Teaching Writers How to Select and Explain Evidence

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on November 15, 2016.]

The more time I spend in classrooms trying to help students write effectively, the more I recognize how detailed and nuanced this process is, especially when it comes to selecting and explaining evidence.

I’ve explored this issue in several earlier posts, including (at MiddleWeb) Help Student Writers Find the Best Evidence and Tools to Help Writers Explain Good Evidence. The second post was co-written with Jamison Fort, a 6th and 7th grade social studies teacher, based on his terrific multi-day lesson plan, “Sandra the Orangutan vs. Buenos Aires Zoo.”

In our joint article, Jamison and I introduced a “Step 2.5” to my original six-step process shared in the first post:

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.
Step 4 Given questions, answer them with arguments and relevant evidence and explanation.
Step 5 Generate your own questions that warrant research and debate.
Step 6 Generate your own questions, then research and build arguments supported with evidence and explanation.

In the second post, we concluded:

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 a 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.

NOW: Here’s another angle worth considering:

As I’ve noted in the previous posts, effective writers must do the following:

  • Distinguish arguments from evidence (“Step 1,” explained here)
  • Identify arguments and their relevant evidence (“Step 2,” explained here)
  • Evaluate and select appropriate evidence (“Step 2.5,” explained above)
  • Support arguments with relevant evidence and explanation (“Step 3,” explained here and here)

It turns out that the evaluation process for “Step 2.5” requires more than ruling out inappropriate/irrelevant evidence and selecting something better. Students must recognize that “imperfect” evidence can also be useful if explained properly. And they need to practice such explaining.

To illustrate this point, let’s revisit the example below from this earlier post. This exercise originally required students to evaluate potential evidence, select the best, then write a sentence that would follow logically from that choice.

Example 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 Kit Kats 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.”

While explaining this model to students, it became apparent that we needed to discuss the importance of considering the “maybe” evidence because you can’t always find “perfect” evidence. If you can explain “imperfect” evidence sufficiently, it can work fine.

With that lesson in mind, we analyzed additional examples and asked students to explain how they could use the “maybe” evidence. Following are two answer keys to support this practice. While going over these examples, we generated the next logical sentence for every “yes” or “maybe.” Here’s the downloadable selecting-and-explaining-evidence-student-copy.

ARGUMENT: Presidential elections can have a dramatic impact on the fate of the country.

EVIDENCE OPTIONS Would you use this “evidence”? Why/Why not?
1. As Commander-in-Chief, the President has direct and immediate control over the military. Yes, and I’d have to explain how the President’s decisions about the use of military force could affect citizens.
2. The President has to share power with two other branches of government.


Probably not, unless I had information about how likely the President would be to collaborate with representatives of the other branches of government to exert his/her influence.
3. As chief legislator, the President shapes public policy. Yes, and I’d want to give some examples of policies the President might pursue.
4. The President’s executive powers are limited by our government’s system of checks and balances. No, because this runs counter to the argument, as indicated by the word “limited.”


ARGUMENT: The Vice President of the United States has an important job.

EVIDENCE OPTIONS Would you use this “evidence”? Why/Why not?
1. Vice Presidential candidates can sometimes influence how people vote in Presidential elections. No. Although this statement is true, it doesn’t prove the argument.
2. The only duty the U.S. Constitution assigns the Vice President is to act as presiding officer of the Senate. Not as written. The word “only” opposes the argument. This information would only be useful if the sentence began with “Although” and described a specific instance in which playing this role resulted in some dramatic result(s).
3. The Vice President is only “a heartbeat away” from becoming the President. Yes, but I would also want to explain this further—in fact, with the evidence in #4.
4. Thirteen Vice Presidents have gone on to become President, eight because of the death of a President. See #3.



Ideally, students should practice this approach in every class that requires them to write—so, every class. Effective selection and explanation of evidence is not “just an English class thing.”

What’s next? Take the training wheels off. Leave one row blank and ask students to fill it in with their own evidence and explanation. Then let them write their own paragraph using that evidence and explanation.

About theliteracycookbook

In addition to this blog, I am the creator of THE LITERACY COOKBOOK Website (www.literacycookbook.com) and ONLY GOOD BOOKS Blog (http://onlygoodbooks.wordpress.com/), and the author of THE LITERACY COOKBOOK: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (Jossey-Bass, 2012), LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014), and USING GRAMMAR TO IMPROVE WRITING: Recipes for Action (BookBaby, 2018). Check out my Website for more information about my consulting work.
This entry was posted in Argument, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Explanation, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Paragraph writing, Research Writing, Resources, TLC Website Resources, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Teaching Writers How to Select and Explain Evidence

  1. Pingback: Essential Literacy Work Before You Begin Test Prep | The Literacy Cookbook blog

  2. Pingback: An Argument for “Quote Lasagna” | The Literacy Cookbook blog

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