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Teach Constructed-Response Writing Explicitly
August 27, 2013
All the work you do to teach your students to read independently and comprehend proficiently is ultimately assessed in the form of a constructed reading response. This brief writing assesses the level of a student’s thinking about the reading and his ability to support his conclusions with text-based evidence. Plan time within the year to teach students this unique form of writing.
Don’t have formulaphobia
The nature of “constructing” something implies that it is carefully and deliberately put together. This is true of constructed responses, too. Within 2-4 sentences, students must provide essential information.
Providing students with a structure can aid them in writing stronger responses that demonstrate deeper thinking. A formula not only ensures the essential components are included, but also that they are communicated succinctly and concisely.
STEP 1: Understand the prompt.
Before students can successfully write a constructed-response, they need to know how the prompts/questions work. Most constructed-response prompts include three basic parts. It’s important to help students understand how to break down the 3 components of a constructed-response prompt.
- Background knowledge: Typically the first sentence establishes a little context or offers a quick reminder of the passage.
- Petition: Each prompt includes a task or request for the reader to accomplish. This may be written as a command or a question. This facet communicates what students must do to complete this required element. Look for words like explain, analyze, compare, etc.
- Proof: The last sentence in the prompt often specifies that students must include multiple details from the text.
STEP 2: Restate the question.
Students need to know that only their responses are read. Teachers/Scorers don’t read the original prompt. Thus, constructed responses have to provide context and make sense all by themselves. Teach students to restate the question by rearranging the words in the original prompt. Model how to do this; then invite students to participate orally.
TIP: Require that students avoid pronouns in their responses. Use specific nouns, rather than he, she, it, etc. This helps bring context to the response when the scorer is assessing it.
STEP 3: Provide a general answer.
The first sentence should include a restatement of the prompt and a general answer with no details. This sentence serves as a topic sentence to the specific details and examples that will follow. (Students often give too many details in their opening sentence. When they do that, there is nowhere for their thinking to go. Encourage them to slow down their thinking.)
TIP: After introducing the concept of a general answer, then outlaw the use of “because” in any first sentence of a CR. If students include “because,” they will likely reveal details that should be saved for the supporting sentences.
STEP 4: Skim the text.
Students cannot provide the general answer if they didn’t first think of specific details. It’s the synthesis or conclusion of the relevant textual details that helps them to develop the topic sentence. So when it’s time to go into the text for proof, students should know precisely which details they are looking for–it’s just a matter of locating them. This requires skimming.
Model how you slide your index finger down the margin of the relevant paragraphs. Tell students that your eyes are pulling through each line quickly looking for certain words/phrases.
TIP: Explain that skimming is not plowing through the paragraphs or rereading the entire text. Rather, demonstrate how to first get in the vicinity of the details. Show students how to navigate the text quickly using text features and text structures.
STEP 5: Cite multiple author details.
The details students pull from the text are proof that their general answer (Step 3) is correct. And the proof must come in multiple examples. If students provide only one detail, then they aren’t fulfilling the prompt requirement of “Use details from the reading.” Notice “details” is plural. The expectation is that students find two or more examples.
TIP: Sometimes students provide two text details that are essentially repeats of one another. To ensure students are referencing two different examples, encourage them to look in different portions/paragraphs of the text.
Teach students how to weave the author’s words from the text into their sentences of proof. Provide students with sentence starters to support them with this step. The text states…For example…According to the passage…A second example from the text…The author also states…On page __, it stated…
STEP 6: End with how the evidence fits the inference.
At this point, the scorer is thinking…So what? What do the details prove? Show students how to wrap up a response by explaining or interpreting their evidence. When practicing these concluding statements, provide students with sentence starters. This shows…This demonstrates…I believe…Now I know…This proves…
STEP 7: Reread only your response.
Strong responses do NOT require the scorer to read the original prompt. The response should make sense all by itself. The response has to provide context, a general answer, and specific evidence.
That said, when practicing these writings, have students draft their responses on separate paper or in a separate digital document, apart from the original prompt. Without the original prompt for reference, it’s easier for students to see when their CRs are incomplete or inadequate.
Start early & start orally.
The steps each build on one another. Think of it like playing hopscotch–you can’t jump to the second box without hopping to the first one. These skills work similarly. You can’t teach step 3 in a constructed response if you didn’t first teach steps 1-2. The early steps are prerequisites for the later ones. (NOTE: The steps on our newest Smekens Education poster are listed like a hopscotch board–from the bottom up.) That said, although all grade levels may not teach all 7 steps, start early and teach as many steps as you can.
As you target each step, do so with simple, high-interest texts. Students can’t practice the response skill if the text is too complex and they struggle to comprehend it. In other words, let students practice finding evidence with texts that are easy to understand before upping the text complexity.
Also, consider that students can’t write what they can’t say. So allow them to practice the steps orally in class discussions and small groups before moving the skill to writing. You can improve their thinking without always having them write. (NOTE: This is particularly important for young readers, ELL, and students with special needs.
Great Teacher Tweet:
Taryn Saulmon, reading teacher at Monroe Central Elementary (Parker City, IN) used this strategy with her 5th and 6th graders. Check out their silhouette and their Yes, MA’AM response: