How to Pace PARCC Writing Preparation

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORERegardless of how one might feel about the PARCC assessments, they are a reality many of us must confront. To this end, I have some suggestions for how to prepare students efficiently and effectively for the PARCC ELA writing tasks.

“How should we pace the work?” many teachers ask. Test prep should not involve cramming or panic. Nor should it be the primary focus of one’s curriculum, 24/7. Like poetry or short stories, tests are a genre. Students need to be taught how to “read” that genre, and then move on. It does not take forever, for example, to teach students 1) how and why to use process of elimination or 2) how and why to go back into the text to read the sentences before and after “vocabulary in context” words whose meanings they must ascertain.

Preparing students for the PARCC writing tasks requires more time than those quick reminders, but it can be baked into normal reading and writing instruction. English teachers typically begin the year with a focus on narrative reading and writing, then move into literary analysis writing. So it makes sense for them to own the corresponding PARCC writing tasks, as well. But English teachers should not have to carry everything. I strongly recommend that social studies and science teachers own the Research Simulation Task because it mimics the kind of reading and document-based question writing that students typically do in their classes.

Here are some fundamentals for planning units and lessons:

  1. Begin with close reading of texts in the genre. Identify key elements of the genre and analyze texts. The beauty of this approach is that we would do it even if PARCC did not exist.

With the PARCC Narrative Writing Task in mind, read stories/narratives and pull out key elements such as characters, plot, conflict, setting, etc. This work is also useful for the Literary Analysis Task, which involves not one but two pieces of literature. Model how to analyze and explain what the writer is trying to convey. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How does the plot work?
  • How does the writer reveal characters’ motivations?
  • Why did the writer choose this particular setting?
  • What messages/themes is the writer trying to convey? [For tips, see my TLC Blog post on “How to Infer Themes.”]

For the Research Simulation Task, students should analyze nonfiction texts using social studies and science content that you planned to teach anyway. Begin with strategies for analyzing ONE text before you ask students to compare or synthesize multiple texts.

Here are some scaffolding steps to keep in mind:

  • Review Argument vs. Evidence Steps 1-3 to ensure that students can identify the argument(s) in texts and can explain how evidence and explanation are used to support that argument.
Step 1. Given a list of statements, distinguish the arguments from examples of evidence.
Step 2. Given a list of statements, identify arguments and their relevant evidence.
Step 3. Given arguments, support them with your own relevant evidence and explanation.
  • Students must also master Step 4 in order to write their own paragraphs and essays in which they build arguments and support them with robust, relevant evidence and explanation.
Step 4. Given questions, answer them with arguments and relevant evidence and explanation.
  1. Students write UNTIMED examples of the genre. Use the writing process (brainstorm/outline, draft, revise, edit, publish) to create narratives/stories or paragraphs/essays, depending on which genre you are studying. Note: These assignments do not have to be text-responsive. In other words, students can write narratives/stories they have made up out of their heads; they do not have to “extend the story” or “rewrite the story from another point of view” the way they do on the PARCC tests.
  1. Read and analyze PARCC-released models of the genre you’ve been studying and evaluate them with the PARCC Writing Rubric.
  • Discuss: What does it take to write effective responses on the PARCC?
  • Analyze the writing prompt(s) and practice unpacking prompts. Students who cannot turn the prompt into a question might answer the wrong question, resulting in a zero. For more information on unpacking the Literary Analysis and Research Writing prompts, click HERE.
  1. Practice pre-writing steps and UNTIMED writing of PARCC tasks. For more advice on how to teach all three genres of PARCC writing, see my TLC Blog “PARCC Prep Writing Task Care Packages.”
  1. Practice TIMED (and typed) writing of PARCC-like tasks.

For materials that support the creation of such tasks, click HERE.

Bottom line: The main difference between PARCC writing and our “regular” writing assignments is that the PARCC writing is TIMED. So let’s do what we normally do, but also make sure that students are comfortable with what the PARCC expects.

Posted in Argument, Assessment(s), Curriculum, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Explanation, Genre, Lesson-planning, Literary Analysis Writing, MiddleWeb, Narrative Writing, Paragraph writing, PARCC, Research Writing, Resources, Skimming, Test Prep, Themes, TLC Website Resources, Unit-planning, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PARAPHRASING: Step One in the Comprehension Process

[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on August 16, 2016.]

If you are trying to decide what to teach in the first few weeks of school, I have some advice: No matter what grade or subject you teach, make sure your students know how to paraphrase.

Paraphrasing is the first step on what I like to call The Comprehension Process Staircase.[1]

Climbing the Comprehension Process Stairs


As this chart indicates, when we’re given a sentence to read, we use our prior knowledge to put that sentence into our own words. For example, if you read, “The man fell down,” you might (very quickly, and without even realizing you’re doing it) turn that into, “He collapsed.” Incidentally, some people think paraphrasing means “simplifying.” It does not. It means “putting something into your own words,” and ideally that means using strong vocabulary. I opted for “collapsed” in this case because at least it was multi-syllabic.

Whether you teach ELA, social studies, science, or even math, your students must be able to paraphrase in order to comprehend the text(s) you place in front of them. If they can’t paraphrase, they will not be able to ask questions about the text or draw inferences from it. And if they can’t draw inferences, they will never arrive at the main idea/argument, which derives from an accumulation of inferences. (For more information on questioning and how it drives inference, see my earlier MiddleWeb post, “The #1 Close Reading Skill.”)

Now, given how important this skill is, it’s stunning how few people actually teach their students how to paraphrase. I think part of the problem is that we assume that humans paraphrase naturally.  And indeed, there is some truth to that.  As we learn new words, we learn how they work together, and we learn how to unpack them when they are combined.  Our instinct is always to try to make sense of what we encounter.

But paraphrasing is not as simple as it might seem.  In fact, it requires us to perform three distinct operations:

  • Unpack vocabulary (attack roots; use prior knowledge and context clues).
  • Unpack syntax and grammar (unpack clauses and phrases; pay attention to punctuation).
  • Draw inferences from idioms.

The Literacy Cookbook provides more detail on how to teach each of these operations.

For now, let’s look at how you can train students how to paraphrase STRATEGICALLY. One reason that students struggle with paraphrasing is that they are unsure which words to CHANGE vs. which to KEEP.  They need a strategy for how to make these decisions.

Here’s one that works—again, no matter what grade or subject you teach:

STEP 1. CIRCLE or BRACKET the words or phrases that you CANNOT or don’t want to change. These words/phrases are crucial to the meaning of the passage and should not be changed because doing so would change that meaning.  MNEMONIC HINT: Help students remember what to circle by telling them to “wrap the words you want to keep in protective bubble wrap” and pretend to hug something precious. (PS: I like to introduce this strategy with a discussion about moving, packing, and more specifically, wrapping fragile items.)  The words you want to keep or “protect” might include:

▪   Proper nouns (unless they can be replaced by something that does not change their meaning, such as “Obama”= “the President”)

▪   Statistics/specific information

▪   Words that are unique or difficult to find a synonym for

STEP 2: UNDERLINE the words or phrases that you know you CAN change.

That’s it.  Here’s an example, using a random sentence from the NY Times:

ORIGINAL: [Jimi Hendrix’s jacket], along with a mesmerizing hoard [of trinkets from rock’s] glory days, [were] stuffed haphazardly into every corner of the shop [until last fall, when rent increases] forced the store to close.

PARAPHRASED: Jimi Hendrix’s jacket and a fascinating collection of trinkets from rock’s heyday were jammed randomly throughout the store until last fall, when rent increases made the owner shut down the business.

 For more examples, check out this free download How to Paraphrase-MS practice (which I’ve actually used with grades 3-11), also found on the TLC Website “Comprehension 101” page.

[1] This chart first appeared on the TLC Website “Comprehension 101” page.

Posted in Close Reading, Comprehension, Curriculum, ELA Common Core Standards, MiddleWeb, Paraphrasing, Reading, Reading Informational Text, Reading Literature, Resources, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, TLC Website Resources | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For my AP Language and Composition Friends: SOAPSTONE Organizer

I’m spending this week trying to learn more about AP tests (at a conference organized by KIPP, thanks!), and in the AP Language and Composition section, we had a fascinating discussion about the use of SOAPSTONE, an acronym for a type of textual analysis. Some people liked the template we were given, some didn’t. I decided to design my own. Regular readers of this blog will notice that it bears some resemblance to the QIEE Organizer (Question-Inference-Evidence & Explanation), a close reading tool which I have blogged about here.

Here is my version: SOAPSTONE Organizer 7-5-16.*  I am open to suggestions for how to improve it or complement it. Please feel free to comment!


Questions Evidence and Explanation

·       What does s/he value, and how can you tell?

·       What can you infer about the speaker?



·       What situation/event caused this text to be written?



·       To whom is the author writing, and how can you tell?

·       What can you infer about the audience’s values/beliefs?



·       What is the author’s goal/reason for writing? Be specific.

·       What is his/her argument?


·       What is the topic of this text?


·       What is the author’s attitude toward the subject, and how can you tell?

·       How do the diction and imagery point to tone?


*This file can also be found on the TLC Website “Analyzing Literature” page.

PS: I also want to send a shout-out to my friends at Great Oaks for inviting me to this useful professional development opportunity!

Posted in Annotation, AP Language and Composition, Close Reading, Comprehension, Evidence, Explanation, Inference, Reading, Reading Informational Text, Resources, Test Prep, TLC Website Resources | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Teach Students to Write Strong Paragraphs

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on April 12, 2016.]

Lately I have become obsessed with the beauty and utility of paragraph responses.

When students are struggling to write clear, coherent essays or aren’t explaining their evidence enough, often what it boils down to is this: they need help in writing stronger paragraphs. Whether you are preparing them for writing on standardized tests, trying to strengthen their fundamental writing skills, or looking for a more meaningful way to assess their reading comprehension, teaching students how to build clear, coherent paragraphs is a good use of everyone’s time.

In previous blogs (most recently here), I’ve discussed six basic steps that move students from “What’s the difference between arguments and evidence?” to “How can I write an effective research paper?” To write an effective paragraph, students need to master the first three steps:

  1. Given a list of statements, distinguish the arguments from examples of evidence. If you can’t tell the difference between “argument” and “evidence,” how can you create an argument? How can you write an effective topic sentence? Without that, you won’t really have a paragraph. Just a list.
  2. Given a list of statements, identify arguments and their relevant evidence. If you can’t find relevant evidence, your “evidence” might not prove your argument and might even disprove it. You could end up proving the opposite of what you intended. (For more on how to teach this step and “Step 2.5,” see here and here.)
  3. Given arguments, support them with your own relevant evidence and explanation. If you can’t explain how your evidence supports your argument, readers will not be able to follow your “logic.” Your paragraph will lack clarity and coherence.

Today we’ll zero in on Step 3. But before we dive fully into paragraph writing, we need to explain why explanation is necessary.  Conceptually, students can understand this idea if you provide an example they can relate to. I like to demonstrate with what I call the “Mean Mom” skit. A colleague plays my “Mean Mom,” and the dialogue goes something like this:


Me: Mom, can I go to the movies this weekend?

Mean Mom: No.

Me: But I did all of my chores this week!

Mean Mom: So? You’re supposed to do that.

Here I pause for a meta-moment, to point out that I’ve given her facts and she is not convinced. Let me try a different approach…

Me: Doing my chores shows how responsible I am, and if you let me go to the movies, you know I will represent the family well; also, by doing my chores, I earned my allowance so I can pay for my own ticket!

Mean Mom: Hmmn….

Me: Plus, my friend Sally says if I’m allowed to go, her mom will pick me up and bring me home, so you can have a free night on Saturday!

Mean Mom: What’s Sally’s mom’s number?

I then review what happened: When I offered facts, she was not convinced. When I explained the facts, I won her over. It’s important to add the caveat that just because you explain your ideas, it doesn’t mean you will always get what you want. But you will have a much better chance of persuading your audience if you do.

This skit makes a great mnemonic device, by the way. Weeks later, if you walk past a student who is writing and say, “Oh, so you don’t want to go to the movies this weekend?” that student will know what you mean: You’re not explaining enough.

We can then move on to the “paragraph response” approach, which is simply this: give students topic sentences about whatever they’re reading—a chapter from a novel, an article to build content knowledge, or something else—and they must write the rest of the paragraph, including well-explained evidence. The topic sentence provides a lens through which to read the text, and it guides their annotation.

As with any other skill you’re trying to build, it’s crucial to model it. Here is a sample[1]:

Name________________________Date_________CHAPTER 1

Lord of the Flies Paragraph Responses

DIRECTIONS: For EACH TOPIC SENTENCE given, write a paragraph proving it, citing at least two direct quotes from the chapter. Each paragraph must be 7-10 sentences long (including the topic sentence). Be sure to cite the page numbers properly. See the model. Attach looseleaf if needed. Be sure to read the whole chapter before writing a paragraph.


In the beginning of the story, Kenny’s mother makes it clear that she does not respect his friend Harry. When Harry shows up to invite Kenny to his party, Kenny’s mother is “furious” that Harry is in her house (82). She follows Kenny into his room to tell him why he should not be hanging around with such “basura” (82). She says that Harry acts like “the devil, tempting innocent barrio girls and boys with free drugs and easy living until they [are] hooked” (82). She goes on and on about how Harry’s behavior is wrong.   She says that people who follow Harry “pay the price” (82). She is clearly worried about how Kenny’s friends will influence him.[2]

1. In Chapter 1, Piggy, Ralph, and Jack demonstrate leadership in different ways.

In addition to modeling proper MLA format, the example demonstrates how to incorporate quotes seamlessly into an explanation. While it’s important to teach students how to provide sufficient context and explanation for evidence with “quote sandwiches” (explained here and here), we should also push them to write more efficiently. Partial quotes can improve the flow of their writing.

What I love best about the paragraph response approach is that it offers an elegant way for students to practice analytic reading and writing skills at the same time. And PS, it’s quick and easy to grade with this simple scoring checklist:


___/2: Clarity

___/2: Context (for both quotes)

___/2: Evidence (2 quotes, either verbatim or paraphrased)

___/2: Explanation (for both quotes)

___/2: Length (7-10 sentences incl. the topic sentence)


[1] For a complete set of paragraph response handouts for Lord of the Flies (by William Golding), click on LORD OF THE FLIES Paragraph Assignments.

[2] This paragraph cites from An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio by Judith Ortiz Cofer (New York: Scholastic, 1995).

Posted in Argument, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Explanation, Paragraph writing, Resources, TLC Website Resources, Topic Sentences, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PARCC ELA Prep Checklist

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREAs a former high school English teacher who loves literature and loves to write, I do not believe in doing test prep 24/7. I believe tests are a genre, the same way that drama is a genre and poetry is a genre, etc.—and we should prepare students for them in the same way that we prepare them to analyze a play or write a poem: figure out the key features of the genre, teach students what is required to do well in working with that genre, then give them sufficient practice so that they can confidently tackle that genre in the future.

In the home stretch of PARCC test preparation, here’s a quick diagnostic tool you can use to determine if your students have a clear grasp of some essential strategies that will help them succeed with this genre.

Below is the “student” version. This PARCC ELA PREP CHECKLIST (a free download) includes both the student copy and a suggested answer key.



Directions: For each question, on a scale of 1-10 (1=not confident, 10=very confident), FIRST rate how confident you feel about how to respond. THEN, jot some notes in response. We will discuss each item. AFTER our discussion, rate how confident you feel.  See the model.

QUESTION NOTES How confident you feel



How confident you feel



What should you do FIRST when you start a PARCC ELA test? Click forward to the writing prompt, turn the prompt into a question, and write that question on your blank sheet of paper so that you can take notes with that question in mind. 1 10
How do you unpack a Literary Analysis or Research Simulation Task writing prompt and turn it into a question?      
How much time should you spend on 1) reading and taking notes, 2) answering multiple-choice questions, and 3) writing your narrative or essay?      
How/Why can taking notes actually SAVE you time?      
What are some useful test-taking strategies for answering multiple-choice questions?      
What kind of organizer should you create for taking notes on the Literary Analysis Writing Task? What should the notes focus on?      
Why should you put checkmarks next to items in your organizer for the Literary Analysis/Research Simulation Writing Task?      
What is the basic outline structure for a Literary Analysis compare and contrast essay? (2 options)      
What kind of organizer should you create for taking notes on the Research Simulation Writing Task? What should the notes focus on?      
What is the basic outline structure for a Research Simulation compare and contrast essay? (2 options)      
What two things might the Narrative Writing Task ask you to do (after you read the passage)?      
Why is important to pay attention to “DDAT” and “Somebody Wanted But So” when pre-writing for the Narrative Writing Task?      
On the Narrative Writing Task, what kinds of compositional risks should you use?      
The box you’re supposed to type in looks really small.   Does that mean you should only write two sentences?      
What should you be sure to do before time expires, and why?      

For more information on PARCC, see the TLC “PARCC Prep” page.

PS: Please feel free to comment (or Email me at if you have any questions, thoughts, or suggestions!

PPS: Thanks to Anibal Garcia at Queen City Academy CS for inspiring this post, and thanks to Dominy Alderman at HoLa CS for her input.

Posted in Assessment(s), Compare and Contrast, Genre, Literary Analysis Writing, Narrative Writing, Organizing an Essay, PARCC, Research Writing, Resources, Test Prep, TLC Website Resources | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

MATCH MINIS: A Great Secret Resource!

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIf you’re like me and you receive way too much Email, sometimes you miss important stuff. Or you notice something you want to read “later,” and four months pass before you actually read it. Today I finally opened a November 3 Email from Orin Gutlerner at MATCH Education that—I’m not gonna lie—rocked my world.

For those who may not know, MATCH began as a charter high school in Boston and has expanded to include a K-12 school for kids, a graduate school of education for novice teachers, and a new college and jobs program for young adults.

One of MATCH Education’s latest innovations is a Web-based series called Match Minis, which are “bite-sized, 3-5 minute animated videos that summarize sound practices and ideas that have surfaced from [their] work over the years.”

Orin notes: “Initially, we have cooked up a batch of Minis for use by teachers and school leaders. They cover grainy teacher moves (e.g. how to execute a “turn and talk”) and effective approaches to teacher coaching (e.g. how to set up a professional development session that actually works). Over time, and assuming more than five people actually use our website, we will crank out a lot of Minis on all manner of topics, including school operations, school culture, policy reform. For now, please have a look. And send blunt feedback.”

I just previewed the video on “turn and talk,” and it’s quick, witty, and exactly what you need to know.

Tell your friends!

Posted in Professional Development, Resources | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Tools to Help Writers Explain Good Evidence (Part II)

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[This post, written with Jamison Fort, originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on March 15, 2016.]

In Part I of this mini-series, we looked at how to help students rule out ineffective evidence when they are attempting to build arguments. The flip side of this work is to help them find the best evidence.

To give students more practice in finding relevant evidence on their own and explaining it, my friend Jamison Fort, who teaches 6th and 7th grade history, created the following organizer for students to analyze one text[1] that has multiple claims (Note: We use “claim” and “argument” interchangeably):

Directions: Find a quote that BEST supports the claim presented and clearly explain how/why your quote BEST supports the claim.

The claims Find quotes from the text to support the claims. Clearly explain how/why your quote supports the claim.

“Habeas Corpus” is going to be the basis for future animal freedom cases.


Quote: “Sandra’s case will likely energize other legal efforts for other animals—in particular, 17 chimpanzees in zoos throughout Argentina. ‘Considering that they are very close to human primates, it is an absurdity that they are still in captivity in prison.’” Explanation: This quote supports the claim because it points out that this case will encourage other cases with similar circumstances. Also, it is already offering an example with chimpanzees, using language like “primates… in prison.”
Claim 1:

Sandra’s case was likely to succeed because orangutans are similar to humans.

Quote: Explanation:
Claim 2:

Zoos are basically jails that hold prisoners that have done no crime.

Quote: Explanation:
Claim 3:

Clearly, Argentinian courts are more receptive to non-human rights than the United States courts are.

Quote: Explanation:


The day after this exercise, Jamison explained that the ultimate goal was to make sure that by the end of the next three days, every student would be able to evaluate evidence and choose the strongest possible evidence to support a claim. Then he launched the following lesson:

Do Now: “Explain your mental process of elimination when deciding which is the best possible evidence to support a claim or answer to a question.”

Students pair-shared, then responded to cold-calling. Their answers—that the evidence must be relevant or related to the claim, or must prove a point—showed that they evaluated evidence with single isolated indicators in mind. They had a partial understanding with responses that outlined segments but missed the full process.

To expand their understanding of how to select effective evidence, Jamison turned to this activity: Students paired up and compared and contrasted the quotes they had chosen, then answered the following questions:

“Was your partner’s evidence different from your evidence?
 Ask your partner why they chose what they chose.
 How do you know you have chosen the best possible evidence for a claim?”

Once the pairs finished their responses, students shared out and had a discussion around evaluating the quality of evidence. The discussion prompt was:

“How did we know we had the best evidence with these claims?”

The class scribe recorded the responses onto a brainstorming poster. Jamison then told his students they were only allowed to keep the four most valuable characteristics of effective evidence. His students then decided what could be eliminated or synthesized and what needed to stay. Once four characteristics were determined, Jamison challenged the class to create an evidence evaluation checklist. Here is what they produced:

Evidence Evaluation Checklist:

  1. The evidence is relevant.
  2. The evidence supports the claim.
  3. This evidence is the closest/best possible support to the claim.
  4. This evidence supports my response to the question or task.


As there seemed to be general consensus around this checklist, Jamison decided to provoke students’ thinking further: he presented a blatantly faulty piece of evidence as “the best possible choice.”

Students became highly animated in challenging his assertion, asking him to “explain his logic.”

He told them he didn’t need to explain his logic, adding, “I just know I’m right.”

He could see their frustration; they clearly knew he was wrong but couldn’t express how they knew. This was how he pushed them to use the tool they had just created. He wanted to show rather than tell them of its value. After a moment of this student-teacher standoff, he diverted their attention back to the poster they had just created and asked them again, “Is there no one who can tell me why I am wrong?”

And then the connection was made, that “aha” moment. A girl who had taken up the role of class spokesperson said his answer was wrong because it didn’t meet all the necessary checkpoints: “It was related to the text, but not relevant to your claim.”


Once you’ve helped students grasp the essential characteristics of effective evidence, they can practice analyzing multiple texts, identifying arguments and key evidence. Here is a tool for that:

  Argument 1: [Either provide it or ask students to identify one.] Argument 2: [Either provide it or ask students to identify one.]
Text 1  

[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 1 from Text 1.]



[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 2 from Text 1.]


Text 2  

[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 1 from Text 2.]



[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 2 from Text 2.]


Text 3  

[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 1 from Text 3.]



[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 2 from Text 3.]


After developing some proficiency in evaluating evidence, students can move on to Argument vs. Evidence Step 3: Given arguments, students must support them with their own relevant evidence and explanation. For more information on that step, click HERE.

[1] “Argentine court’s ruling gives basic human rights to captive ape at zoo,” Newsela

Posted in Argument, Evidence, Explanation, MiddleWeb, Reading Informational Text, Research Writing, Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PARCC Prep: “Extending the Story” for PARCC Narrative Writing Task

PARCC Narrative Writing Tasks tend to fall into two camps: 1) write the story from another point of view or 2) extend the story. This is what the second type looks like:

8th ELA:

Today you will read and answer questions on a story about a man seeking to complete an important mission. When you have finished reading and answering questions, you will write a narrative story using details from your reading….THEN: Write a continuation of the story of Bahauddin Shah using details from the passage. Describe what you think might happen after Bahauddin Shah climbs out of the Salt Caverns. What obstacles might he face, and what actions might he take to overcome them?

10th ELA:

Today you will read a passage from a novel. As you read, pay attention to the interactions between the characters so that you can write a narrative story….THEN: After discovering that his wife has gone missing from the bicycle they were sharing, Mr. Harris returns “to where the road broke into four” and seems unable to remember where he has come from. Using what you know about Mr. Harris, write a narrative story that describes how he chooses which road to take and the experiences he has on his return journey. Be sure to use details from the passage in developing your narrative.

When reading the story, students should annotate for the following:

What has happened?

[List 3-5* MAJOR conflicts, decisions, lessons, causes & effects.]

What will characters do, and why?

[Use DDAT to identify characters’ motivations.]






1. X will ______ because DDAT.**

2. Y will ______ because DDAT.

For pre-writing to map out the plot going forward, they can simply use this template:

Somebody Wanted But So





*Note: This work mimics the use of the What Is Important ORGANIZER  from the TLC Website. We want students to identify more than 3 because a typical story will have 3-5, and we don’t want students to limit themselves to 3 and miss others.

**Note: DDAT (also on TLC) is a simple mnemonic device to help readers remember how writers develop characters. Using it when annotating can help students identify characters’ attitudes, beliefs, and motivations. Here is more information on DDAT:

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.)


Many thanks to my friends at Great Oaks Charter High School (Amanda Belden, Kate Piluso, Drew Schuh, and Samantha Ulloa) who contributed to this development of this post.

Posted in Assessment(s), Narrative Writing, PARCC, TLC Website Resources, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments


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Help Student Writers Find the Best Evidence

[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on Feb. 23, 2016.]

No matter what grade or subject you teach, sooner or later you find yourself trying to help students write more clearly and convincingly. In one of my most-read posts for MiddleWeb, written in the early days of the Common Core implementation, I said:

One of the things students struggle with the most — and it’s relevant to every grade and subject — is distinguishing between argument and evidence. This problem manifests itself in both reading and writing… In reading, students often cannot pick topic sentences or thesis arguments out of a lineup; and when writing, they tend to construct paragraphs and essays that lack arguments.

I went on to describe roughly six steps we can use to move students from “What’s the difference between arguments and evidence?” to “How can I write an effective research paper?” That’s such an important journey, and I want to share more thoughts about it, now that we’ve spent some years in “Common Core” classrooms. But first, here’s a quick refresher about those six steps for students:

1. Given a list of statements, distinguish the arguments from examples of evidence.

2. Given a list of statements, identify arguments and their relevant evidence.

3. Given arguments, support them with your own relevant evidence and explanation.

4. Given questions, answer them with arguments and relevant evidence and explanation.

5. Generate your own questions that warrant research and debate.

6. Generate your own questions, then research and build arguments supported with evidence and explanation.

Lately, I’ve been working with teachers on how to help students write more effective paragraphs and essays. We have found that students can quickly master Step 1—applying the three rules for determining if a statement is an argument or not (it includes debatable/arguable words; it includes cause/effect language, or it raises “How” or “Why” questions). But they need more scaffolding to move from Step 2 to Step 3.

We are starting to think there may be a “Step 2.5.”

As noted above, Step 2 requires students to match relevant evidence to arguments. Handing out sentence strips and tape for “Literacy Manipulatives” is one way to practice this. We like to kick it up a notch by including some random arguments and evidence statements that do not support any of the arguments. When students know that not every sentence is connected to another one, they feel some push to look more critically at each sentence.

Step 3 gives students an argument and asks them to support it with relevant evidence and explanation. Breaking this down, it means they need to know what “relevant” means, how to select that evidence, and how and why to explain. It becomes more challenging to select relevant evidence when it appears not as a few isolated sentences but immersed somewhere in a complete text. You have to know what to look for and what to rule out.

Students have a tendency to look simply for words or phrases that seem related, and often their quest for evidence is too superficial, which causes them to select evidence that is not helpful.

As part of the new Step 2.5, therefore, we’re teaching students what to rule out – the ineffective evidence. “Ineffective” evidence manifests one of three problems: 1) it opposes the argument, 2) it’s irrelevant, or 3) it’s true but not as relevant.

Here’s a tool we’re using to teach this point: Argument vs Evidence Step 2.5

Directions: Put a star next to the evidence from the choices below that BEST supports the argument. For each choice, tell why you would or would not use it. THEN write a logical sentence that would follow from your choice, explaining how the evidence supports the argument.

ARGUMENT: Eating too much candy causes stomach aches.

EVIDENCE OPTIONS Would you use this “evidence”? Why/Why not?
1. One time my brother ate 60 KitKats and nothing happened. NO. It opposes the argument.
2. I like Hershey kisses best. NO. It’s irrelevant.
3. My sister collected three bags of candy yesterday. MAYBE: It’s true but not totally relevant. I’d have to explain it.
4. Yesterday I ate 22 Snickers bars and threw up. * YES. It clearly supports the argument.

Next logical sentence: Obviously, I had overdosed on sugar, and my stomach could not hold so much “content.”


Here’s a template for practice (also on the tool available for downloading):

ARGUMENT: [Teacher provides this.] ___________________________________________________________

EVIDENCE OPTIONS Would you use this “evidence”? Why/Why not?
1. [Teacher provides these.] [You should change the order, and in early practice, at least one option should oppose, one should be irrelevant, and one should be true but not totally relevant. In later practice, you can mix/double up the options so that students won’t simply use process of elimination.]






Next logical sentence: [Student completes this.] ______________________________________________________


As noted, the tool above requires students to generate an explanation that follows logically from the “best” evidence they choose. Although one choice might be the strongest, we should remind students that sometimes “perfect” evidence is hard to find and “good enough” evidence can actually work if you support it with sufficient explanation. For example, if I selected #3 above, I might write this follow-up sentence: “Unfortunately, she ate most of it in one sitting and paid the price after that.”

Stay tuned for more thoughts on how to teach “Step 2.5”!

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