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How to Pass the Writing Subtest of the Communication and Literacy MTEL

communication and literacy mtel
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How to Pass the Writing Subtest of the Communication and Literacy MTEL

The Writing subtest of the Communication and Literacy MTEL is one half of the Communication and Literacy exam. To earn any new Massachusetts Educator Certification, both sections of the exam (Reading and Writing) must be passed. 

Each section is independent of the other; they are scored separately. For example, once the Writing subtest is passed, it does not have to be retaken. Only passing the Reading subtest would be necessary.

The MTEL score is scaled. In 1998, a 70 (on a scale of 0-100) was passing. The “70” didn’t mean that you got 70%. Your raw score (i.e., the number of points you earned on the test) is converted to a scaled score.

The scaled score depends on the scores of everyone who took the same version of the exam you did. The same raw score can result in a higher or lower scaled score; if people did worse overall, a raw score would convert to a higher scaled score. In other words, you do better when others do worse and vice versa.

The scale was changed in 2006 to what is currently in use – a 100-300 scale, with 240 being a passing score.

The Communication and Literacy MTEL: 1998 to 2003

The Writing subtest has changed more than once since the MTELs debuted in 1998.

The original version (1998-2003) of the exam consisted of four sections, each worth 25% of the total score. It was also inherently unfair.

In those days, the MTELs were given in-person and on paper at local high schools. Each classroom would be filled with 20-30 test-takers squeezed into wooden high-school desks who would strain to listen to a recorded passage while also being able to overhear recordings being played in adjacent classrooms. Those who had hearing impairments or auditory processing issues were at a disadvantage, as were non-native English speakers.

The passage was recited three times: first at normal speed, second in chunks of 3 or 4 words, and the third time at normal speed again. The goal was to write the passage exactly as recited. Spelling and punctuation were critical and points were lost for each error. 

The second section was the “Grammar and Usage.” This section consisted of 3 parts. 

The first was a 13-question multiple choice section that tested grammar and usage, sentence and paragraph structure, and development. This “Paragraph Improvements” section is still in use today. 

The second part consisted of the “Sentence Corrections,” three sentences containing grammatical and punctuation errors, also in use in today’s C&L Writing MTEL.

The last section required test-takers to define 3 grammar terms (either parts of speech or types of sentences). 

The second half of the exam focused on actual writing. 

The Summary Exercise and the Composition Exercise were each worth 25% of the score. The Summary was more difficult in those days because of the content of the passages; they used to have topics such as “computers and privacy” or “the greenhouse effect.” Today’s topics focus on educational issues that are more accessible to prospective teachers. 

The final section of the exam, the Essay, was also somewhat more difficult. Topics were of “general interest” such as “term limits” for politicians or “whether or not telemarketers should be allowed to call our homes.”

The 2003 Update

In 2003, the exam was altered to eliminate the dictation section, but the rest of the exam was unchanged.

The new Written Mechanics section now consisted of 25 multiple choice questions. A six-sentence paragraph was presented with numbered sentences.  Each question asked if one of the numbered sentences contained an error or not.  The answer choices corresponded to A) Spelling Error, B) Punctuation Error, C) Capitalization Error, or D) Sentence is Correct. 

The Current Communication and Literacy MTEL

Since September 2009, the C&L Writing MTEL has been in its current form.

Today’s version opens with a 35-question multiple choice section, essentially the same as the previously mentioned “Paragraph Improvements.”  About fifteen questions are on “establishing a main idea,” about ten are on “sentence construction, grammar, and usage,” and about ten are on “spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.” This multiple-choice section is worth 35% of the score.

The Sentence Corrections have been expanded to include 7 sentences which contain errors of grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, or capitalization.  There are 2 errors per sentence, which need to be rewritten with the errors corrected.  This section is worth 15%.

The writing sections still consist of the Summary Exercise and the Composition Exercise (the Essay). However, the scoring has been changed so that the essay is now worth 35% and the summary 15%.

Each has been simplified a bit. The essay topics are now ones that educators will have an easier time writing about. Both Essay and Summary topics are focused on educational topics.

Communication and Literacy MTEL Strategy

What’s the best test preparation strategy?


One thing about the MTELs that has not changed is ETI’s recommendation that the essay be done first. It might be ordered last on the exam, but do it first. 

Why is that? More energy and focus are needed to write an essay than for any other part of the exam. Write it before three other sections sap your energy and focus. Writing an essay after three hours of grammar and punctuation is a template for failure.

In terms of grammar and usage, you need to know concepts beyond the superficial. You need to be able to identify errors in sentences and in paragraphs. Just being able to name or define any of these terms is not enough. You need to be able to confidently identify and correct errors with the items and concepts in the table below. Reading comprehension, paraphrasing, and basic essay writing are other important skills.

To do well on the first half of the exam, be well versed on the following topics:

Parts of speechSubjects and predicatesTypes of sentences and their construction
Independent/dependent clausesPrepositional and modifying phrasesComma rules (only 3 are necessary)
SemicolonsApostrophesSentence fragments
Run-on sentencesSubject-verb agreementPronoun agreement, reference, and case
Verb forms and tensesMisplaced modifiersCapitalization
Paragraph structureParagraph developmentSpelling

Should I Enroll in a Test Prep Class?

You likely do not need a MTEL-prep class to prepare for sections on grammar and usage.  Each of the above terms can be Googled. There are hundreds of websites that have definitions, explanations, and even practice questions. 

If you are capable of independent learning and dedicated to your studies, you can be successful on your own. If you think you need a text to guide you, our MTEL Magic Communication and Literacy Skills Test Writing Subtest, 2nd Edition is available here.  It has everything you need, including very realistic examples, practice tests, and essay prompts.

The second half of the exam, however, is harder to prepare for.

Writing and reading skills are not as easy to improve. The only way to get better at writing is to write and have someone give you constructive criticism and suggestions. Many people have great difficulty with reading comprehension, which is a crucial skill for success with the Summary; you can’t summarize what you don’t understand. 

ETI starts preparing its students for these difficult sections from the beginning.  Many of our students have weak grammatical, writing, and reading basic skills, so we start building them from the first session. In order to write well or understand what you read, you need to understand basic grammar and sentence structure.

Although my book is called “MTEL Magic,” there are no magical shortcuts to success. There is a ton of information to know in order to pass this exam, and you’ll need to put in the work — in and out of class (yes, there is plenty of homework) — in order to pass it.  The “magic” is in the curriculum’s design and delivery.  We know what you need to know, and we know how to teach it to you.

Our Prep Course

We start with the basics: parts of speech and basic sentence structure.  Then we roll into punctuation and grammar.  We only review the essential punctuation and grammatical concepts that are on the actual exam. No time or effort is wasted.

Having a foundation of understanding of how sentences are constructed, we move into studying paragraphs. Understanding the structure and development of paragraphs are critical for doing well on 65% of the exam: “establishing and maintaining a main idea” section of the Paragraph Improvements (15% of the score), the Summary Exercise (another 15%), and the Essay (35%). 

Essay and Summary Section

Once we understand paragraphs, we start writing them. But first, we learn about a specific structure, taking into account the nature of paragraphs and how the Essay and Summary are scored.

Next comes the Essay, the Composition Exercise. There are two essentials we focus on — the structure and a clear, logical argument. 

We look at the basics of a 5-paragraph essay. How do I pick my thesis? What goes into the introduction? How do I construct a logical argument and form the body paragraphs? What goes in the conclusion?

We have 20+ years’ worth of stored knowledge about how the Composition Exercise is scored and popular assigned topics.

The Summary has been the most challenging part of the Writing exam for most students. There are more skills necessary to perform well than in any other section of the exam. All of the previous topics are important—from the punctuation and grammar to the paragraphs and writing.  

In addition, strong reading comprehension and paraphrasing skills are necessary to perform well on this section. People who struggle most with the Summary are often non-native English speakers (deep reading and paraphrasing are difficult) or have reading comprehension issues (you can’t summarize what you don’t understand). Do you possess all the necessary knowledge and skill? Fortunately, this section only accounts for 15% of the score.

Grammar and Punctuation

After spending a couple sessions on the writing sections of the exam, we return to grammar and punctuation. Concepts are reviewed while we study specific strategies for the Sentence Corrections and Paragraph Improvements. 

These last sessions are usually when the grammar begins to crystalize for students. Particularly helpful strategies are a checklist for finding the specific grammar/punctuation/usage issues on the Sentence Corrections and the approach for the “reverse the order of these sentences” of the Paragraph Improvement section.

In Conclusion

Our two decades of stored knowledge certainly helps with these sections when taking the exam.  You will not be surprised by anything you see. You will have been taught the concepts and practiced MTEL-like questions.

Our 160-page curriculum (published as MTEL Magic for the Communication and Literacy Writing Subtest, 2nd Edition  and available here) contains all the in-class and homework exercises to practice necessary skills and strategies (including timing strategies) to perfection.

Guaranteeing your MTEL results since 1999. JoinETI.com and find out why.

Make an investment in yourself and get certified today.

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