario Literacy Course includes mandated tasks that are outlined in the Ontario Curriculum. Students can complete assignments and activities that align with these mandated tasks in order to develop a literacy portfolio.
To see an example of the syllabus of mandated tasks in the Ontario Literacy Course, check out this Ontario Literacy Course unit. This bundle includes an entire semester’s worth of lesson plans, rubrics, assignments, and activities to practice foundational literacy skills. Additionally, this bundle can help students prepare for the OSSLT.