The Literacy Cookbook COVERAs much as we would like to know what the PARCC Assessments are really going to look like, this year all we have to go on is what our State Department of Education tells us.  And in my home state of New Jersey, we have been informed (via a memo dated 11-26-12) about the test specs for the grades 3-8 ELA NJ ASK, so people are focused on preparing for what we DO know.

We know, for example, that students will have 30 minutes to read each of the various passages (“literature and informational text”), complete anywhere from 6 to 10 multiple-choice questions (depending on their grade level), and write one open-ended response.

If your students are struggling with open-ended responses, I’d like to offer a few tips.  If you are not in NJ, your test specs might be different, but I’m hoping the tips will still be useful.

I recommend breaking down the 30 minutes with this simple formula: 10-10-10.

Students should read the open-ended response question carefully, then annotate the passage based on that question.  NOTE: Some teachers tell their students to preview the multiple-choice questions: I think that is a BIG MISTAKE because it wastes time, and students who read incorrect answer choices could become confused.  Moreover, the types of critical reading questions are utterly predictable.  There are four: 1) paraphrasing (AKA literal comprehension), 2) inference, 3) vocabulary in context, and 3) inferring main idea questions.  The only unknown is how many the students will see of each.  For more information on the key critical reading skills and how to teach them, check out the TLC “Comprehension 101” page and my book, The Literacy Cookbook, which explains them in more depth.

To explain the purpose of annotating, the teaching script might go something like this: “You are looking for ideas and evidence that will help you answer the open-ended question.  So when you see something useful, underline it.  Let me show you what I mean….  Now let’s try this together….  Now try one on your own….”  It’s important to model annotation repeatedly and to point out that we annotate differently for different genres (On the TLC “Analyzing Literature” page, check out the “Generic Rubrics for Annotating Fiction/Narratives and Nonfiction”).

Students should then answer the multiple-choice questions.  You might ask, “Why don’t they jump to the open-ended question while it is fresh in their minds?”  For several reasons.  In the course of answering the multiple-choice questions, they will review the content and will probably develop a clearer understanding of the text.  Completing these questions will give them a sense of accomplishment and progress, and it will earn them more points since the multiple-choice questions count for more points than the open-endeds do.  Doing them second will ensure that they get done.

Students should write their open-ended response paragraph(s).  Different schools use different acronyms to support this process, but the basic formula is as follows: 1) Restate the question, 2) Answer the question, giving evidence from the text and explaining it, and 3) Provide a punchy insight.  For more information on how to teach students to write punchy insights, check out this TLC Blog entry: “Punchy Insights, or How to Avoid Writing Like a Robot.”  The most common problem I see with students’ writing in these responses is that although they plug in evidence, they fail to provide context for it or explain how it supports their argument.  For more ideas on how to teach students about context, check out these TLC Blog entries: “QUOTE SANDWICHES, PART I: Why EVERYONE Needs to Know the Recipe” and “QUOTE SANDWICHES, PART II: Drawing a Picture of ‘Context.’”

If you haven’t already seen it, following is my Open-ended Response Rubric (NOTE: A Word version of this document can be found on the TLC “NJ ASK Prep” page).  I derived it from an analysis of State-released exemplars.






_      RESTATES the question, using NAMES instead of pronouns.

_      Answers ALL PARTS of the question, writing 4-6 sentences per question part.

_      Provides an insightful explanation using AMPLE, ACCURATE, AND RELEVANT EVIDENCE from the text and your own ideas to support your argument.


_      Uses effective transitions for smooth flow.

_      Uses strong vocabulary.

_      NO ERRORS in mechanics or usage.





_      RESTATES the question.

_      Answers ALL PARTS of the question, writing 3-4 sentences per question part.

_      Provides an explanation using ACCURATE, RELEVANT EVIDENCE from the text and your own ideas to support your argument.

_      Ends with SOME INSIGHT.

_      Uses transitions.

_      Uses some strong vocabulary.

_      FEW ERRORS in mechanics or usage.





_      May not RESTATE the question.

_      May not answer ALL PARTS of the question, giving only 2-3 sentences per question.

_      Provides a weak/incoherent explanation using SKIMPY, INACCURATE, OR IRRELEVANT EVIDENCE.

_      Ending is repetitious/weak.

_      No transitions, choppy.

_      Uses weak vocabulary.

_      MANY ERRORS in mechanics or usage.




_      Does not RESTATE the question.

_      Does not answer ALL PARTS of the question, giving 0-2 sentences per question.

_      Fails to provide EVIDENCE from the text or your own ideas to support your argument.

_      Ending is repetitious/weak/missing.

_      MANY ERRORS in mechanics or usage.

©2009 Sarah Tantillo, Ed.D., LLC

If you haven’t already shown students this rubric (which I hope is somewhat more concrete than “demonstrates understanding of the text” and other such criteria), I would walk them through it ASAP.

Finally, make sure students practice timed questions in class with a timer.  You might think you are “saving class time” or “giving them more practice” by assigning open-ended responses as homework, but you won’t be able to ensure that students are practicing properly, and you will end up spending MORE class time on test prep trying to re-teach what students practiced incorrectly.  Have them take a timed practice, then score it and give them feedback; if they don’t earn at least 3 out of 4, they should rewrite it based on your feedback.  They can rewrite it after school or for homework since the goal is to learn how to improve the response, and in fact you will probably want to meet with individuals or small groups to discuss what they need to work on.  Once students master the task in a timed situation, you can move on to the rest of your curriculum.  You don’t have to do test prep 24/7!!!


About theliteracycookbook

In addition to this blog, I am the creator of THE LITERACY COOKBOOK Website ( and ONLY GOOD BOOKS Blog (, and the author of THE LITERACY COOKBOOK: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014). Check out my Website for more information about my consulting work.
This entry was posted in Annotation, Assessment(s), Context, Evidence, Explanation, Open-ended Response Writing, Punchy Insights, Quote Sandwiches, Rubrics, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, TLC Website Resources, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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