17 Ideas to Combat Learned Helplessness

The Literacy Cookbook COVER[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on Dec. 18, 2016.]

Recently I’ve been thinking about the ways in which we either inculcate or prevent learned helplessness in students. Some teaching practices help strengthen students’ self-efficacy, motivation and confidence, while others have the opposite effect. And the irony is that teachers might not even realize they are doing things that create this opposite effect.

Here’s some useful advice, sharing ways to deter “learned helplessness.” Some of what I suggest here is ELA-specific, but much of it applies more generally to good classroom practice. I hope you find it useful in teacher observations and professional self-reflection. It zeroes in on problems, consequences, and solutions.  For a 3-column version of this information, download this combatting-learned-helplessness chart.

  1. Don’t offer a “get out of work free” option.
  • IF: You assign classwork and then go over it before holding students accountable for having completed it…
  • THEN: Students realize they can wait till the timer rings, then copy the answers as you go over them. So they don’t even try to do the work. They will sit quietly or chat with a neighbor, which is more fun.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Either circulate and assign credit (with a stamp or initial) as students work, collect it before reviewing, or provide and give credit for “notes from discussion” that students must complete in addition.
  1. Make sure they’re invested.
  • IF: You fail to make a pitch for the lesson’s objective…
  • THEN: Students will wonder, Why are we doing this? Being told WHAT they are doing (i.e., the agenda) is not enough. Without knowing the purpose for the lesson, students feel like hostages, and while they might comply with your demands, they are less likely to feel motivated or personally invested in the work.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Share the objective (which is ideally “RPM”—rigorous, purposeful, and measurable) and make a pitch that explains what’s in it for them. And remind them of that purpose throughout the lesson (“Let’s not forget WHY we’re looking for the most relevant evidence: so we can wow readers and convince them of our argument”).

  1. Don’t skip modeling and guided practice.
  • IF: You fail to model the work (esp. without interruption) and/or you skip guided practice…
  • THEN: Students will not work well independently. When students are unclear about what they are supposed to do, they do nothing. Or chat. Or do something else to get into trouble. Misbehavior is often the result of students feeling incompetent and acting out to distract from the fact that they don’t know how to be successful at what you are asking them to do.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Provide a clear, instructive model of whatever skills or strategies you want students to use. And remember, “I Do” doesn’t mean “I do everything while you sit silently and do nothing.” You need to engage students and check for understanding during the modeling phase so that you can assess if students need more modeling, paired work, or independent work.
  1. Make sure they know what “good” looks like.
  • IF: You don’t provide students with model essays, sentences, or examples BEFORE they need to complete a task…
  • THEN: They don’t know what “good” looks like and will be uncertain about what to do.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Analyze an exemplar before you set students to work. Assess it together on a rubric or compare “good” and “great” so students can aim for “great” from the start.
  1. Prep students to apply generalized strategies.
  • IF: You focus on the specific task/text/problem at hand without inviting students to apply a generalized skill/strategy…
  • THEN: They will miss the opportunity to access the tools in their toolbox. They might even forget that they possess relevant skills/strategies.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Teach and name STRATEGIES, then remind students to use them when faced with challenges. Not “What should we do here?” but “What strategy should we use in a situation like this?” Provide clear steps for strategies. Prepare students to the point where, if you call out the name of a strategy, they immediately go into action.


  1. Give them the skill sets and time to revise.
  • IF: You provide written feedback to students with many details about grammar, diction, organization, etc., in isolation…
  • THEN: Students learn to depend on others to revise their work and can’t recognize their own mistakes.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Teach revision strategies (i.e., outlining their own essays to ensure coherence, classifying fragments and complete sentences, fixing run-on sentences, checking for consistent verb tense, etc.) and build in time for students to revise work – with your feedback on revisions.


  1. Keep them on their learning toes.
  • IF: You rarely use turn-and-talk and cold-calling…
  • THEN: Students recognize that only peers who raise their hands will get called on, so they can sit back and wait for others to do the work. Also, students who want to speak can become intimidated by those who tend to dominate the conversation.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Use purposeful turn-and-talk (and have students take notes sometimes) with cold-calling to increase engagement and accountability for performance. Find a way to randomize cold-calling (i.e., use note cards with student names that you shuffle through). Other times, plan your cold-call (choose a few who are typically middle-of-the-road in understanding, one high, and one struggling student).


  1. Set the stage for cold-calling.
  • IF: You cold-call without using stop-and-jot or turn-and-talk first…
  • THEN: Students feel put on the spot, are not held accountable, and are more inclined to opt out.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Give students a chance to think by writing something down and/or sharing with a partner before you cold-call.


  1. You should teach hand-raising. Really.
  • IF: You ask questions during class discussions without modeling hand-raising…
  • THEN: Students are likely to call out. While this might not seem like a management or assessment problem, it can become an ENGAGEMENT problem because some students – especially quieter ones – feel intimidated by those who tend to call out, so they share their ideas less often if calling out is the norm.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Model hand-raising to ensure that students raise their hands to answer. Ensure you call on multiple students – or better yet, let students know the expectation is to call on another student when they are done to continue the discussion without you driving it!


  1. Encourage students to try out their best answers.
  • IF: You ask open-ended questions without adding, “There is more than one right answer”…
  • THEN: Students might believe there is ONE right answer, and they don’t know it for sure, so they will not take the risk of trying out a possible answer.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Say, “There is not one right answer” more often to invite students to take more risks and participate without fear of being wrong. [See note above about having students build on one another’s answers.]


  1. Use your questioning to promote inference and explanation.
  • IF: You ask students to guess what word you’re thinking of (which you think they should know)…
  • THEN: Students will call out random guesses until you give them enough hints to say the right word. Or they will say nothing because they don’t know what you’re talking about.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Stay away from guessing games like, “What word am I thinking of?” Tell them the word, tell them that you think it’s important, and ask them why you think that. Focus less on recall questions and more on using information/clues to infer and explain.


  1. Make sure they wrestle with new learning.
  • IF: You introduce new concepts or definitions by requiring students to copy down notes…
  • THEN: Students will not necessarily grasp or retain this information because they have not had to wrestle with it. Copying down definitions does not teach students how the concept works or how to use it. Telling is not teaching.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: When introducing NEW content, give clear examples of the phenomenon (e.g., two bold-faced examples of “metaphor,” explained), then ask students to INFER from those examples what the phenomenon appears to be and how it seems to work. There is not one right answer.


  1. Assigned reading should always have a purpose.
  • IF: You assign reading with students without establishing a purpose for reading…
  • THEN: Students don’t know what they are supposed to look for or pay attention to. The default is NOTHING. So you can’t blame them if they stare out the window and think about lunch.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Clarify why you are reading this particular bit of text and what they are supposed to do while reading. Either provide a question or ask them to generate their own questions about the text.


  1. Define the reading partnership.
  • IF: You tell students to “read and work with a partner”…
  • THEN: You will see a lot of chatting and no reading. This is because students are unclear about their roles, so they wait for each other to take the lead, with the result that neither does. It’s easier to chat.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Clarify the role that each partner will play in the work: e.g., “Partner A will read aloud while Partner B will raise and record questions about this page. On the next page, you will switch roles. Partner B will read, and Partner A will surface the questions and write them down.” Choose the partners ahead of time so that you are purposeful in the groups with respect to ability/personality, etc.


  1. Don’t overdo the partnership work strategy.
  • IF: You do ALL the work as a group or in partners…
  • THEN: Students learn they don’t need to do the hard work since it’s always done together and for them by others if they choose not to.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Plan and keep independent work time sacred in class with aggressive monitoring and personal feedback.


  1. Stop sweeping in to save the day.
  • IF: You answer student questions immediately during independent work time…
  • THEN: Students learn not to try or struggle on their own. They’ll always wait for you to swoop in!
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Set a timer as soon as 100% of students are actually working and you have announced that you will address questions after 5 minutes of sustained work time. When the timer goes off, you can say, “Raise your hand if you need my attention,” and write student names on the board. Students then return to work and you address questions in the order of the names on the board so students aren’t sitting there waiting with their hands up.


  1. Always encourage wonder.
  • IF: You ask all the questions…
  • THEN: Students never learn to ask their own or invest themselves enough to wonder.
  • SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Create time for asking and answering questions about the text, problem, or content at hand. Invest students in seeking their own answers. Keep the wonder alive!

Thanks to Jessica Harrell at Great Oaks Legacy Charter School for contributing ideas used in this article.


Posted in Combatting learned helplessness, Instruction, Professional Development, Resources | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

PARCC Prep: Narrative Writing Task Revision Checklist

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORESeveral teachers using the Narrative Writing Task Lesson Cycle I posted previously have found that students need more work on revising their drafts.

As we talked through how best to support revision efforts, we came up with a checklist of mini-lessons divided into three rounds of focus. Coherence and clarity should be your first priority. As noted below, the first phase emphasizes answering the question properly (because if students don’t do this, nothing else will matter) and writing coherent sentences. The second phase extends the push for coherence. The third phase aims for more sophistication.

You might not need to deliver whole-class mini-lessons for everything. As you monitor students’ writing, you can identify needs and decide whether to form a small group or do whole-class reteach on the needed item(s).

PS: Students may need support with keyboarding skills—e.g., how to capitalize, indent, or insert quotation marks. In addition to direct instruction on such key points, I recommend www.play2pass.com for free keyboarding practice games.

Here’s the checklist:

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

  1. Consistent use of proper POV [POV prompt]

2a. Faithfully retells the original story (OK to add more, but don’t take away from the plot). [POV prompt]

2b. Effectively extends the original story using information from that original story [Extending the story prompt]

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

Phase 2 [Second round, also important]

  1. Dialogue format (indenting and punctuation)
  2. Effective use of transitions
  3. Sensory details
  4. Strong vocabulary

Phase 3 [Third round, nice to have]

  1. Figurative language
  2. Foreshadowing
  3. Catchy hook
  4. Punchy ending

Many thanks to Matt Strippoli and Molly Wagner at Red Bank Charter School for their ideas and input on the checklist!

Posted in Assessment(s), Narrative Writing, PARCC, Rubrics, Test Prep, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

PARCC Prep: Narrative Writing Task Lesson Cycle

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIf you’ve taught the narrative writing process and now want to ensure that your students are also adequately prepared for the timed PARCC Narrative Writing Task, this post is for you.

Following is a 2-3 week lesson cycle that covers the basics of this genre of writing in a fun, creative way. I’ve included (italicized) hooks to offer a sense of direction and purpose. Note: These are ideas for mini-lessons/lessons, not complete lesson plans. You can use them flexibly with other course requirements.

Before you begin, I encourage you to review these TLC Blog posts:

PS: If you like these ideas and materials, please consider subscribing to The Literacy Cookbook Website, which offers more than a thousand documents to support interdisciplinary literacy instruction, particularly for grades 3-12. As a holiday bonus, I’m offering TLC Blog followers the secret code to sign up for TLC Website access at 50% off (which means it’s only $25 for a year). Click HERE and use TLCBOOK50 (Note: ALL CAPS). If you’d like to register a group at this rate, please Email me at sarahtantillo@literacycookbook.com

Day 1:

  • We’ve spent lots of time working on our narrative writing, and we have the fundamental elements down. Today we’re going to begin preparing for a slightly different type of narrative writing. The PARCC is different in that it is TIMED and it requires us to write not from complete scratch but based on a given story/passage.
  • Introduce the TLC Narrative Writing PRE-WRITING ORGANIZER, a tool that will help students map out information that they need to use in their story. It’s essentially three buckets: setting, characters, and plot.
  • Show students sample parcc-narrative-writing-prompts-12-4-16, and remind them that when they take the test, they should click forward to read the prompt before reading the passage so that they can extract useful information as they read.
  • The PARCC Narrative Writing Task requires students to read the given story and take one of two approaches: 1) Retell it from a different point of view, or 2) Extend it.       We are going to address the “Retell it from a different point of view” approach first.

Day 2:

  • Before we write anything, we need to pre-write, digesting the story so that we have enough material to write our own story.
  • Practice back-mapping a story to the organizer (whole class, some partner but review as whole class).
  • MODEL with “Goldilocks” (or the story of your choice, but fairytales are recommended because they are short and memorable, and they build cultural literacy). Here’s one version: http://www.dltk-teach.com/rhymes/goldilocks_story.htm
  • Mimic the PARCC Narrative Writing prompt for your grade, customized to that story.
  • Make sure students have their own copy of the story as you read.
  • Collect their organizers so that they can use them on Day 5.

Day 3:

  • Let’s make sure we’re comfortable with pre-writing so that we can set our own stories up for success.
  • More practice with back-mapping a story to the organizer (whole class, some partner but review as whole class): “The Three Little Pigs” (or the story of your choice).

Day 4:

  • Today, we’ll see how much you’ve absorbed about pre-writing.
  • Read Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (or the story of your choice) together.  Students fill in the organizer independently. Note: You may want to give them a blank sheet of paper to see how they do.
  • Let students share what they did. Use “show call” with your document camera (see Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, pp. 290-299) to share student exemplars.

Day 5:

  • One of the PARCC Narrative Writing prompts asks us to retell the story from a different point of view. How do you write from a point of view? What are the key words you should look for? (point of view, perspective, retell)
  • Hand back their “Goldilocks” pre-writing from Day 2, for reference.
  • The “point of view” PARCC Narrative requires you to take on the attitude of the person whose point of view you are adopting.  “Dog Diary vs. Cat Diary” illustrates this concept in a hilarious way.  You might also want to use The True Story of The Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf (by John Scieszka).  Model a partial retell of “Goldilocks” through a different point of view. Use a couple different voices (her mom, a real estate agent, Papa Bear, Goldilocks herself, the police, a social worker, her teacher, etc.). Give starter sentences from different perspectives. Note: The plot does not change even though the point of view changes.
  • Give choice of 3 different points of view (see above) and allow students to choose what point of view they want to write from. They can do this in pairs or trios as this is largely a brainstorming exercise and you want to monitor their thinking.
  • Students share their work.
  • Students select their favorite opening from today’s class work (even if it wasn’t their own) and finish writing the story from that point of view. As they are writing, make notes on what they need help with for tomorrow’s revising/editing mini-lesson.
  • HW: Students finish writing the story from that point of view.

Day 6:

  • Today we’re going to analyze what scholars wrote, highlight a few exemplars, and review several key writing points before we dive into revising and editing.
  • “Show call” some of the HW stories to highlight excellent work.
  • Deliver mini-lesson around anything you noticed yesterday that students need help with (e.g., formatting dialogue properly).  See this post for guidance.
  • CONFERENCE with students as needed.  Students type up revisions and hand in final draft for a grade. (PS, for students who need keyboarding skills support, check out http://www.play2pass.com)
  • Note: This set-up and lesson sequence gives you an opportunity to meet with students who were absent the day before and help them get caught up.

Day 7:

  • Today we’ll examine some PARCC-released student exemplars to see how PARCC scores these tasks.
  • See PARCC-released models here: https://prc.parcconline.org/assessments/parcc-released-items
  • Read the original text so they can see what students were writing about. Note that PARCC items from different years have been scored by different rubrics. Decide which rubric will be most user-friendly, and go with that. For more information about PARCC Writing Rubrics, check out these two TLC Blog posts:
  • If time permits, have students use the rubric to score (or peer-score) their writing from the day before.

Day 8:

  • We’ve been working on this task for 7 days.  Let’s see where we are. Do your best, so I will know if anyone needs more help with this approach.
  • Give students a new prompt and passage with no organizer, just a blank sheet of paper and computer. Allow 60 minutes for this (without multiple-choice questions).
  • You should grade these over the next few days, using the same rubric you used when examining student exemplars yesterday.

Day 9:

  • As I mentioned when we first started working on this PARCC Narrative Writing Task, you might see the “retell it with a different point of view” prompt or the “extend the story” prompt. We’ve spent the past week or so on the first one. Now we’re going to tackle the second. If you were to continue the story, what are some things you’d want to think about?
  • Introduce extending the story: What are the key words you should look for? (continue, extend, predict, next). Analyze several examples of the prompt.
  • What strategies should we use to answer this prompt? Note: How is this type of prompt different from the POV-changing prompt?  In this case, you need to know the POV first in order to extend the story. DO NOT CHANGE THE POV.  You are EXTENDING THE PLOT.
  • MODEL this extend-the-story approach, using “Goldilocks” again so that students can see the difference in the different prompts. Maybe she goes home and lies to her mother about where she’s been and what she’s been up to; based on her behavior in the story, we can see that she lacks integrity.

Day 10:

  • Before you can EXTEND a story, you need to be able to recall the original plot, and you need to draw inferences about the main character so that you can predict how he or she might behave.
  • Read aloud a new fairytale. Have students retell it in their own words to solidify their understanding of the plot.  Assign partner roles so that students work effectively.       Partner A retells it to Partner B, then they switch.
  • Then have them analyze the main character using the TLC Characterization Methods-DDAT.  Actions and dialogue tend to reveal character motivations that will be useful in the extended story.
  • NOTE: If students don’t understand the main character and the original plot, they will not able to EXTEND the original story properly. So you might need to pause and practice these steps with another story or two before you move forward.
  • Next, you might want to have students pair and brainstorm possible plot-extension points.  What will the main character most likely do next, and why?
  • Show call exemplary student ideas. Make sure they explain why the character will act this way.
  • Students start their extended story (which can be based on the brainstormed ideas, or not). They will finish it for HW. Monitor their writing to identify potential topics for a revising/editing mini-lesson tomorrow.
  • HW: Students write an extended story (finishing what they started in class).

Day 11:

  • Today we’re going to analyze what scholars wrote, highlight a few exemplars, and review several key writing points before we dive into revising and editing.
  • “Show call” effective aspects of students’ HW.  Again, deliver a mini-lesson targeting key aspects that they should revise/edit.
  • Students work on revising/editing while you conduct conferences. Again, note: This set-up and lesson sequence gives you an opportunity to meet with students who were absent the day before and help them get caught up.

Day 12:

  • Today we’ll examine some PARCC-released student exemplars using this different type of prompt to see how PARCC scores these tasks.
  • Again: See PARCC-released models here: https://prc.parcconline.org/assessments/parcc-released-items
  • Read the original text so they can see what students were writing about. Note that PARCC items from different years have been scored by different rubrics. Decide which rubric will be most user-friendly, and go with that.  See Day 7.
  • If time permits, have students use the rubric to score (or peer-score) their writing from the day before.

Day 13:

  • Let’s see where we are with this different prompt. Do your best, so I will know if anyone needs more help with this approach.
  • Give students a new prompt and passage with no organizer, just a blank sheet of paper and computer. Allow 60 minutes for this (without multiple-choice questions).
  • You should grade these over the next few days, using the same rubric you used when examining student exemplars yesterday.

Day 14 &ff:

  • Let’s look at how we did on the first writing prompt.
  • Hand back graded work with feedback so that students can see how they did. Let them reflect on their work: What did they do well, and what can they improve upon? What would they like more help with?
  • Use graded student work to review key concepts and support re-teaching.
  • Target mini-lessons and conferences to meet specific student needs.  See this post for guidance.

If you have any questions about anything in this post, please comment or Email me directly at sarahtantillo@literacycookbook.com

(PS: I want to give a shout-out to the ELA teachers at Red Bank Charter School, who helped me think through this lesson cycle!)

Posted in Assessment(s), Character Analysis, Curriculum, Lesson-planning, Narrative Writing, PARCC, Resources, Rubrics, Teach Like a Champion, Test Prep, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

PARCC Releases New Items: Good News, Bad News

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIn case you don’t follow the ever-exciting PARCC newsletter, PARCC announced on Dec. 2, 2016 that they have released more test items. The good news is that they DID release some. The bad news is that they didn’t release many.

In any event, I have updated my ongoing files, which you can download for free:

You’re welcome. 😉

PS, for more information about PARCC preparation, check out the TLC “PARCC Prep” page.

PPS, as an added bonus for folks who follow this TLC Blog, I’m offering a 50%-off discount subscription to the TLC Website. Click HERE and use the secret discount code, TLCBOOK50. Please note: The code is case-sensitive. If you would like to register friends at this rate, please Email me for a group registration form at sarahtantillo@literacycookbook.com

Posted in Assessment(s), Literary Analysis Writing, Narrative Writing, PARCC, Research Writing, Test Prep, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Argument, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Explanation, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Paragraph writing, Research Writing, Resources, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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 herehere, 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.

PS: Many thanks to Dominy Alderman at HoLa Charter School for encouraging me to put this material together!



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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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: http://parcconline.org/assessments/test-design/ela-literacy/test-specifications-documents

Posted in Assessment(s), Literary Analysis Writing, Narrative Writing, PARCC, Research Writing, Resources, Rubrics, Test Prep, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 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