One of the most commonly asked questions I get from districts, leaders, and especially teachers is as simple as it is complex: How do we get our students to improve their short answer response?
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked that (or asked myself that), well let’s just say I may or may not be sitting here writing this blog post.
Writing in response to reading requires that students read a passage (or several), process and comprehend the material, and then formulate their thoughts, coherently, in writing. In essence, students must: Read, Think, Discuss, Write.
Writing itself is an incredibly complex task. When a student is able to write about a topic clearly and accurately, she is able to show her deep understanding of the content in a transferrable way. The ultimate goal in learning is to know the material well enough that we actually have learned it—that we can transfer the information to various situations throughout our lives. In best case scenarios, writing demonstrates transfer.
If we want to help students improve their writing in response to reading, we have to address the elephant in the room—critical reading skills must be taught. Alone, strategies that promote surface understanding will not promote deep analysis.
Here are my top three strategies for improving writing in response to reading.
1. Close Reading
According to Doug Lemov, author of Reading Reconsidered and Teach Like a Champion, there are four key components of a literacy rich curriculum:
- Read difficult texts
- Close read these texts
- Embed nonfiction
- Write in response to reading
Nothing on this list should surprise us. Close reading challenging sections of texts with our students is one of the most highly impactful strategies we can use to deepen literacy skills. When a student close reads a text, he is able to reread and analyze important pieces of information and draw conclusions from inferences made. So what’s the problem? Many of us struggle knowing what to close read, when to do it, and how to support our students.
Close reading is a teacher-guided, think aloud process where students engage with multiple questions that help unpack hidden meanings in the text. I am often asked, “At what point should my students be able to close read by themselves?” And the answer may surprise you.
We don’t close read a simple text, so honestly whenever the text is complex enough, a close read is warranted. I had seniors and AP students who close read texts with teachers and small groups. Close reading of texts occurs in collegiate level classes, and often as professionals we close read new material related to our profession.
The goal of close reading is not to eventually create independent readers. When given a simple enough text, your students can read independently. The goal of close reading is to model metacognition and analysis for students. This modeling is what promotes the connections needed to write in response to the text.
There is great power in great conversation. If we want students to pause and think before they respond, we need to build in structured discussion time as a response to reading. Consider any of your favorite moments in English class, and chances are, the days you remember or enjoyed yourself included a dynamic class discussion.
Conversation is needed in today’s society more than ever, and we need to teach our students how to have courageous dialogue about their thoughts. Writing is not a one-size-fits-all skill, and writing in response to reading asks students to share their own personal thoughts and connections to the text. There is something intimidating about putting words to paper, so before we ask students to commit their responses in ink, let’s first ask them to test their thoughts with a friend.
During a close reading lesson, teachers must stop frequently to check for understanding. If students disengage, the lesson is wasted. What’s an easy way to gauge your students’ analysis of a text? Ask them to discuss the questions with a partner or small group.
Silent discussions, chalk talks, paired partners, reciprocal teacher groups—all of these structures create the dialogue of thoughts needed. All students have something to contribute, and we need to create frequent situations in our rooms where students are asked to voice their thoughts.
Typically, even our students who are the most hesitant to write are willing to participate in engaging discussions. If we can help students process what they read via discussion, then we are deepening their understanding of the texts and increasing their ability to write what they think with clarity.
I’m going to share a little secret: students don’t know how to explain or interpret textual evidence. The problem? Those two words: explain and interpret. What’s it mean to explain? What’s it mean to interpret? How do we get them to do this?
Explanations and interpretations require readers to make our own connections to the texts and generate our own personal thoughts on the information. Explanations and interpretations essentially ask readers to draw conclusions about the meaning of the texts they’ve just read.
But people can conclude different meanings from the same text; that’s the whole point. However students can’t determine their own meaning until they first make some kind of connection—to another text, situation, or personal experience—that relates to what they’ve just read.
Meaning comes from context. And context is usually what students leave out in their responses. In order to help our students think and make meaning from what they’ve read, we need to show them examples of responses full of context and connection. Connections create cohesion and clarity. A student knows what we mean when we say, “Make a connection; to something else in the text or to your own experience yourself.” They do not know what it means to simply “explain.” Honestly, neither do I.
Explain what? Why I chose the evidence? What I think the meaning is? What connections I made to the text and the greater question? That, I can do.
We need to ask students to make connections in all of their writing, but it’s essential that they do so in response to reading. After all, the entire purpose behind this kind of writing is to demonstrate critical analysis of the text. In other words, to formulate thoughts and make connections.
Show your students writing rich with connections and context, ask them what they notice, then set them on the task of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing. I promise, their real thoughts and abilities will surprise you.