Teach Constructed-Response Writing Explicitly

All the work you do to teach your students to read independently and comprehend proficiently is ultimately assessed in the form of a constructed reading response. This brief writing assesses the level of a student’s thinking about the reading and his ability to support his conclusions with text-based evidence. Plan time within the year to teach students this unique form of writing.

Don’t have formulaphobia
The nature of “constructing” something implies that it is carefully and deliberately put together. This is true of constructed responses, too. Within 2-4 sentences, students must provide essential information.

Providing students with a structure can aid them in writing stronger responses that demonstrate deeper thinking. A formula not only ensures the essential components are included, but also that they are communicated succinctly and concisely.

STEP 1: Understand the prompt.

Before students can successfully write a constructed-response, they need to know how the prompts/questions work. Most constructed-response prompts include three basic parts. It’s important to help students understand how to break down the 3 components of a constructed-response prompt.

  1. Background knowledge: Typically the first sentence establishes a little context or offers a quick reminder of the passage.
  2. Petition: Each prompt includes a task or request for the reader to accomplish. This may be written as a command or a question. This facet communicates what students must do to complete this required element. Look for words like explain, analyze, compare, etc.
  3. Proof: The last sentence in the prompt often specifies that students must include multiple details from the text.

STEP 2: Restate the question.

Students need to know that only their responses are read. Teachers/Scorers don’t read the original prompt. Thus, constructed responses have to provide context and make sense all by themselves. Teach students to restate the question by rearranging the words in the original prompt. Model how to do this; then invite students to participate orally.

TIP: Require that students avoid pronouns in their responses. Use specific nouns, rather than he, she, it, etc. This helps bring context to the response when the scorer is assessing it.

STEP 3: Provide a general answer.

The first sentence should include a restatement of the prompt and a general answer with no details. This sentence serves as a topic sentence to the specific details and examples that will follow. (Students often give too many details in their opening sentence. When they do that, there is nowhere for their thinking to go. Encourage them to slow down their thinking.)

TIP: After introducing the concept of a general answer, then outlaw the use of “because” in any first sentence of a CR. If students include “because,” they will likely reveal details that should be saved for the supporting sentences.

STEP 4: Skim the text.

Students cannot provide the general answer if they didn’t first think of specific details. It’s the synthesis or conclusion of the relevant textual details that helps them to develop the topic sentence. So when it’s time to go into the text for proof, students should know precisely which details they are looking for–it’s just a matter of locating them. This requires skimming.

Model how you slide your index finger down the margin of the relevant paragraphs. Tell students that your eyes are pulling through each line quickly looking for certain words/phrases.

TIP: Explain that skimming is not plowing through the paragraphs or rereading the entire text. Rather, demonstrate how to first get in the vicinity of the details. Show students how to navigate the text quickly using text features and text structures.

STEP 5: Cite multiple author details.

The details students pull from the text are proof that their general answer (Step 3) is correct. And the proof must come in multiple examples. If students provide only one detail, then they aren’t fulfilling the prompt requirement of “Use details from the reading.” Notice “details” is plural. The expectation is that students find two or more examples.

TIP: Sometimes students provide two text details that are essentially repeats of one another. To ensure students are referencing two different examples, encourage them to look in different portions/paragraphs of the text.

Teach students how to weave the author’s words from the text into their sentences of proof. Provide students with sentence starters to support them with this step. The text states…For example…According to the passage…A second example from the text…The author also states…On page __, it stated…

STEP 6: End with why the evidence fits.

At this point, the scorer is thinking…So what? What do the details prove? Show students how to wrap up a response by explaining or interpreting their evidence. When practicing these concluding statements, provide students with sentence starters. This shows…This demonstrates…I believe…Now I know…This proves…

STEP 7: Reread only your response.

Strong responses do NOT require the scorer to read the original prompt. The response should make sense all by itself. The response has to provide context, a general answer, and specific evidence.

That said, when practicing these writings, have students draft their responses on separate paper or in a separate digital document, apart from the original prompt. Without the original prompt for reference, it’s easier for students to see when their CRs are incomplete or inadequate.

Start early & start orally.
The steps each build on one another. Think of it like playing hopscotch–you can’t jump to the second box without hopping to the first one. These skills work similarly. You can’t teach step 3 in a constructed response if you didn’t first teach steps 1-2. The early steps are prerequisites for the later ones. (NOTE: The steps on our newest Smekens Education poster are listed like a hopscotch board–from the bottom up.) That said, although all grade levels may not teach all 7 steps, start early and teach as many steps as you can.

As you target each step, do so with simple, high-interest texts. Students can’t practice the response skill if the text is too complex and they struggle to comprehend it. In other words, let students practice finding evidence with texts that are easy to understand before upping the text complexity.

Also, consider that students can’t write what they can’t say. So allow them to practice the steps orally in class discussions and small groups before moving the skill to writing. You can improve their thinking without always having them write. (NOTE: This is particularly important for young readers, ELL, and students with special needs.


A Starter Kit for Differentiation

A Starter Kit for Differentiated Instruction

Posted on November 19, 2014 by Jennifer Gonzalez

[Note: Some links below are Amazon Affiliate links. If you click these and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!]

You have probably come to this article for one of two reasons: Either you want to start differentiating instruction in your classroom and don’t know where to start, or you already differentiate, but want to see if you’re missing anything. I have combed through tons of online resources on how to differentiate instruction, and have put together this collection of the clearest, most high-quality resources for learning how to differentiate in your classroom. Off we go, then!

Step 1: Learn the Basics

Lots of teachers think they are differentiating, when they really kind of aren’t. So before you get started, give yourself a solid overview of what differentiation is (and isn’t) and how it works. To do that, you need to read Carol Tomlinson, whose work is the gold standard in differentiation. Her book, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, is the best one I’ve seen on the subject. And it’sshort: At just over 100 pages, it’s a fast, easy read, and is full of useful information that will set you on the path toward high-quality differentiation.

In addition to explaining basic principles, the book shows you how to manage a differentiated classroom, teaches you specific strategies, and lets you peek inside a few sample differentiated classrooms so you can see how all the parts work together. I really can’t recommend this book highly enough…get it!

Step 2: Watch Real Teachers Differentiate

Reading about how to differentiate on paper is helpful, but seeing other teachers actually doing it will give you a far better understanding of how to implement the strategies in your own classroom.

This Edutopia video shows how one school has set up a system they call Reteach and Enrich, where time is built into the schedule every day to reteach students who haven’t met learning targets or provide enrichment activities for those who have. Watching this process in action makes it really clear HOW to make it work:

In this Teaching Channel video, high school math teacher Maria Barchi demonstrates how shetiers instruction by giving different exit slips to students based on their mastery of a lesson, then adjusts instruction the following day based on their responses:


LESSON IDEA (COMMON CORE) Daily Assessment with Tiered Exit Cards (5 min)

Grades 6-12 / Math / Assessment



Here, second grade teacher Robert Pronovost shows how he uses two separate online programs, Planet Turtle and Dreambox, to meet students’ individual needs in 2nd grade math (Teaching Channel):


LESSON IDEA (COMMON CORE) Differentiating in Math Using Computer Games (6 min)

Grades K-2 / Math / Technology



This video shows 5th grade teacher Stacy Brewer demonstrating how she differentiates process for readiness in writing responses to a text: Because this group of ELL students needs additional help, she works with them while the rest of the class responds to their questions independently (Teaching Channel).


LESSON IDEA (COMMON CORE) Analyzing Texts: Putting Thoughts on Paper (5 min)

Grade 5 / ELA / Writing



Finally, this Teaching Channel video shows how Mary Vagenas uses Learning Menus to differentiate in her 7th grade Social Studies class:


LESSON IDEA (COMMON CORE) Differentiating with Learning Menus (5 min)

Grade 7 / Social Studies / Differentiation



Step 3: Gather Differentiation Tools

Once you understand the basic principles of differentiation, it’s a good idea to have a few basic tools on hand.

Task Cards

What are task cards? They are all the rage in some classrooms: The basic idea is that you take tasks and questions that might normally appear on worksheets and put them onto laminated cards (one item per card), which allows you to better individualize instruction, set up centers, and group students according to need (plus, you can re-use them year after year!). You can make your own or browse through thousands on Teachers Pay Teachers. This free e-book by Rachel Lynette explains how to use them in detail:

Tiered Lesson Template

This blog post from Marsha McGuire at A Differentiated Kindergarten shows you how to plan a tiered lesson and includes an editable template. Even though the featured classroom is a kindergarten, Marsha’s system would work effectively with all age groups.

Using Color to Help You Tier Differentiated Activities

Learning Menus

This packet from the University of Virginia Curry School of Education teaches you how to create learning menus or choice menus, which offer students a variety of learning activities to choose from, depending on their interests and learning profiles.

Choice Menus (PDF)

Further Reading

There’s No Time to Differentiate: Myth-Busting DI, Part 2
by John McCarthy
This Edutopia article discusses some of the myths about and objections to differentiation.

Dr. Kathie Nunley’s Layered Curriculum
This website is based entirely on the Layered Curriculum philosophy. Somewhere between a learning menu and a tiered unit, a layered curriculum looks like an interesting take on differentiation and is worth a look once you’ve got the basics down.

Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom
by Carol Tomlinson and Marcia Imbeau
Although I have not read this one, I got a recommendation from Dr. Jennifer Beasley, an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Arkansas. “This is a practical guide for how to begin to establish routines and practices that facilitate differentiation. We all know that we could have the most beautiful lesson on paper and see that same lesson fall apart in the classroom as a result of forgetting to give directions for handing out materials. This resource offers many practical examples for putting some routines in place to allow for working in groups, answering questions, or even talking with your students about differentiation.”

Call for Lesson Plans

I spent the better part of a day searching everywhere for really good, clear lesson plans that show differentiation in action. That was supposed to be part of this kit, but most of what I found was either too difficult to understand, poorly formatted, or just not good quality differentiation. If you have lesson or unit plans that you think would help others learn to create their own differentiated plans and are willing to add these to a collection I’ll keep here, please send me an email and let me see them! ♦

Check out the blog post at: