PARCC Prep: Research Simulation Task Writing Lesson Cycle UPDATED 2-2-2020

[The original version of this post can be found here.]

In New Jersey, where I live and work, the state’s most recent test specs for NJSLA (formerly known as PARCC and quite honestly the same test with a different name) assert that every version of the ELA test will include Research Simulation Task (RST) writing. So it’s important to prepare our students for this task. TIMED writing is a genre (just like poetry is a genre, etc.), so we need to make sure students know how to manage their time.

Who should read this post? Because RST prompts tend to deal with history and science, this UPDATED lesson cycle is not just for ELA teachers but also for social studies/science teachers who, ideally, will own this task and will deliver the instruction for it AFTER their ELA colleagues have already rolled out the Literary Analysis Task Lesson Cycle, which is very similar but involves only two pieces of literature instead of the RST’s three nonfiction “texts” (Note: One of the RST “texts” could be a video). The RST requires skills that students typically practice in social studies to master DBQ (Document-Based Question) essays, so it makes sense for those teachers to fold this work into their curriculum. PS: PARCC-released materials might not cover the exact same content as your curriculum, but you can mimic the approach and build your own RST tasks using the content you need to cover.

(Note: I have also blogged about the RST here and here.) What follows is still a work in progress, but I hope it will be of use.

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



Lesson #1

Objective: SWBAT turn a statement into a question in order to unpack PARCC writing prompts.

Time Frame: 50 minutes


As we prepare for PARCC, the MOST IMPORTANT thing you need to be able to do is what we are working on today: turning the prompt into a question.   99% of the time, the prompt is not worded as a question and it does not end with a question mark. If you don’t know what the question is, you probably won’t answer it! But if you DO turn it into a question, you should be able to answer it.


As a reminder, when we take the PARCC ELA portion, the FIRST THING YOU SHOULD DO is click forward to the writing prompt so that you can turn it into a question and write it on your scrap paper. Why? Because the question(s) will guide your reading. You will take notes on the texts looking for answers to the question(s).


1.     To unpack the prompt, find the “question verb” (such as “describe” or “explain” or “analyze” or “evaluate” or “compare/contrast”) and either “how” or “why.”

2.     HINT: If there is no “how/why,” begin your question with “How.”

3.     Ask the question using the verbiage that follows the question verb (or as one of my colleagues likes to say, “Recycle, recycle, recycle!”)

4.     Note: Do NOT include the question verb (describe, explain, etc.) in the question (like “How can you describe…?” NO!). It is merely a signal that you are about to start your question. And you definitely should not include “compare/contrast” in the question because it is implied by the task involving two texts.

Look at prompts from various grades. On the TLC “PARCC Prep” page, you will find “PARCC Research Simulation Writing Prompts- UPDATED 1-29-19,” a file containing dozens of prompts, along with model lesson materials on “unpacking the prompt.” Follow “I Do,” “We Do,” then “You Do.”

Example Prompt: You have read the passage from Owen & Mzee: The Language of Friendship, which describes how a hippo and a tortoise depend on one another. You have also viewed a video about the connection between mongooses and hornbills. Think about how these relationships are different. Write an essay that describes how the friendship between Owen and Mzee is different from the relationship between mongooses and hornbills. Use examples from both the article and the video to support your conclusions.

-> Question: How is the friendship between Owen and Mzee different from the relationship between mongooses and hornbills?

99% of the time, you will easily find HOW or WHY. If you don’t see HOW or WHY, find the verb and insert HOW:

Example Prompt: Your class has been studying about the survival of the ponies on Assateague Island. Using information from the articles and the video, describe the roles that both the horses and humans play in the horses’ survival. Use evidence from the articles and the video to support your answer.

-> Question: How do horses and humans play a role in the survival of horses?

Students practice turning given prompts into questions.

Lesson #2

Objective: SWBAT close read text #1 in response to the unpacked prompt in order to take notes for an essay response (untimed).

Time Frame: 40-50 minutes


[Do Now: Practice turning prompts into questions.]

Yesterday we practiced turning the prompts into questions. Today we’re going to practice pulling notes out of the texts to ANSWER the question. This is a REALLY IMPORTANT RESEARCH SKILL, not just for the PARCC (NJSLA), but for college and life!


1.     Review the question for this task.

2.     Create a 3-column chart on blank paper to take notes (NOTE: 3rd-grade only uses two texts, so for 3rd, use a T-chart and disregard Lesson #4 about analyzing video.)

3.     To begin, model taking notes on ONLY information that answers the question (relates to the prompt) in the first two paragraphs (first column).   Notes should be SUPER-BRIEF—NOT COMPLETE SENTENCES—because this is a TIMED test. But remember to include the paragraph number so that you can find that section again.

4.     Partners read and discuss what should be placed in the notes from the next paragraph. Not every paragraph has relevant information!!! (I like to say, “If you find something interesting that doesn’t answer the question, go home and tell your mom about it! But don’t write it down!”)

5.     Share out ideas; check to ensure that students have selected the most relevant information.

6.     Record those notes on the organizer.

7.     Continue reading paragraph by paragraph.


Lesson #3

Objective: SWBAT close read text #2 in response to the unpacked prompt, in order to take notes for an essay response (untimed).

Time Frame: 40-50 minutes


[Do Now: 1) Practice turning a prompt into a question. 2) When taking the PARCC, why do we ONLY take notes on the question?]

Let’s go over the Do Now. By now, we should all be experts at turning prompts into questions.   What about question 2, though?   Why is it so important to only take notes on the question? (Discuss)

Today our goal is to get better at taking EFFICIENT notes when reading a text. Because we don’t have all the time in the world!


Practice taking notes again on Text #2. (I Do, We Do, You Do)


Lesson #4 [Skip this if working with 3rd grade.]

Objective: SWBAT take notes on a video in response to the unpacked prompt in order to prepare for an essay response.

Time Frame: 40-50 minutes


We’ve been working on taking notes on written text.   Today we’re going to turn our attention to how to take notes on a video, which can be a little tricky.   On the PARCC (NJSLA), you’ll have headphones and a chance to watch and rewind the video clip so that you can take notes.


Again, let’s remember what the question is and use that as a guide for taking notes. Show a whole 3-minute video, then model stopping about every 30 seconds to stop and think about the prompt question, and jotting down notes in the organizer.

(3rd column)

WE DO: Let’s practice some more with a DIFFERENT video [NOTE: Use something on the same topic if possible; if not, you will have to create a new prompt.]. Show the whole video, then rewind and stop the video every 30 seconds or so, so that students can jot notes. Share out as you go initially (“What did you write?”), then release them to do more on their own and share out at the end.

YOU DO: [Again, show a different video, stopping periodically without commenting, just giving them time to jot notes.] Students practice independently, then share notes.


Lesson #5

Objective: SWBAT:

●      Identify similarities among texts in order to address those commonalities when you write your body paragraph.

●      Write a thesis statement in order to introduce a research simulation essay.

Time Frame: 30-40 minutes


The RST requires us to compare and contrast multiple texts, so we will need to identify similarities among those texts in our notes. We’re going to use a simple approach: using checkmarks to identify those similarities.   Today we’re also going to practice using a simple fill-in-the-blank sentence for our thesis statement in order to save time and show the reader that we know what we’re talking about….


Using the 3-column chart (or T-chart for 3rd grade) you have been working on, model how and why to put checkmarks next to notes that show similarities among all three “texts.”   Ask students to evaluate why you put checkmarks next to particular notes.

Consider providing a pre-completed 3-column chart on some other topic and have students insert checkmarks for practice.

Show students this thesis statement model (which mimics the one they learned for Literary Analysis Task writing):

[Text 1],[Text 2], and [Text 3] all deal with __________________________________ [TOPIC/THEME], but they do so in different ways.

Model this with the titles and topic.

For example: Owen & Mzee, “Helping Paws,” and Fooled by Nature all deal with the role that horses and humans play in the survival of horses, but they do so in different ways.

You could also say: Owen & Mzee, “Helping Paws,” and Fooled by Nature all deal with how horses and humans play a role in the survival of horses, but they do so in different ways.

Give students more prompts to practice with. They should be able to generate the thesis without even reading the texts.


Lesson #6

Objective: SWBAT use notes in order to write effective body paragraphs.

Time Frame: 50 minutes


How do we move from notes to writing? This is one of the hardest things we have to do as researchers and writers. Let’s look at how to do this…


The overall structure of the essay will be:

●      Paragraph 1: Thesis statement (see Lesson #5)

●      Paragraph 2: Body paragraph dealing with Text 1

●      Paragraph 3: Body paragraph dealing with Text 2

●      Paragraph 4: Body paragraph dealing with Text 3 (video)

●      Paragraph 5: Body paragraph dealing with similarities

●      Paragraph 6: One-sentence punchy conclusion

Today, we’ll work on the first two body paragraphs. Show students a completed model of Body 1 and explain how you went from each note to each sentence. See this blog post about moving from notes to sentences.

Work on Body 2 together.


Lesson #7

Objective: SWBAT:

●      Pull ideas from notes in order to draft body paragraph #3.

●      Review what the three texts have in common in order to write a body paragraph explaining these similarities.

●      Draft a punchy conclusion sentence in order to complete the essay effectively.

Time Frame: 40-50 minutes


Let’s review what we did yesterday… And today you will practice with Text/Video 3. Then we will work together on the “What they all have in common” paragraph.


Body #3 = text #3 – You Do (15 minutes, then share some exemplars using your document camera/projector)

Body #4 = what they have in common. This needs to be modeled: Instead of drafting this on the spot, show them a completed version in which you have left various phrases out. Enlist students to help you determine what could logically fit in the blanks. Once the paragraph is complete, direct them to rewrite it in their own words.

The last sentence = punchy conclusion sentence that DOES NOT restate the thesis. This formula works nicely:

“Ultimately, both texts help us realize that __________________.”


Lesson #8 (OPTIONAL)

Objective: SWBAT analyze PARCC-released items in order to evaluate them through the lens of the PARCC writing rubric.

Time Frame: 50-60 minutes

Materials: PARCC-released RST item (see, scored student examples, and User-friendly PARCC Writing Rubric from TLC “PARCC Prep” page


What does PARCC really expect when we do the RST?   Let’s look at the rubric and some student examples that were scored….


●      Analyze the PARCC writing rubric (see TLC “PARCC Prep” page for User-friendly versions), and apply it to several scored student responses. You can find PARCC-released materials here.

●      I Do, We Do, You Do evaluation of sample student responses using the TLC User-friendly PARCC writing rubric.


Lesson #9

Objective: SWBAT write a timed RST response (blank paper and typed writing of tasks) in order to prepare for PARCC.

Time Frame: 70-90 minutes

Material: Laptops (see note below*), blank paper, PARCC-released items.

Intro: Let’s see how we do!


*Insert the passages into a Google Doc/form so that students can simulate the PARCC test-taking experience.

The timeframe you allot for this timed practice depends on several factors. If you work with grade 3, on the actual test, students have 75 minutes to read and take notes (say, 25), answer multiple-choice questions (20), and type their essay (30). In grades 4 and up, students have 90 minutes to read and take notes (say, 30), answer multiple-choice questions (20), and type their essay (40). If you want to save time (owing to scheduling limitations), you can assign the MC questions separately.

PRO TIP: When students are finished, you can print out all of their essays at once using using PDF-Mergy (an app). Here’s a simple 3-min YouTube video explaining how to use PDF-Mergy. Then you can sort through them and figure out how to design your reteach lesson plan(s).


Lesson #10

(NOTE: Skip a day after Lesson #9 so students who were absent can make up the practice timed test.)

Objective: SWBAT revise their RST timed essay response in order to improve their writing.

Time Frame: 40-60 minutes

Material: Laptops

Intro: Today we’re going to see how we did and look at ways to improve. We’ll look at some models and use a revision checklist to strengthen our writing.   You will have time to revise your work and meet with me if you have any questions. Our purpose here is not just to get better at PARCC writing but to get better at writing, period.



Phase 1 [First round of revisions, most important stuff]

1.     Answers the question(s) raised by the prompt.

2.     Has a clear introduction/thesis statement.

3.     Paragraphs are focused and logically organized.

4.     Cites relevant evidence from ALL texts.

5.     Explains how evidence answers the question(s).

Phase 2 [Second round, also important]

1.     Proper sentence structure (no run-ons or fragments)

2.     Effective use of transitions

3.     Strong vocabulary

4.     Punchy conclusion


Lesson #11

Objective: SWBAT revise their RST timed essay response in order to improve their writing.

Time Frame: 40 minutes

Material: Laptops (optional)

Intro: More time to revise!

Lesson: More time to work on revisions if needed.

Going forward, you will of course want to revisit skills that students need more practice on. For information/resources on the texts and multiple-choice questions typically associated with PARCC Research Simulation Task sections, see the TLC “PARCC Prep” page.

***As a bonus for TLC Blog followers, here is the 50%-off discount code for yearlong access to the 2,000-plus teacher-friendly tools found on The Literacy Cookbook Website: TLCBOOK50 (Note: ALL CAPS).

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), 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 Assessment(s), Close Reading, Compare and Contrast, DBQ Approach, Nonfiction, PARCC, Punchy Insights, Research Writing, Resources, Rubrics, Test Prep, Thesis Statements, TLC Website Resources, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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