The Literacy Cookbook COVER[This post is adapted from my book, The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, 2012). My forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass), is scheduled for release in August, 2014. This post appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on March 23, 2014.]

It amazes me that anyone can write an entire essay without a thesis. But I’ve seen it done. I think this is why so many students hate to write.  They pour hours and hours into pages and pages, only to be told that what they’ve written is unacceptable.  After all that effort: unacceptable? Sadly, yes.  An essay without a thesis might have half a dozen great ideas in it, but without an organizing principle, it doesn’t hold together.

Our job is to spare students (and frankly ourselves) this agony by coaching them on how to write an effective thesis.  The solution is to give students practice and not let them go any further until they’ve generated a viable thesis. Once they’ve got it, then they can move on to the rest of the piece.  Otherwise, you’ll need to spend more time conferencing with them. Eventually, with enough practice, they’ll get the hang of it.

Although of course there are numerous ways to arrive at a thesis, it helps to have a systematic approach to start with.

Here’s one for an essay based on a text:

  1. What TOPICS/ISSUES does this text deal with?  List as many as you can think of. (Ex: How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss[1] is about SELFISHNESS, GENEROSITY, LOVE, PERSONAL GROWTH, etc.)
  2. What QUESTIONS does the author raise about these topics/issues?  Pick 1-2 topics to focus on.  (Ex.: Why are people selfish?  What are the consequences of selfishness?  How can people overcome selfishness?)
  3. What MESSAGE(S) does the author convey about your selected topic/issue?  Sometimes it helps toFIND CONNECTIONS among a few of your favorite topics and EXPLAIN THEM in relation to the book.(Ex.: People can overcome selfishness with love from the people around them.)

Once students have pinned down a message/argument they want to focus on, they can craft a thesis.  If writing about a work of literature, they should include the title, author, and specific aspect(s) of the book that convey this message.

Here are some sample theses based on novels:

  • In Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston,[2] Janie, the main character, searches for equality and independence, and she learns some important lessons along the way.
  • In The Street, Ann Petry[3] highlights the conflicts that Lutie has with Boots, Johnson, and Jim to show the difficulty that women, both married and single, have in constructing a life for themselves.
  • In The Street, Ann Petry’s characterization of Mr. and Mrs. Chandler underscores the subtle yet pervasive racism that plagues the whole African-American community.

Once the thesis is in place, students can map out the rest of the essay. Here is a completed model of the “Unpacking Your Thesis Organizer” found on the TLC “Writing 101” page (available as a FREE download):

THESIS/Argument Statement: In Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Janie, the main character, searches for equality and independence, and she learns some important lessons along the way.

 What are the different parts of the argument that your essay must prove?

Janie searches for equality. Janie searches for independence. Janie learns some important lessons.
What questions must you answer to prove this part of your argument?


  1. Why does Janie have to search for equality?
  2. How does Janie search for equality?
  3. How successful is she?  Why?  What does she learn?


What questions must you answer to prove this part of your argument?


  1. Why does Janie have to search for independence?
  2. How does Janie search for independence?
  3. How successful is she?  Why?  What does she learn?
What questions must you answer to prove this part of your argument?


1. What lessons does Janie learn?






Write a topic sentence that answers at least one of the questions in the above box.


Janie searches for equality through her relationships with men.

Write a topic sentence that answers at least one of the questions in the above box.


Because her relationship with Joe frustrates her so much, Janie relishes her freedom after he dies.

Write a topic sentence that answers at least one of the questions in the above box.


Janie’s struggles teach her some essential life lessons.

This organizer can be adapted to suit other genres, as well. The key is to model HOW TO ASK COMPELLING QUESTIONS because questions drive the writing process from three angles:

  1. Good questions enable writers to build strong arguments.
  2. Good questions help writers to look for and find useful evidence.
  3. Writers must ask good questions in order to analyze and support their arguments.

Initially, you’ll have to provide the questions.  Then you can remove the training wheels and let students generate their own.  No matter what you’re doing, you should begin by providing a model of what you’re looking for.

[1] Seuss, Dr. (1957).  How the grinch stole Christmas!  New York, NY: Random House.

[2] Hurston, Z.N. (1998).  Their eyes were watching God.  New York, NY: Perennial Classics. (Originally published 1937.)

[3] Petry, A. (1991).  The street. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin. (Originally published 1946.)

Posted in Brainstorming, Organizing an Essay, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, Thesis Statements, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


The Literacy Cookbook COVER[This post is adapted from my book, The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, 2012). My forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass), is scheduled for release in August, 2014. This post appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on Feb. 23, 2014.]

Some of my favorite foods are not difficult to prepare: grilled salmon, scrambled eggs on toast, chocolate milkshakes….  Good writing instruction doesn’t have to be complicated, either.  No matter what genre you’re teaching (whether it’s a paragraph, a timed essay, or a full-blown research paper), I recommend the following basic steps:

  1. Explain to students which genre they are about to work on and why.  Ideally you’ll have a good hook, not just, “We’re writing this essay because it’s Tuesday.”
  2. Provide an excellent model and preview the scoring rubric, then use the rubric to critique the model, annotating it as you go.  Keep a running list of the compositional risks or techniques that make the model successful—in other words, what works.  For example, “use of strong vocabulary” and “effective transitions leading to smooth flow” will probably appear on most lists.
  3. Invite students to critique models of varying quality so they can see the characteristics of effective and ineffective writing.  Evaluating different samples will help them become comfortable with the rubric and your expectations for the assignment.  It will also train them to be more self-critical when revising their own writing.
  4. Explain why pre-writing is so important and hold students accountable for using pre-writing strategies.  Particularly on timed essays, students tend to skip pre-writing because they believe it’s better to write for the entire allotted time.  However, what often happens to students who don’t plan or outline their ideas is that they write frantically for ten minutes and then, like a sprinter who suddenly runs into a wall, they abruptly run out of things to say (PS: I like to demonstrate this with the nearest wall because it gets their attention).  Then they spend the next 20 minutes in agony.  Our job is to teach them how to avoid hitting that wall.  Along with teaching them the needed strategies, we must hold them accountable for using them.  Grades signal what we value, and students will take pre-writing more seriously if you assign a grade to it.
  5. Teach pre-writing strategies.  For most writing assignments, the biggest challenge is generating an appropriate topic and argument/message.  One problem is that students often don’t know the difference between argument and evidence, so we must teach this directly, as I’ve blogged here and here.  Students also need to know the goals of the task, which graphic organizers to use and why, and, if it’s a timed task, how much time to spend on pre-writing.  Model every step of the pre-writing process repeatedly and walk students through plenty of guided practice before giving them independent practice.  NOTE: Some teachers make the mistake of skimping on the “I do” and “We do” phases of the lesson, thinking that they will save some time.  They won’t.  Students who haven’t seen enough modeling tend to struggle with their independent work.  Then you have to go back and re-teach.  So it’s better to take the time up front and set students up for success.
  6. Give timely feedback on the actual writing.  If you’re teaching the writing process and have the opportunity to support students along the way, you should read their introductions and make sure they’re on the right track before continuing.  It takes less than a minute to determine if a student has drafted a viable thesis, but there is no telling how long it takes to undo his frustration if he has spent hours writing a whole essay, only to be told that the thesis makes no sense.  With very brief conferences, you can redirect students toward more productive lines of thinking.  If students are working on a timed essay, it’s best to grade the whole thing as soon as it is done and give students a chance to revise it based on your feedback.  The lessons they learn from improving that essay will prepare them to do a better job on the next one.  And if they can’t figure out how to fix this one, how can we expect them to do better on the next one?
  7. Last but not least, require students to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses as a writer.  One way to support this self-reflection is to provide students with feedback and hold them accountable for following up on it.  Below is an Essay Writing Rubric* that includes a separate grade for “Self-Improvement Goals.”  Sometimes it helps to remind students that you won’t be going to college with them, so they’ll need to learn how to improve their writing on their own.  The sooner they learn this lesson, the better.






  • TRANSITION from previous paragraph
  • Provide ARGUMENT for the paragraph that answers “HOW?” and “WHY?” in response to the thesis

  • Use ACCURATE information and detailed support to prove thesis and topic sentences, including:
  • CONTEXT surrounding quote (who, what, where when, why?)
  • EXPLANATION of quote and how it illustrates/proves the point

  • Draw logical, thoughtful conclusions and/or make reasonable predictions.
  • ENGLISH: Usually answers, “What is the author’s ultimate message?”

  • PARENTHETICAL CITATIONS in proper format
LENGTH requirement:  _____paragraphs/pages.

  • Build convincing paragraphs and an overall argument that flows clearly.
  • Make thoughtful, logical, and substantial inferences throughout the paper.
  • Anticipate potential counter-arguments.
  • Find meaningful connections.

  • USE STANDARD ENGLISH (S/V agreemt, present tense, pron/ant agreemt).







*This Essay Writing Rubric can also be found on the TLC “Writing Rubrics” page.

Posted in ELA Common Core Standards, Resources, Rubrics, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment


LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIn this blog, I have previously identified six key “argument vs. evidence” skills needed for effective writing.  Some are discussed in The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, Nov. 2012), and all six are fully explained in my forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, Aug. 2014).  Here is a sneak peek at the more elaborate explanation of how to teach Step 1:

The first argument-versus-evidence skill that students must master, Step 1, is to ensure that when given a list of statements, they can distinguish the arguments from examples of evidence.

It’s important to clarify for students that in this context, the word “argument” does not mean people yelling or throwing plates but instead refers to a claim, opinion, or debatable statement that requires proof or evidence for support….

Students may have had some exposure to differentiating between fact and opinion, which is useful background knowledge. Facts are often evidence, and opinions can be arguments, but they aren’t always. For example, “The Giants are the best team in the National Football League,” is only my opinion. If I can offer some evidence and explanation to support it, I might have an argument. Another way to frame this is that “arguments are opinions or claims that can be supported with evidence and explanation.”

I recommend this simple approach: give students a list of sentences about whatever content you’re dealing with at the moment. Some of those sentences should be facts (i.e., evidence) and some arguments. Model and explain a few examples; then solicit input from the class on a few; then let students try some on their own. In the process, see if they can figure out strategies for determining whether a statement is an argument or evidence (more on this in a moment). Here are a few examples:

On J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:

  1. “Allie, Holden’s brother, is dead.” This statement is a fact, so it has to be evidence.
  2. “Losing his brother has a major impact on Holden’s life.” This statement contains a debatable or arguable word, major, and raises questions about cause and effect (How or why does losing his brother cause a major impact?), so it requires evidence and explanation to prove it; therefore it’s an argument.
  3. “Holden wants to be nurtured and protected.” This statement raises “How?” and “Why?” questions, so it requires evidence and explanation to prove it; therefore it’s an argument.

On Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR):

  1. “In 1905, FDR and his fiancée (also his sixth cousin), Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, chose St. Patrick’s Day 1905 as their wedding date for the sole reason that it was the only day that FDR’s fifth cousin and Eleanor’s uncle, former president Theodore Roosevelt, could attend.” This statement is a fact, so it has to be evidence.
  2. “Eleanor Roosevelt can take credit for converting her patrician fiancé, Franklin, from a noblesse oblige steward into a sensitive and empathetic populist when she showed him the wretched state of the poor in New York City’s slums.” This statement raises “How?” and “Why?” questions, so it requires evidence and explanation to prove it; therefore it’s an argument.

As students should infer from the work you do to identify the statements that are arguments versus those that are evidence, there are three primary ways to determine whether a statement is an argument:

1.            Notice whether or not it includes debatable or arguable words (often adjectives). In the statement, “Losing his brother causes a major impact on Holden’s life,” the word major is debatable or arguable. One person’s “major” is another’s “no big deal.”

2.            Look for language that speaks to cause and effect, such as “causes a major impact,” because such assertions require evidence and explanation.

3.            See if the statement raises any “How?” or “Why?” questions, as in, “How/Why does Holden want to be nurtured and protected?”

This might make a handy poster:

  Deals with CAUSE and EFFECT
  Raises HOW? WHY?
Evidence FACT

If you’re a school leader: This exercise—designing a handout on how to distinguish arguments from evidence using your content—would make a terrific agenda item for a grade-level or department meeting. If you’re responsible for running such meetings, you can put together a handout with some exemplars for all to analyze, then offer some guided and independent practice until teachers are able to create items on their own and offer useful peer feedback.

If you’re a teacher: Before you try this with your students for the first time—even if your supervisor doesn’t run a meeting for practice—I recommend showing a colleague a draft list of statements to see if any confusion arises from the examples.

Posted in Argument, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Persuasion, Professional Development, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


The Literacy Cookbook COVEREvery once in a while, a resource emerges that is so helpful it leaves me speechless.  If you are looking for prompts for argumentative writing, this resource will help.  If you are looking for articles related to such prompts, it will also help.  If you are looking for examples of argumentative writing, yes, again, it will help!

Here’s the link to “200 Prompts for Argumentative Writing,” by Michael Gonchar, Feb. 4, 2014, in the NY Times.

Many thanks to the folks at the NY Times Learning Network for this resource and many others!!!

Posted in Argument, Persuasion, Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


The Literacy Cookbook COVERThe PARCC people seem determined to make life difficult for those of us who are trying to prepare our students for these forthcoming assessments.  Recently, they released “new” computerized sample items, which are helpful, BUT there’s a problem.  If you click HERE, at least as of today, you can find the computerized items, but the page does not mention where you can find the answers/explanations to the questions.  Also, the questions aren’t really new; as far as I can tell, only the format in which they are presented is new.

A few days ago, I went through the “Grades 3-5 ELA” sample items and found out the hard way that the answers are not immediately available.  I tried calling and Emailing PARCC but could not get help finding the missing answers.  In desperation, I tweeted about this problem (“@PARCCPlace New sample questions are great, but when can we see THE ANSWERS?”), and someone from PARCC tweeted back as follows: “@SarahTantillo Answers on prev released PDFs Samples designed to be just like test experience (no answers) #askPARCC

This would seem like a helpful response, and it is except that the link after “PDFs” doesn’t work.  So I went to the page for the PARCC PDF Sample Items (for grades 3-11 in ELA; in math, grades 3-HS) and read through them.  The PDFs do not 100% correlate to the computerized test items.  They are separated by grade.  Also, some of the 3rd-grade questions on the PDFs do not appear on the Grades 3-5 computerized test.  I haven’t taken all of the different versions yet, so I can’t speak to other potential disparities.

If you’d like to try out the computerized versions, here are the 6-8 Sample Items and here are the High School Sample Items.

If you have any insights, questions, or thoughts, please chime in!

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LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[This post is an excerpt from Sarah Tantillo’s forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014).  It appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on Jan. 19, 2014.]

             Although it might seem as though skimming is the opposite of close reading (and in a way, it is), it is also a crucial skill for pulling information out of a text.

            One day when I was sitting in a seventh-grade classroom, the teacher asked her students to describe Ponyboy in The Outsiders.[1]  A boy named Julio raised his hand and said that Ponyboy was “frustrated.”

“Frustrated?  OK.  How do you know?” the teacher said.

Julio stared at her helplessly for a moment, then shrugged and said, “I just know.”

“Where in this chapter—what in this chapter—gave you the idea that he was frustrated, Julio?”  She added, “Look in your book.  Everybody, look in your book in this chapter.  Where in the chapter can you find evidence that Ponyboy was frustrated?  Find me some evidence.  I’ll give you three minutes.”

I watched the students.  They dutifully opened their books and bowed their heads as though directed to pray.  Indeed, from the furtive glances that several students cast at Julio, it seemed that they were praying he would find the answer quickly.  A few others seemed to be boring holes into the pages with their eyes, trying to read every word in the chapter.

Aha, I thought.  They do not know how to skim.

I asked the teacher if I could call timeout and ask the students a question.  She nodded.

“When you’re looking for evidence about a character in the text,” I said, “what strategy or strategies are you using?”

One girl answered, “We’re re-reading.”

“OK,” I said, “but this chapter is twelve pages long and you only have three minutes. I’m a very fast reader, but even I couldn’t read every word!”  I paused, and I could see the students nodding with relief (no doubt thinking, See, she thinks our teacher is crazy, too.  Nobody can re-read a whole chapter in three minutes!), then I asked, “So what do you do?”

“You look for key words,” Julio offered.

“OK, good idea.  But how do you know which words are ‘key’?  Let’s think about this.  We’re detectives, and we’re looking for clues that Ponyboy is frustrated.  We can’t read every word, so we have to skim.  So, number one, obviously, we’re looking for his name, right?  Then what do we look for?”

A girl raised her hand and said hesitantly, “D.DAT?”  She was referring to something her teacher had taught recently: an acronym which stands for direct Description and indirect characterization through Dialogue, Action, and Thought (see below).

“Exactly!  Please explain.”

“We could try to see if Ponyboy was described as frustrated or if he said something, did something, or thought something that made it seem like he was.”

“Terrific!  So let’s try this strategy….”

Characterization Methods: “D.DAT”[2]D.DAT is a simple mnemonic device to help readers remember how writers develop characters. 

DIRECT characterization:

Example: He had a great sense of humor.  (No inference is required.)


INDIRECT characterization:


Example: “I want to save the whales,” she explained. (We can infer that she cares about animals and maybe that she is idealistic.)


Example: The young man studied every night and earned straight A’s in high school. (We can infer that he is hardworking and perseverant.)


Example: The girl wondered if the boy would ask her to dance.  (We can infer that she has a crush on him.)

The students in this case used D.DAT and found some evidence to support Julio’s argument.  Going forward, depending on the genre of the text and the nature of the question they wanted to answer, they would need to use different approaches to skimming.  For example, if they were reading a persuasive passage and were asked, “What are the writer’s main arguments?” then they would need to know how to scan for the thesis and topic sentences.

This episode clarified three points for me:

1) We need to teach students how to skim!  Ironically, we often overlook this skill.

2) Skimming is not easy if you don’t have any strategies for how to do it.

3) Students can be taught specific skimming strategies, but they also need to practice figuring out which strategies are most appropriate to use in any given situation.

[1] S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders (New York: Penguin Group, 1997).

[2] This table is excerpted from a handout called “Characterization Methods: DDAT,” which appears on the TLC “Analyzing Literature” page found at:

Posted in Character Analysis, Close Reading, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Reading, Reading Literature, Resources, Skimming, TLC Website Resources | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

INDEPENDENT READING: 180 Different Ways to Respond

The Literacy Cookbook COVERRecently my friend Barbara Daniels, who is an excellent poet, generously sent along an incredibly helpful list of 180 activities for students to choose from while working on independent reading.

Here are the first five:

  1. What’s in a Name?   With your group, make up as many questions as possible based only on the titles of your books.  Mark the questions you think you will be able to answer from the books with a plus sign and those that probably can’t be answered from the books with a minus sign.  Discuss: How much can you tell about your books from the titles alone?  Which of the titles are the best ones?
  1. Raising Questions   Read the material on the covers of your book and any additional material such as a preface that is inside the book.  Skim the list of chapters, and turn through to glance at illustrations and at the first sentences in some of the paragraphs.  Based on what you find, make a list of ten questions about your book.  Read to find the answers to these questions, jotting down what you find.
  1. A Letter to Your Teacher   Write a letter explaining what you read today and what you think or feel about it.  If you would like your teacher to answer your letter, write “Please respond” at the top of the first page.  If you don’t write this, your teacher will read your letter but not write an answer to it.
  1. Pick a Sentence   From what you read today, choose a sentence or longer passage that you consider interesting or important.  Write about your choice in a journal entry.  Then read your sentence to the class and explain why you consider it interesting or important.
  1. Reading How-Tos   What do you already know about how to understand and remember what you read? Write a paragraph of at least five sentences in which you describe the reading strategies that have worked for you in the past and that you might want to try in the future.  Be ready to share your ideas with your group.

Click on 180 Ways to Respond to Independent Reading to download the entire list.  For additional resources, please check out the TLC “Independent Reading” page.  Many thanks again to Barb!!!

Posted in Assessment(s), Independent Reading, Reading, Resources, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

NJ ASK Test Specs UPDATE, 1-15-14

The Literacy Cookbook COVERThis update is especially for my NJ peeps:

I went to a meeting last night where NJ DOE Chief Academic Officer Dr. Tracey Severns presented and found out that the State recently (1-7-14) posted “updated” NJ ASK test specs for this year.  The ELA test specs HAVE NOT CHANGED since 11-26-12 (PS: I don’t know about the Math; you can see for yourself in the document; here is the link).  Dr. Severns stated that these NJ ASK specs are “aligned with the Common Core Standards,” which in my view is somewhat true (they are partially aligned), but we all know that the NJ ASK questions are not as rigorous as sample items currently available on the PARCC Website (e.g., which ask students to pull information from multiple texts).  The test specs document admits: “The NJ ASK assessments are called ‘transitional’ because we will not be able to measure the full range of the CCSS until the next generation assessments are developed and administered.”  In other words, the NJ ASK covers only a piece of the puzzle.  It is by no means comprehensive (and to be fair to Dr. Severns, who seems eager to be helpful, she wasn’t trying to say that it is).

I asked about the PARCC test specs, and Dr. Severns said that they are available on the PARCC Website; however, the problem is that the link there results in “Page Not Found.”  If any of you have found a link that works for PARCC test specs, please let me know, because it would be nice to see where this is all really going.

Dr. Severns also said that she “heard that PARCC would release a complete set of sample tests this summer,” but who knows if that will actually happen.  If it does, it would enable us more easily to prepare our own practice assessments, obviously.

My advice is that we should prepare for NJ ASK as we have in the past and start spending more attention on unpacking and being more vigilant about teaching the Common Core State Standards, esp. the Reading Informational Text Standards.  If our students can meet the rigor of the CCSS, then they should be able to adjust (with some practice) to the new “genre” of PARCC assessments as they roll out.  In particular, even though the NJ ASK is not going to require students to read multiple documents on the same topic and pull information from them, this is something we do need students to work on because this set of skills is required by CCSS.  For more information on approaching the CCSS, check out the TLC “Standards” page.  And if your colleagues do not currently follow the TLC Blog, please encourage them to do so as it includes my latest thinking on how to approach the CCSS.

Please let me know if you have any thoughts/questions.  Also, if you have any advice/suggestions that you would like to share, please do.  WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER!

Posted in Assessment(s), NJ ASK, PARCC, Test Prep | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How to Unpack ELA Common Core Standards and Design Objectives and Activities to Meet Them

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014).  It appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on Dec. 16, 2013.]

In order to teach the standards, along with developing an appreciation for their trajectory (which I have blogged about HERE and HERE), we must understand what they mean and what they entail.  Often seemingly “simple” standards require extensive scaffolding, and some of the complicated ones are even more complicated than they might appear.  Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman refer to Writing Standard #9 as “the standard with twenty standards hidden within it,”[1] and I don’t disagree.  To unpack the standards, you need to do the following:

  1. Paraphrase the standard.  It’s important to know what the standard is saying on a literal level so that you can break it down into manageable pieces.
  2. Figure out why we do this standard.  Determining the purpose(s) of a standard will help you explain to students why it’s worth mastering.  And thinking about this rationale will help you later when you want to design objectives that are purposeful.
  3. Identify the skills that students will need in order to meet this standard.  Almost invariably, students will need more than one skill in order meet any given standard.  If you don’t break the standard down, you might skip over key skills that need to be taught.  And if you don’t teach the needed skills, students won’t master the standard (and worse: you won’t know why).
  4. Determine how you could assess this standard.  What would mastery of this standard look like?  Once you’re confident you know what mastery looks like, it’s easier to plan how to get students to that level.
  5. Brainstorm on how you might teach this standard.  For the moment, stick to general approaches; don’t worry about detailed lesson plans yet.  The purpose here is to generate some rough ideas about how to approach the standard.
  6. Design RPM (rigorous, purposeful, measurable) objectives related to these skills.  (For more information on RPM objectives, click HERE.)  These objectives will lead you logically to lesson plans that set students up to meet and exceed the standards.  Note: This step can be challenging to do in a vacuum; it works best if teachers have specific texts in mind that they plan to use to meet these objectives.

To support teachers working through this unpacking process, I’ve created a simple graphic organizer.  Here is a completed model (PS: Both the blank “Unpacking the Standards Organizer” and the completed “Unpacking the Standards: RIT 6.1 Model” can be found on the TLC “Standards” page) :

STANDARD: RIT 6.1: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
PARAPHRASE IT: Provide properly-quoted evidence from the text to support your explanation of what the text says directly and what it implies.
WHY do we do this standard?  What purposes does it serve? We provide evidence to support arguments because no one would believe us if we didn’t; we prove our points more persuasively when we offer evidence.  We use this skill when speaking and writing in order to convince listeners/readers about our views/ideas.  It is important to cite the source to give the writer credit for his/her work and avoid plagiarism, and so that the audience can find that evidence as needed.
WHAT SKILLS will students need?
  • Paraphrase text.
  • Draw inferences from text.
  • Distinguish between argument and evidence.
  • Identify evidence relevant to particular arguments.
  • Build arguments with relevant evidence and explanation.
  • Cite sources properly (using MLA format).
How might you ASSESS this standard?  What would mastery of this standard LOOK LIKE?
  • Give students open-ended response questions requiring multiple-sentence responses with properly-cited quotes from the text.
  • Require students to generate a paragraph making an argument with evidence from the given text, citing evidence properly.
HOW might you teach this standard?
  • Show students a model of a paragraph that includes properly-cited quotations, explaining its key features (topic sentence=argument, evidence and explanation, with evidence from text properly cited).
  • Give them either a topic sentence to support OR an inference question to answer based on an informational text they are reading, and use the gradual release approach (I Do, We Do, You Do) to train students in how to write paragraphs that cite evidence from the text.
What are some RPM OBJECTIVES related to these skills? SWBAT…

  • Paraphrase text in order to convey literal comprehension of a passage.
  • Draw inferences from text in order to explain key ideas in the passage.
  • Identify arguments and examples of evidence in order to create accurate definitions of “argument” and “evidence.”
  • Distinguish between evidence that is “relevant” and “irrelevant” to a given argument in order to create accurate definitions of “relevant” and “irrelevant.”
  • Identify evidence that supports a given argument in order to build a convincing argument.
  • Cite sources in proper MLA format in order to avoid plagiarism.

[1] Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman, Pathways to the Common Core (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2012), 134.

Posted in Analyzing the Common Core Standards, ELA Common Core Standards, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Professional Development, Reading, Reading Informational Text, Resources, TLC Website Resources | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014).  It appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on Nov. 20, 1013.]

I’ve been reading a lot about “close reading” lately.  Some people say you should re-read the text.  Some say you should mark the text up with a pencil.  Still others say you should ask a particular set of questions; unfortunately, I can’t remember what those questions are.  I’m not saying that any of these are bad strategies.  I’m just saying they’re not the most important one.

The most important skill you can teach your students is how to ask questions.  To be effective at reading a text—any text: a story, a poem, a graph, a painting, an opera—you need to be able to ask good questions.

As The Literacy Cookbook explains, questioning is an essential step in the comprehension process.[1]  Let’s review how it works:

(NOTE: This image is also available on the TLC “Comprehension 101” page.)

You start out with a text: say, “The man fell down.”  You use your background knowledge to paraphrase the text: “He collapsed.”  Again, using your background knowledge, you then ask the most logical question you can think of, in this case: “Why did he fall down?”  The problem is that some of our students would ask, “What color shirt was he wearing?”  This is why it’s such a problem when you can’t ask good questions: If you don’t ask a logical question, you won’t arrive at a logical inference.  In fact, you will keep searching for the answer to the illogical question you raised, and when you don’t find it, you will probably become confused and frustrated.

Students struggle with asking questions for several key reasons.  First, they typically have very little practice.  Parents need to understand that when their children ask “Why?” incessantly, they are not trying to be obnoxious, they are simply trying to understand the world.  So, as much as it might tax your patience, it’s really important not only to answer that question (over and over) but also to encourage your child to ask it…and others.

Another reason students don’t have much practice in asking questions is that teachers tend to see it as their job to ask the questions.  Maybe it’s because of their job title.  “Teacher” suggests that you are teaching, and some people interpret this to mean: “I need to teach; I need to be the one doing something.”  So they talk a lot.  They tend to view students as partially-empty vessels who need to be filled up.  At some point, someone (probably a supervisor) will point out, “Maybe you shouldn’t talk so much.  Maybe you should give the kids a chance to do more of the work.  How about asking them more questions?”  More effective teachers, instead of just talkingtalkingtalking, ask questions to engage students and check for understanding.

Now, asking questions is necessary and helpful, but it’s not the same thing as modeling how to ask questions and giving students lots of practice in asking questions.  So while the teachers who ask questions are more effective than the ones who don’t, they’re still not teaching the skill students need in order to be good readers.

Another big reason students don’t ask questions is because we live in a culture where there is a widespread misconception that “if you ask questions, you don’t understand, and therefore you must be stupid.”  Students are not stupid; they get this.  They don’t want to look stupid, so they don’t ask questions.

So, we need to flip the script.  We need to teach students the value of asking questions.  We need to teach them that good readers ask questions constantly and that asking questions helps you figure things out and become smarter.

OK, so how do we get students to ask logical questions about texts?

We can’t do it if we are always the ones asking the questions.  So we need to train them to ask the questions.  Questioning the text needs to become their habit.

The good news is: It isn’t complicated.  I mean, it’s challenging (mainly because for most students it’s a new skill), but it’s not complicated.  The tool you need is simple.  It looks like this:


I know what you’re thinking: That’s it?  Yep.  That’s it.  Using this simple tool—modeling how to use it as you read a text—you can train students to become more effective readers.

Following is a model based on the first page of The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.[2]  I like this text because it is super-captivating and the vocabulary is not too challenging, so students don’t get stuck asking literal comprehension questions (“What does this mean?”) and can instead focus on inference questions.

Who/What is a “lightning thief”?  Why/How would someone steal lightning It’s probably either the narrator or someone in conflict with the narrator. BK (Background Knowledge): When a book title refers to a person, usually that person is either the protagonist or the antagonist.
How/Why does one “vaporize” another person? It doesn’t sound good, but it does sound like the narrator has a sense of humor. “Accidentally” vaporizing someone sounds like an extreme thing to do by accident, and it sounds a little funny.
What is a “half-blood”?  Why didn’t the narrator want to be one? A half-blood is probably half-human and half-something else.  Maybe he doesn’t want to be one because he doesn’t feel comfortable being “different.” BK (Background Knowledge): In the Harry Potter books, some characters are half-wizard, half-human, and there is a “half-blood prince.”  Also, students often want to feel like they belong; they don’t want to stand out.
Why would someone’s parents lie about their child being a half-blood?  It sounds like being a half-blood is not normal and is somehow bad.  When the narrator advises, “Try to lead a normal life” (p. 1), it suggests that being a half-blood is not normal.  Also, BK: parents sometimes lie to their children to protect them from hurtful information.
Why/How would someone kill a half-blood?  Probably some people hate half-bloods for not being “pure.”  BK: Throughout history, people have been discriminated against and killed for being different (e.g., Civil Rights, Holocaust).
What happened?  Is this someone’s diary?  It sounds like something bad happened, and this is someone’s diary. The narrator says, “If you’re reading this,” meaning this text and since it’s told in first-person, it could be a diary, and the line “I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened” suggests that something definitely did happen (p. 1).
Who are “they”?  Why will they come for you?  What will they do?  I don’t know who “they” are, but they must not like half-bloods and must want to kill them.  Based on prior knowledge (such as the line “Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways”), it sounds like “they” are evil and will try to kill you if you are a half-blood (p. 1).
Why/How is Percy “troubled”?  Why is he no longer at Yancy Academy?  I think he was kicked out for vaporizing his pre-Algebra teacher. It says, “Until a few months ago, I was a boarding student at Yancy Academy,” meaning he’s not there anymore, and the chapter title could explain why he got kicked out (p. 1).

Here are some tips about this technique:

  • Ask mostly “How?” and “Why?” questions because these lead most directly to inferences.  When students ask other questions, see if they can reframe them into “How?” or “Why?” questions.  For example, if someone asked, “What kinds of things do parents lie about?” I would see if the student could change it to “Why do parents lie?”
  • Complete the organizer from left to right.  As you’re going through the lesson, try to generate inferences in response to questions immediately; don’t wait until students have brainstormed 20 questions before you ask for their inferences.  We want them to see how questions lead directly to inferences.  Also, if you ask all of the questions first then go back and try to figure out inferences after you’ve read the whole text, students will become very confused.  The comprehension process demands that you try to draw inferences immediately when you ask a question.
  • You can’t record an inference without providing evidence and explanation.  That’s the rule.  An “inference” without evidence or explanation is merely a guess.  For example, if I were sitting in a classroom in New Orleans and said, “It’s probably going to snow here tomorrow,” people would look at me funny.  Because there’s no evidence for that.  It’s just a random, wild statement that I cannot support.  On the other hand, if I planned to bring a snow-making machine to school the next day, then I could make that inference.
  • In the “Inferences” column, use words such as “maybe” and “probably” because these are inferences/arguments, not facts.  When modeling, be sure to explain to students that we are using these words to signal a level of uncertainty and the need for evidence and explanation to support our ideas.
  • Make sure students provide explanations, not just evidence.  When students write, they often shovel evidence into paragraphs like coal into a furnace.  Then they don’t explain it, and we can’t tell how the “evidence” supports their argument.  Sometimes it’s our fault: I’ve seen teachers use acronyms for writing steps that did not include the word “explain.”  You get what you ask for, so make sure to explain why students need to explain, then teach them how to do it and hold them accountable for doing it.
  • Keep the questions neatly aligned in a “row” with their inferences and evidence/explanation.  You might want to modify the organizer to give students well-spaced boxes to keep their work neat and easy to read (PS: It’s a table in a Word document; just insert rows).  It’s also a good idea to give students a model with a row or two completed, to set up the “I Do, We Do, You Do” approach on the handout.
  • It’s fine if some questions remain unanswered.  In fact, it’s a great opportunity to point out that “probably 90 percent of the questions you ask about a text will eventually be answered if you keep reading.”  That’s pretty cool, right?  As a practical matter, students can put a circle in the margin next to unanswered questions and add check marks in the circles when they find the answers.
  • It’s important to cite page numbers even if the sources all come from the same page because you will probably use this organizer at various points in the text, not just on Page One.  While this activity can work well with the first page of any text—because that’s often when students have the most questions and because the goal is to stimulate their curiosity so they will want to read more—you should also use this approach when you want students to slow down and pay more attention to a particular section of the text.  Later, when they sit down to write something about the text, they will want to know where to find the evidence that supports their ideas!

[1] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 8-10.

[2] Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief (New York: Disney-Hyperion Books, 2005).

Posted in Close Reading, Comprehension, Evidence, Explanation, Inference, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Questioning, Reading, Reading Informational Text, Reading Literature, Resources, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, TLC Website Resources | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment