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The Common Core Classroom

Emily Stewart, M.Ed.

Guest blogger Emily Stewart, M.Ed., is a third grade teacher at Murch Elementary, a public school in Washington, DC. During the 2012-2013 school year, Emily will be sharing the real-world strategies, challenges, and successes of implementing ELA Common Core standards in her classroom.

Grounded in evidence. Part 3: Constructed responses based on evidence

January 24, 2013

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes construction as: "The art of construing, interpreting, or explaining." I believe the key word is interpreting. Before students delve into text, we first must teach them how to break it apart and look for evidence. It's just as critical to teach our students what to do once they have collected the evidence. The art of interpretation is hard to teach, but if we begin with the basics, and model, model, model — then students can begin to understand the thinking process behind the interpretation they are expected to achieve.

I know many teachers feel that students should have the opportunity to just write, and that their "inner writer genius" will emerge in their constructed responses. I am not one of those people. I teach third grade, and truly believe the basis of all great writing begins with excellent structure. Structure is a MUST! When kiddos are faced with constructed response questions, they need to have strategies in their tool belt to feel confident attacking them.

Structural strategies are the first essential tool in that process. Solid sentence structure, followed by solid paragraph structure provides young writers with a strong base for their responses. From there, students can begin focusing on adding in the bells and whistles. I know this might seem like the wrong approach to some, but I find it works. The students who already come into third grade with a solid understanding of structure can work with me right away on adding the bells and whistles, in their differentiated writing groups.

There are many different acronyms I have heard over the years to help students with the structure they need to answer a constructed response question based on a piece of text. I find the acronym R.A.C.E. to be the best in identifying the four critical elements I expect from my kids in a text-based response.

R: Restate the Question
At the beginning of the year, my students are thrown into a sea of reader's response questions. They must, must, must ALWAYS use part of the question in their answer. I LOVE to start our days reading to my kids — truly my favorite part of being a teacher! Their first job in their reading contract (while I teach guided reading) is to respond to higher leveled questions based on the reading — which are also connected to our reading standard. When they respond orally, they are also expected to use part of the question in their answer. This creates a habit to automatically use part of the question in their answer. The difference in student responses is night and day after I set this expectation.

A: Answer the Question
When we attack this piece in our class, I simply help my students see that they need to have a strong statement — similar to a topic sentence or thesis statement — that states their answer, point, theme, main idea, etc., in order to guide their writing. It not only helps to keep their focus on their answers, but it also helps to answer the question right away, in case they are unable to finish their full answer.

C: Cite Evidence
In our transition from 5 to 8 sentence paragraphs, I try to teach my kiddos about conjunctions. This enables them to use evidence, pairing the text and connection to their schema. You might want to read my previous two posts: Grounded in Evidence. Part 1: Literary Text and Grounded in Evidence. Part 2: Informational Text — to help build your repertoire on how to teach your kids to do this!

E: Explain the Answer
"Explaining the answer" is actually based on the student's schema. When you have taught students to cite evidence and pair it with their schema, this "how" naturally falls into the student's answer — killing two birds with one stone!

Finally, always provide students with a rubric for guidance when they are working on various assignments. Below are a few sites that provide different kinds of rubrics. Or, create your own! The beauty of creating your own is you have the option to provide just the one step you are working on at a specified time, and later putting all the pieces together.

4,3,2,1 Constructed Response Rubric

Specific, Detailed Rubric

Mathematical Concepts Constructed Response Rubric

Rubric Creator

Always remember it is the formative piece of our instruction that is the most critical. Use every constructed response as a building block for student learning, and remember to let everyone shine in this process. Even our struggling writers have something to contribute! Focus on the positive pieces of their response, and use specific feedback with their writing to help bring their evidence-based responses up to par.


Hi Emily,I was wondering if you could fix the links or post new ones to get to the first two rubrics you posted.

It is refreshing to hear that composition begins with sentence construction and that bells and whistles can be added later. Writing is a skill that has many complexities that rest on fundamentals (grammar and syntax). It is even more crucial that we teach these in a connected way in times of increasing expectations.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables