WOOHOO!!!!  It’s HERE!  Click HERE to order your copy now!LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE

Posted in Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Resources | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Common Core Standards for Language: FREE GRAMMAR DIAGNOSTIC TOOL!

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREMany of my clients these days are writing/revising curriculum, and it occurred to me that they could use a Grammar Diagnostic Tool. It would be nice if all of our students arrived performing at grade-level when it comes to grammar, but that is simply not happening yet. The Common Core Standards for Language are rigorous (How is your 3rd-grader with producing simple, compound, and complex sentences? Can s/he pick an abstract noun out of a lineup?), and as a result, many students suffer from Grammar Gaps. But where are they, exactly, on the trajectory for the Language Standards?

I asked around but could not find an appropriate Common Core Grammar Diagnostic Tool. So I made my own.

This Tool targets grades 3-5, where the most fundamental skills are addressed. It includes a separate spreadsheet for each grade, listing the Language Standards that specifically deal with grammar (there are some for spelling), offering either sample assessment questions or suggestions about how to create those questions, and including resources for teaching or assessing these standards. Most of the resources are Web-based, but I’ve also referred to pages from Jeff Anderson’s MECHANICALLY INCLINED, my favorite book of all time for integrating grammar with writing instruction.

This Tool will enable you to create customized Grammar Pre-tests for your students. I recommend assessing students on standards two grades below where they should be, as well as the grade they are supposed to be on, so you can easily identify their needs.

Teachers: I suspect you will need to devote time to filling in Grammar Gaps in your first two units (or so), then you can spend the remaining four units addressing the grammar standards for your grade level.

Here’s a snippet of the 3rd-grade spreadsheet:

Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs,

adjectives, and adverbs in general and their

functions in particular sentences.

L.3.1a OPTIONS: 1) Matching with definitions. 2) Given a sentence with a HIGHLIGHTED word, tell what part of speech it is. 3) Label (diagram) sentences.
Form and use regular and irregular plural nouns. L.3.1b


Sample questions: 1) There are 25 childs/children in this class. 2) How many mans/men live in this town?
Use abstract nouns (e.g., childhood). L.3.1c


See the “Abstract Nouns Quiz” here:
Form and use regular and irregular verbs. L.3.1d


Sample questions: 1) We begun/began to work on the test. 2) I have wrote/written a story. 3) They had went/gone to the library several times before. MECHANICALLY INCLINED by Jeff Anderson, page 174, for “25 Irregular Verbs to Know.”

Click on this Grammar Diagnostic Tool, Grades 3-5 to download the entire Tool, which is also available on the TLC “Grammar” page.

For additional useful tools like this one, please check out The Literacy Cookbook Website, The Literacy Cookbook, and my forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action, which will be out in early August (available for pre-order now!). I hope this is of use to y’all. If you have any comments or suggestions for improvement, please Email me at


Posted in Assessment(s), Curriculum, ELA Common Core Standards, Grammar, Resources, TLC Website Resources, Trajectory Analysis, Unit-planning | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment


The Literacy Cookbook COVERVerbal Workout ( is a tremendous resource, particularly for high school teachers (and parents) who want to help students strengthen their vocabulary.

It includes key vocabulary words (esp. SAT words) from many, many commonly-read texts and provides lists (sortable in various ways, such as by chapter or frequency) and quizzes.  Moreover, it’s a great source to see lists of commonly-read texts, esp. if you are writing/revising curriculum:

–  Books Most Commonly Assigned in the 2011-12 HS Year According to a Renaissance Learning Survey

–  Books Most Commonly Read by High School Students (via Accelerated Reader)

–  Books Most Cited by AP Literature Open Response Questions Since 2000

–  College Board’s 101 Great Books Recommended for College-Bound Readers

I recommend viewing the two brief (2-4 min.) video tutorials so you can see how to gain maximum benefit from this resource.  Then you’ll be on your way!

PS–I added this link to the following TLC pages: Building Robust Vocabulary, ACT Prep, AP Prep, and SAT/SSAT Prep.

Many thanks to Jamie Sterlacci at Great Oaks Charter High School in Newark for this lead!

Posted in Curriculum, Resources, Test Prep, Text Selection, TLC Website Resources, Vocabulary, Vocabulary in Context | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment


LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[This post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass), which is scheduled for release in August, 2014 and available for pre-0rder now!  This post appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on May 13, 2014.]

Topic-Driven Assignments vs. Question-Driven Assignments

One day when I sat down with a high school English teacher who was revising her curriculum, she presented this problem: “Last year, the research paper took forever. And the results were terrible. I can’t go through that again. We need to do something different.”

Of course, cutting the research paper was not an option. So we tried to figure out what hadn’t worked.

“What was the assignment?” I asked.

“They had to write about a controversial topic,” she said. “And a bunch of them wrote about abortion, of course. Some of them wrote about drugs.” She shrugged. “Even though I collected their notes and outlines, their papers just made no sense.”

I nodded. I had been in her shoes and knew exactly how she felt. Awful.

We identified two primary causes of this problem: 1) The choice of topics—in fact, the assignment itself—was too broad, and 2) Students didn’t know how to build a coherent argument in part because they didn’t know how to pull out relevant evidence and explain it.

In a moment I’ll explain how we addressed these two issues. This scenario is, unfortunately, far too common. Because teachers know that giving students choices can strengthen their investment and interest in assignments, they often make the mistake of offering too many options or options that are too broad. “Write about whatever you want” (more or less the equivalent of “Write about a controversial topic”) almost never results in a well-argued, well-supported research paper. With a topic as the focus, in fact, students fail to realize that they need to build an argument. Topic-driven assignments tend to produce reports, which are little more than elaborated lists or descriptions. Moreover, the drive to accumulate information often leads students (whether purposefully or not) to plagiarize. And when every student is writing about a different topic, it’s impossible for the teacher to stay on top of how well they are all handling the material.

By contrast, question-driven assignments push students to build arguments in response. The difference is stark. Compare two papers: one called “Euthanasia,” the other “Why Is Euthanasia Controversial?” The former could say almost anything; the latter already has a clear focus.

The teacher I was working with decided to design a question-driven assignment, and in order to ensure that her students developed the reading and writing skills they needed, she also decided to limit the texts they would use so that she could do lots of modeling and closely monitor their progress. In short, she planned to use the DBQ approach….

How and Why to Take the Document-Based Question (DBQ) Approach

Though originally the purview of history and social studies teachers (they were first used on AP History exams and New York State Regents social studies exams), DBQs have begun to appear more widely across the curriculum. In fact, more and more teachers have started to realize that DBQs can prepare students in any grade or subject to be more effective at reading texts and writing about them.

The DBQ approach is simple: you give students an open-ended question and a half-dozen or so relevant texts, then require them to build an argument using the documents as evidence. It’s easier than a research paper because students don’t have to look for the documents. More importantly, it gives you a way to guide and monitor students’ progress since everyone is working with the same texts. You can and should model each step, from how to closely analyze different types of texts (essays, political cartoons, graphs, charts: anything!) to how to identify relevant evidence, how to organize ideas and information, and how to synthesize evidence and explanations logically to build compelling arguments.

By using an array of texts, you can also work on increasing text complexity.  As Bambrick-Santoyo, Settles, and Worrell note, you can “embrace the CCSS’s ‘ladder of text complexity’” by beginning with a simple passage on a topic to introduce key words, then move into a more complex passage that requires the same content knowledge but also adds new language.[1] This concept of starting with essential vocabulary and increasing complexity from text to text is important to apply throughout your instruction, of course, but it is particularly easy to see how it can work with the DBQ approach, where students read multiple texts that address the same question.

You can also differentiate DBQ projects in various ways. For example, you could group students based on their reading levels and supply them with relevant texts of different complexity (recognizing that while they might start in different places, they all need to move forward) so that they all have something to read independently, in addition to the shared texts that are on grade-level. Several middle school teachers I worked with did just that. They identified different-leveled texts about African-American historical figures (such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson), taught students a common set of vocabulary (“compromise, stereotype, protest, boycott, prejudice,” and so on), modeled reading and writing strategies with an anchor text about Harriet Tubman, and created reading guides that included both generic questions (such as, “How did your historical figure’s childhood experiences contribute to his/her work later in life?”) and questions targeted to their assigned books. The reading and vocabulary-building work led to the ultimate writing assignment, which was an essay addressing these questions: “What were your historical figure’s greatest contributions to the Civil Rights Movement? In what ways did your historical figure show grit and determination?” Students also worked in groups to create timelines and posters, and participated in debates. PS: I’m not going to lie: creating this project was a ton of work for the teachers, but once it was done, they could use it again because it worked wonderfully.

If you want to add a research component to a DBQ, you can also teach some mini-lessons on research steps (such as evaluating Websites for bias, and so on) and require students to find some number of additional documents to support the ones already given.

Here’s the bottom line: taking the DBQ approach—in any grade or subject—can ensure that students learn how to read and write effectively about important questions in your class.

[1] Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, Aja Settles, and Juliana Worrell, Great Habits, Great Readers: A Practical Guide for K-4 Reading in the Light of Common Core (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 15.

Posted in Argument, DBQ Approach, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Explanation, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, 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 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!

Posted in Assessment(s), PARCC, Resources | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


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