Essential Literacy Work Before You Begin Test Prep

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREHere are some things to work on before you begin preparing students for the genre of standardized testing this year:

Review/teach The Comprehension Process using the TLC Comprehension Process Staircase here.

  • You will need an anchor chart of this process for reference.
  • To reinforce the idea that we use the Comprehension Process all the time, apply it to an image using the “Quadrant Analysis” approach described here. PS, this is also a great way to stimulate student interest and build background knowledge about a topic they will soon read about.

Climbing the Comprehension Process Stairs

Review/teach the skill of paraphrasing (the first step in comprehension). For more information, see TLC Blog here. Use the “How to Paraphrase” organizer that applies to your grade (see TLC Website here).

Review/teach 5Ws and H (questioning and answering).

  • Read a text with students, and model how to ask and answer these questions about the text. Note: Make sure students do not conflate “how” and “why,” which is a common mistake–i.e., we cannot allow them to answer “How” questions with “because.”       Example:
    • How did the character’s appearance change?
    • Why did the character’s appearance change?
  • Give students another text, and they apply this skill with a partner. Then they do it alone for homework.
  • Students should practice using these questions FREQUENTLY.       They feed nicely into summarizing because if you can ask and answer 5Ws and H questions about a text, you should be able to pull out key information to support your summary.
  • For more information, see TLC Blog on the most important Common Core Reading Standard, which focuses on the 5Ws and H questions (using the “5Ws and H organizer”).

Review/teach Argument vs. Evidence Steps 1, 2, 3, and 4. Note: Steps 1 and 2 (and 2.5) can be done in a few lessons. You can spend the rest of your life on Steps 3 and 4.

  1. Given a list of statements, distinguish the arguments from examples of evidence. See TLC Blogs here and here.
  2. Given a list of statements, identify arguments and their relevant evidence. See TLC Blog here. For “Step 2.5,” see TLC Blog here and here.
  3. Given arguments, support them with your own relevant evidence and explanation. See TLC Blog here and here.
  4. Given questions, answer them with arguments and relevant evidence and explanation. See TLC Blog here.

Practice close reading of a text by questioning the text.

  • Use the QIEE (Question-Inference-Evidence & Explanation) approach (using the QIEE organizer) described here.
  • Or, put question marks in the margin and dive into paired discussions or whole-class discussion as appropriate.
  • Move toward summary statements beginning with expressions such as “In this text, the author is trying to convey that…” or “The author’s main argument is that….”
  • A Cornell Notes organizer can help scaffold this process, too.
  • Remind students that a topic sentence is an argument, NOT a fact. This argument can then be supported with evidence and explanation.

Review/teach students how to figure out “what’s important” in a narrative (whether fictional or not) using the “What’s Important Organizer.” Check out this TLC Blog here.

Model and practice summarizing skills:

  • Given a quote from a famous person, students restate it in fewer words.
  • Given a paragraph of content, students restate it in one sentence.
  • Given an essay, students apply 5Ws and H questions and then summarize it in a paragraph.

Teach how and why to skim. See TLC Blog post on the overlooked skill of skimming.

Move into PARCC prep mode. Unpacking and paraphrasing the question is a critical first step. For example, before diving into the TLC Blog on how to tackle the Research Writing Task, show students a Research Simulation Task prompt (see “PARCC Research Simulation Writing Prompts” on TLC “PARCC Prep” page). Note that the prompt is NOT WORDED AS A QUESTION, and our first step is to TURN IT INTO A QUESTION. We do this by circling the question word (usually WHY or HOW) and starting our question with that question word. Note: If the prompt does not include “how” or “why,” look for “compare/contrast.” Prompts that use “compare/contrast” should be turned into “how” questions (as illustrated below). For more information on this process, click here.

Examples: [Note: I have underlined the question word(s).]

Original Grade 5 prompt:

Compare how the articles by Lauren Tarshis and Dyan deNapoli and the video describe penguin rescue efforts after oil spills. Support your essay with information from all three sources.

Unpacked Grade 5 prompt:

How do the articles by Lauren Tarshis and Dyan deNapoli and the video describe penguin rescue efforts after oil spills?


Original Grade 6 prompt:

You have read two texts and viewed one video that claim that the role of zoos is to protect animals. Write an essay that compares and contrasts the evidence each source uses to support this claim. Be sure to use evidence from all three sources to support your response.

Unpacked Grade 6 prompt:

How does each source use evidence to support the claim that the role of zoos is to protect animals?

From here, you can move into more explicit PARCC preparation.

  • For general thoughts on how to pace PARCC writing prep, click here.
  • For how to approach the Research Simulation Task, click here.
  • For how to approach the Literary Analysis Task, click here, here, here, and here.
  • For how to approach the Narrative Writing Task, click here and here.





Posted in Argument, Assessment(s), Close Reading, Compare and Contrast, Comprehension, Evidence, Explanation, How vs. Why, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Literary Analysis Writing, Narrative Writing, Paragraph writing, Paraphrasing, PARCC, Research Writing, Resources, Skimming, Summarizing, Test Prep, TLC Website Resources, Topic Sentences, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PARCC Writing Rubrics UPDATE, 10-13-16

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIt has come to my attention that the PARCC people have been quietly revising the rubrics used to score the writing tasks. I generally read their newsletters, but somehow the one about the rubrics changing must have slipped by.

They made a point-value change for grades 4-5, which I’ve explained below.*

The biggest change is that whereas previously the rubrics for Research Simulation Task and Literary Analysis Task writing included three scoring rows (Reading Comprehension, Written Expression, and Writing Conventions), they have COMBINED the first two rows. Their stated justification for this is as follows:

“ELA/Literacy scoring rubrics are tools for scoring students’ written responses. In July 2015, PARCC states updated the scoring rubrics, combining the reading comprehension and written expression traits. PARCC state educators who called for this update did so because information from the PARCC state spring tests indicated that teachers and scorers would be better able to use the rubrics reliably with the revisions made.

“As in the past, PARCC states’ decisions were a direct result of applying both research results and educator input.  Educators working on this update believe the updated rubrics will be more usable, while simultaneously honoring the focus of the CCSS through the integration of reading and writing. Students will continue to receive both a reading and a writing score for their written responses.”[1]

I’m not sure what they mean by the last sentence. How can students receive “both” a reading and a writing score for their written responses if you combine the two into one row? And the other row is for mechanics. So. I can’t explain that.

Regular readers of this blog may have seen my “User-friendly” versions of the original (2014) PARCC rubrics. I’m keeping them available because the language in the newer rubrics has not changed significantly, and I think my versions are still easier to read. Just keep in mind that the rows are no longer as “rowish.” Meaning, the students don’t get scored separately for the separate rows that you see in my versions.

Here are the most current PARCC Writing Rubrics (as of July 2015):

PARCC Writing Rubric for Grade 3: grade3-ela-literacyscoringrubric-july2015

PARCC Writing Rubric for Grades 4-5: grade4-5-ela-literacyscoringrubric-july2015 *NOTE: When you compare this to the original rubric, you will notice that the highest score for the original RST and Literary Analysis rubric was 3. Now, it’s 4. But the maximum score for conventions remains 3 (presumably because they didn’t want to weight conventions equally with the other component (the combined reading and writing row).  Why does this matter? If you look at the PARCC-released student exemplars, you’ll notice that the highest scores from 2015 models are 3s. That’s because the rubrics only went up to 3 that year.

PARCC Writing Rubric for Grades 6-11: grade6-11-ela-literacyscoringrubric-july2015

For more information on PARCC preparation, please see the TLC Website “PARCC Prep” page, where I’ve curated everything I know about PARCC.

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

[1] Found at:

Posted in Assessment(s), Literary Analysis Writing, Narrative Writing, PARCC, Research Writing, Resources, Rubrics, Test Prep, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nonfiction Writing: How to Build Quote Sandwiches

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on October 3, 2016.]

When writing nonfiction paragraphs or essays, students must frame their quotes (evidence) with appropriate context and explanation. In English teacher speak, we call this “building quote sandwiches.”

This process is often challenging for students.

As I’ve described HERE, students must move through six “Argument vs. Evidence” steps to become effective writers. Once they’ve mastered Step 1 (distinguishing between arguments and evidence), Step 2 (matching arguments with relevant evidence), and Step 2.5 (selecting the BEST relevant evidence, as explained HERE and HERE), they can focus on Step 3, which involves supporting arguments with relevant evidence and explanation.

Ineffective quote sandwiches take several forms. Students select irrelevant/weak evidence, fail to provide sufficient context, or fail to explain how the evidence supports their argument. One of the most common problems we see is what I call the “KFC Double Down Approach.” I’m not sure if they still sell it, but for a while KFC offered sandwiches made without bread. The “buns” were chicken.

In student writing, that more-of-the-same approach looks like this:

Scout seems to act more like a girl every day. “Scout, I’m telling you for the last time, shut your trap or go home—I declare to the Lord you’re gettin’ more like a girl every day!” (57).[1]

Students who write this way are showing us that they do not understand how a quote sandwich should be constructed. They might not understand what “context” means. You could try explaining that concept with “negative space jujitsu,” as I have done HERE. Or they might not see the point of explaining things. You could use my “Mean Mom” skit (described HERE) to demonstrate why they should.

But sometimes students remain baffled. What more can you do?

It turns out that my favorite Common Core Standard, Reading Informational Text Standard 2.1, comes in handy again.

As I’ve explained HERE, the 5Ws and H questions (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How) are critical to effective reading. They are also helpful when building quote sandwiches. As noted in this organizer (using-5ws-and-h-for-context-and-explanation-vertical), answering the first four provides context, and “Why” and “How” are of course a must for explanation.


Using 5Ws and H for Context and Explanation

HERE IS A SAMPLE PARAGRAPH about An Island Like You (by Judith Ortiz Cofer) using quotes from the text. In the boxes below, you will see how various sentences address the 5Ws and H questions.

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.

  What to include Which part of the analysis is it?


Who said the quote, and to whom?

Kenny’s mother makes it clear [to him] that she does not respect his friend Harry.



What is the topic/issue/situation?

Kenny’s mother makes it clear that she does not respect his friend Harry.



When in the story does this occur?

When Harry shows up to invite Kenny to his party, Kenny’s mother is “furious” that Harry is in her house (82).



Where are the characters when this moment happens?

She follows Kenny into his room to tell him why he should not be hanging around with such “basura” (82).



Why does this quote matter in the story?

She says that people who follow Harry “pay the price” (82).



How does this quote support your argument?

She is clearly worried about how Kenny’s friends will influence him.


Colleagues in the field who’ve tried this out have also given students practice by providing an argument and evidence, with space for students to insert context and explanation, like this:

ARGUMENT: Atticus convinces Scout not to fight their neighbors.


  • “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home” (84-5).
  • “Somehow, if I fought Cecil I would let Atticus down…. I felt extremely noble for having remembered, and remained extremely noble for three weeks” (85)

CONTEXT: [Leave space for students to complete.]


EXPLANATION: [Leave space for students to complete.]


See what you think. We are still working on the best ways to approach this “quote sandwich” problem. If you have any additional suggestions/solutions, please chime in!

[1] Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (London: Arrow Books, 2010; first published in 1960).

Posted in Argument, Context, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Explanation, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, MiddleWeb, Nonfiction, Open-ended Response Writing, Paragraph writing, Quote Sandwiches, Resources, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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 , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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 , , , , , , , | 1 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 , , , , , , | 1 Comment