PARCC Administration Logistical Tips

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREAs we approach the PARCC Assessment starting line, many schools are conducting dry runs with practice tests to troubleshoot in advance. Based on research and discussions in the field, here are some tips that may be helpful when you administer the real thing.

Per my earlier post which warned about the dysfunctional highlighting feature (i.e., the problem of highlighting not carrying forward from one page to another), the PARCC “customer service” folks claim that they “hope to have this problem solved in time for the actual tests.” In case they don’t, it might be a good idea to direct your students to read and HIGHLIGHT THE FIRST TEXT ONLY ON THE FIRST PAGE, then answer the questions on that page, then click forward to the next page and answer those questions, etc., until they get to the next text, at which point they should do all of the highlighting for that text again ON ONE PAGE. Students can click backwards to the highlighted text to pull out their key ideas for their T-chart (or in the case of Research Writing, “three-chart”) after answering the questions.


  • Students should absolutely be given blank scrap paper on which to take notes and do pre-writing. For field-tested suggestions about how to pre-write for Narrative Writing, Literary Analysis, or Research Writing, check out the TLC “PARCC Prep” page and additional PARCC-related posts on this TLC Blog.
  • Teach students to jot only the first few words of quotes they might use as evidence/explanation instead of wasting time writing full sentences. They can refer back to those first few words and decide if they want to use the whole quote or paraphrase it.
  • For future data analysis, I would also recommend that you direct students to put their name on the scrap paper, collect it, and save it in a file for posterity. When the PARCC results come back, you can compare the results with how effectively students pre-wrote.

Students are not supposed to talk at all while taking the PARCC Assessments. However, they may encounter legitimate technical difficulties and need to alert an adult. I recommend giving them Post-its to use as a signal that they have a technical problem.

If you have any other suggestions to share, please chime in. We are all in this together!


Posted in Assessment(s), Compare and Contrast, Literary Analysis Writing, Narrative Writing, PARCC, Research Writing, Resources, Test Prep, TLC Website Resources, Using Data | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Another Helpful Resource for Finding Appropriate Texts!

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREThere’s a new Website in town to help teachers identify texts: Founder and CEO Michelle S. Brown explains in a MiddleWeb post today that she and 15 other Harvard Ed grad students teamed up to solve a common problem that teachers face: how to find free news articles, poems, or short stories that could be appropriately paired with novels.

Although still in its infancy, this Website offers a promising approach: organizing texts by theme and sorting them further with essential questions and Lexile levels. Teachers developing PARCC prep materials or writing curriculum with essential questions will undoubtedly appreciate the logic of this approach.

Check it out!

PS–if you do not already follow MiddleWeb Smartbrief, now would be a good time to sign up. Though it targets teachers of grades 4-8, many of its resources are relevant to other grades.

Posted in Assessment(s), Curriculum, ELA Common Core Standards, Essential Questions, Grant Wiggins, Lesson-planning, Literary Analysis Writing, MiddleWeb, Nonfiction, Novels, PARCC, Professional Development, Reading, Reading Informational Text, Reading Literature, Research Writing, Resources, Test Prep, Text Selection, Themes, Unit-planning, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

UPCOMING PRESENTATION: “Our Students Are Struggling: Now What?”

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREI am pleased to report that I will present a workshop on “Our Students Are Struggling: Now What?” at the NJ Charter Schools Annual Conference on March 30, 2015 at Bally’s in Atlantic City. For registration details, click here.

Many students are not on grade-level when it comes to literacy. This interactive session demonstrates how to use data, the Common Core Standards, PARCC practice test items, and other helpful resources to bridge these gaps.   Participants will walk away with a systematic approach that they can implement immediately.

OBJECTIVES: We will answer the following key questions in order to strengthen instruction and improve student achievement:

  1. What data do you have? What should you do if the data is not aligned with the CCS?
  2. Once you have CCS proficiency data, what should you do?
  3. How and why should we unpack the CCS?
  4. Once we’ve unpacked the CCS, what should we do?
  5. What will this process probably cause us to do?

If you are not able to attend this conference and would like to see this workshop at your school, please feel free to contact me at

Posted in Analyzing the Common Core Standards, ELA Common Core Standards, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, PARCC, Presentations, Professional Development, Reading Informational Text, Resources, RPM Objectives, Test Prep, TLC Website Resources, Trajectory Analysis, Using Data | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PARCC Technical Glitch: Highlighting Problems #PARCC

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREI just received an Email from a teacher alerting me to a problem with the highlighting functionality on the ELA PARCC Online Practice Test. If you highlight something on one page, when you click forward to the next two questions, you cannot see what you highlighted. Ditto with the note-taking feature.

I confirmed this with a few different grades, then called PARCC to ask if they were aware of the problem. I don’t know if it will happen on the actual assessments, but obviously it might. And in the meantime, it’s a problem for anyone taking the practice tests.

The PARCC “customer service” rep refused to answer my question because I am not “a school or a district.” When I pointed out that I was trying to HELP them, he still would not answer. When I pointed out that he would probably get at least 500 phone calls today because of this, he was unmoved.

Check it out for yourself. If the highlighting that a student does on one page does not carry over, this will make it more challenging for students to capture ideas for their writing.

If you’d like to call them—if you’re “a school or a district”—the number is 888-493-9888. Maybe if they hear from enough people, they will actually solve the problem.

Thanks to Susan Chenelle for the heads up!



Posted in PARCC | Tagged | 5 Comments

Recommended Reading: TEACH LIKE A CHAMPION 2.0

TEACH LIKE A CAHMPION 2.0One impediment to change in any situation or field is that we tend to hesitate to believe in things we haven’t seen with our own eyes. Sometimes when you want to solve a problem, the solution doesn’t exist. But sometimes it does and you just haven’t seen it yet. For example, maybe you still believe achievement gaps aren’t closeable.

To this point, Doug Lemov’s TEACH LIKE A CHAMPION 2.0 makes this argument: “We are not suffering from a lack of solutions so much as our failure to learn from teachers who have generated insight and put their ideas to work.” Achievement gaps are closeable, and this book, a follow-up to his 2010 bestseller, TEACH LIKE A CHAMPION (which I wrote about here), describes 62 techniques that have been demonstrated to help.

This new version is not merely some lightly-ruffled second edition. Doug and his colleagues have spent the past four years vigilantly researching what he calls “champion teachers,” looking for additional clues about what makes them successful. For instance, he has added a whole new section on checking for understanding and how to build a “culture of error”—an environment in which it’s safe to be wrong. As he rightly points out, “If your goal is to find and address the mistakes your students make, your task is far more difficult if your students seek to hide their errors from you.” So he explains how to solve that problem. He has also expanded the original technique called “Ratio” into several chapters that focus on how to strengthen student engagement and rigor (what he calls “participation ratio” and “thinking ratio”)—by building ratio with questioning, writing, and discussions.

Doug addresses many important concerns that teachers have, whether they’ve been in the field for 20 minutes or 20 years. And his writing is crisp, clear, and humble. He knows this is hard work, and he’s doing everything he can to help. Last but definitely not least, in addition to refining his previous ideas and developing new ones, he includes 75 video clips.

So we can see things for ourselves.

Posted in Professional Development, Recommended Reading, Resources | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

PARCC End-of-Year (EOY) ELA Practice Tests Are Now Available!

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIn case you do not subscribe to the PARCC Newsletter, this good news arrived today: We can now see what will likely be on the May assessments.

I took a quick look at the practice tests, and they are READING tests: just multiple-choice and drag-and-drop questions about literary and informational texts. No writing. My first impression was that there seem to be more questions about inferring main idea and author’s purpose than we’ve seen on the practice tests for the impending March Performance-Based Assessments (PBAs). But I could be wrong.

In a few weeks, I will post some more detailed thoughts and observations.

For the curious, here is the link (Look for “EOY” tests):

Posted in Assessment(s), ELA Common Core Standards, PARCC, Professional Development, Reading, Reading Informational Text, Reading Literature, Resources, Test Prep | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PARCC Prep: Learning from Failure

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREOne of the schools I work with had a HUGE breakthrough yesterday, and as odd as it might sound, it came as a result of what might have looked like a colossal failure.

We’d designed some practice PARCC literary analysis tasks (complete with PARCC-aligned questions and writing prompts) and allocated time for students to take them during their tutorial sessions. We’d done some preparation and wanted to see how much more would be needed. This particular school has a large tutor corps, and students receive two hours of tutoring per day (1 hour of ELA, 1 hour of math). The plan was for a Teaching Assistant to send me three sample student essays from each grade that night so I could prepare a workshop on holistic scoring for the next morning. Then tutors would go over the essays with students in tutorial later that day.

But when I looked at the essays, it was clear to me that we could not even begin to talk about holistic scoring. Although a few students had written something reasonably coherent, it appeared that most were not even sure what question(s) to answer.

We needed to go back to Square One.

I met with the tutors and teachers at 7:00am and asked tutors what they had observed while students were working on their assessments [We had given tutors this PARCC Practice Checklist for that purpose]. As I’d suspected, most students did not turn the prompt into a question, did not take notes, and did not know how to organize their ideas. In some cases, they did not know how to infer theme, so they were stumped. Tutors reported: “My kids just stared at me. They didn’t know what to do, how to start the writing….”

Instead of modeling holistic scoring, we discussed the steps that would set students up to write something worth scoring. Tutors then implemented a new plan for the day, focusing on these key items:

1) Give students practice in turning the writing prompts into QUESTIONS.   If students don’t do this step, they will not ANSWER the question, and they could waste a lot of time and effort writing an essay that gets a low score (See this post for details).

2) Explain the importance of TAKING NOTES BASED ON THE QUESTION(S), and walk through what that should look like.  Taking notes actually SAVES TIME and HELPS YOU ORGANIZE YOUR ESSAY.  NOTE: If the question requires students to figure out the theme, review the “How to Infer Theme” organizer (See this post for details).

3) Review how the whole essay should be organized: with three body paragraphs/buckets ordered as CONTRAST, CONTRAST, COMPARE (See this post for details).

4) Have students reflect on these questions:
What part of this process is most challenging for them and why?
What did they do well?
What would they do differently if they could write their essay from scratch?

Ultimately, I think having students experience this dramatic failure was actually a good thing, because everyone’s sense of urgency is much higher as a result, and students received IMMEDIATE feedback and USEFUL TOOLS. They can now see how using the tools will make a difference.

The feeling at this school is not one of panic or dread about the PARCC tests, but more like this: We are practicing for a big game, and we will be ready. We’re not afraid of this challenge. We want to see how we will stack up against the competition.

Posted in Assessment(s), Compare and Contrast, ELA Common Core Standards, Literary Analysis Writing, PARCC, Professional Development, Resources, Test Prep, Themes, Thesis Statements, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Common Core and PARCC Prep: More Reading Resources!

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREOne of our biggest challenges in preparing students to meet and exceed the ELA Common Core Standards is finding appropriate texts as we revise curriculum. Here are two more Websites that offer helpful resources: is “full of free content designed to help educators understand and implement the Common Core State Standards. It includes practical tools designed to help students and teachers see their hard work deliver results.” It features, among other resources, “Annotated Mini-Assessments for Grades 3-11”: The site, produced by nonprofit Student Achievement Partners, boasts “a growing collection of English language arts / literacy mini-assessments that illustrate the shifts required by the Standards. These mini-assessments are designed for teachers to use either in the classroom, for self-learning, or in professional development settings.” The assessments include fiction and nonfiction. is a “CCSS-aligned literacy program with tools and content teachers need to help students learn to read closely, think critically, and develop powerful arguments.” It provides grade-leveled informational texts with PARCC-aligned questions and includes tools to produce reading and writing lessons. The site promises to “help students build college and career readiness skills with engaging real-world ELA, Science, and Social Science topics for grades 3-12.” This is a great resource for quick practice on Reading Informational Text Standards!

As a reminder, if your students are taking the PARCC assessment, here are the passage length requirements by grade:

GRADE BAND Minimum/Maximum Passage Lengths for Literary and Informational Text/Literary Nonfiction
3-5 200-800 words
6-8 400-1,000 words
9-11 500-1,500 words

Don’t forget to check out the TLC PARCC Prep and Standards pages for additional resources and guidance!

Posted in Annotation, Argument, Assessment(s), Close Reading, Comprehension, Curriculum, DBQ Approach, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Explanation, Lesson-planning, Main Idea, Nonfiction, PARCC, Professional Development, Reading, Reading Informational Text, Reading Literature, Resources, Test Prep, Text Selection, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PARCC Prep: A Better Way to Teach Compare and Contrast

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[The following post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on January 7, 2015:]

In the PARCC literary analysis task, students must closely analyze two literary texts—often focusing on their themes or points of view—and compare and contrast these texts. In previous posts, I’ve proposed a lesson series to tackle this task and a tool for teaching students how to infer theme, which is a common requirement since Common Core Reading Anchor Standard #2 isDetermine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.”

This post deals with the challenge of how to organize a compare-and-contrast essay, which many students struggle with, I believe, for two reasons:

  • Teachers often rely on Venn diagrams to teach the concept of “compare and contrast,” and Venn diagrams are not a useful way to organize writing. They were meant for discussions around set theory, not for essay writing. Seriously. Could you write an essay from notes inserted into this?
  • Teachers tend to assume that students can transfer their “understandings” from Venn diagrams into full-blown essays, so they don’t spend enough time explaining how to outline and develop the evidence and explanation needed.

As I’ve noted previously (here and here), instead of trying to fill in Venn diagrams, students should annotate texts with charts that have either two or three columns (i.e., depending on the number of texts: for literary analysis, it’s two; for research writing, it’s two texts and a video), then put checkmarks next to items that the texts have in common. What remains unchecked should be dealt with in the “contrast” paragraphs.

But you can’t easily write an essay from those notes. You have to organize your ideas.

Here is a simple graphic organizer to help students turn those notes into an outline for writing*:

Thesis/Argument Statement:

Both ________________________________[Text 1] and _______________________________[Text 2] deal with __________________________________[TOPIC/THEME], but they do so in different ways.


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

CONTRAST: How does Text 1 deal with the topic/theme?   Explain with 2-3 fully-explained pieces of evidence. CONTRAST: How does Text 2 deal with the topic/theme?   Explain with 2-3 fully-explained pieces of evidence. COMPARE: What do both texts have in common regarding their approach to the topic/theme? Explain with 2-3 fully-explained pieces of evidence.


1. 1. 1.


2. 2. 2.


3. 3. 3.


Conclusion: Ultimately, both texts help us see/realize __________________________________________[punchy insight].


As always, students will need lots of modeling and practice to master this step.

*A free PDF version of this organizer can be downloaded here: Outlining Your Compare-and-Contrast Essay.  It can also be found on the TLC “PARCC Prep” page.

Posted in Annotation, Assessment(s), Compare and Contrast, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Explanation, Literary Analysis Writing, Organizing an Essay, PARCC, Reading, Reading Literature, Resources, Test Prep, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Literary Analysis Task: How to Infer Themes from a Text (CCS #2)

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREWhile working with teachers on how to prepare students for the PARCC Literary Analysis Writing Task (see my previous blog here), we realized that students were struggling with Common Core Reading Anchor Standard #2:Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.” Specifically, they couldn’t “compare and contrast the themes of two different texts” when they weren’t sure how to infer theme, period.

The good news is that I have a tool for this. Inferring themes from a text is a three-step process:

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 is about SELFISHNESS.) 

 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?

(Ex.: People can overcome selfishness with love from the people around them.)


 A few hints:

  • Although the process is simple, it’s important to provide additional models and guided practice before you ask students to do this independently.
  • For fiction, the topics/issues should deal with character traits/behaviors. For example, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is not about real estate. “Boundary-crossing” would be more appropriate.
  • Questions that begin with “Why” or “How” tend to lead more directly to answers that arguments/messages.
  • Themes/messages should be expressed as complete sentences and should deal with “people” or “we,” not specific characters.

Once you’ve completed Step #3, just add water (the title and author) and stir to create a useful thesis statement. For example: In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss shows how people can overcome selfishness with love from the people around them.

To download the “How to Infer Themes ORGANIZER,” click How to Infer Themes ORGANIZER. A Word version of this file can also be found on The Literacy Cookbook Website “PARCC Prep” page.

Posted in Analyzing the Common Core Standards, Assessment(s), Character Analysis, Comprehension, ELA Common Core Standards, Inference, Lesson-planning, Literary Analysis Writing, PARCC, Questioning, Reading, Reading Literature, Themes, Thesis Statements, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments