How to Successfully Write Constructed-Response Essays
Writing class looks very different today than it did when I started teaching. In many states, students are writing fewer narratives (stories) and more essays.
For example, in Florida, students are expected to write text-based essays starting in fourth grade. This shift to writing based on facts is one of the most significant changes I have seen in education since I started teaching in the 1990s.
In this post, I am not discussing how to write the essay itself, as I have done in previous posts. Instead, I want to discuss how you can help your students prepare themselves for writing a constructed-response during standardized testing.
Understanding The Writing Terms
I will be honest; there are so many different names for fact-based writing that I had to look them up and double-check how they were similar or different.
Honestly, essay seems to be used rather generally to refer to a long piece of writing that involves the writer about a topic. They also are referred to as extended response questions on tests.
People often call writing an “essay,” even if it is a specific type of writing. In general, essays are usually assessed on writing ability, although they may also be graded on content.
Open-response writing is an essay that requires writers to cite text evidence to support their opinion or thesis. In my research, the terms evidence-based writing, text-based writing, and constructed response writing all seem to be used as synonyms of open-response writing. It can be confusing because there are also constructed-response and open-response questions.
I prefer evidence-based or text-based writing because they describe what the writer has to do in the essay. However, constructed-response seemed to be more common (at least in my Google searches.)
Writing A Constructed-Response Essay
I have written previous blog posts about how to teach text-based essays. Although many people use the RACE acronym, I prefer TEACH (or I have heard some teachers use just the TEA part). I will not get into the acronym in this post, but you can read more about it here.
Teachers can help students do well on evidence-based essays by helping them learn to manage their time and teaching them to make sure they get at least partial credit on their essays.
Here are 11 tips for teaching your students about text-based essays on standardized tests:
1. Read the prompt/question carefully
If you misread the question, you could write the most fantastic essay ever – and still fail. Making sure you understand the question being asked is the #1 most important thing students need to do during standardized testing.
Teachers can drill this fact during their writing class. They can have students circle or highlight the keywords in the prompt. Students could also rewrite the question in their own words.
2. Pace Your Work
Standardized tests give students a specific amount of time. Students need to use that time wisely to complete their work before the end of the session.
Teach students how to divide their time at the beginning of the work session. I recommend having students write down the start times for each activity on their planning paper. Having it written down gives students a visual reminder.
For example, if the writing session is 90 minutes, students should spend about 30 minutes reading the texts, then 5 – 10 minutes understanding the prompt. As their time is nearly half over, they need to divide the remaining time for planning, writing, and editing. Honestly, if they don’t make it to editing, it will be fine – but planning alone won’t get a good score.
I recommend teachers do one or two practice essays in the months before testing. That is enough for students to get a feel for how long they have to finish. You don’t want to stress students out by over-doing testing scenarios – they are already over-tested as it is.
Read the texts carefully. As the essay is based on the texts, students who misunderstand the passages will probably not do well on the essay. Teachers need to emphasize that racing or skimming texts will not save students time in the long run – because they won’t have evidence in mind to answer the prompt.
I also recommend teaching students to write the main idea of each paragraph in the margins. These notes give students a quick visual to help them locate information when they are planning their essays.
4. Decide On The Topic
Okay, students DO NOT like to plan. (This is a struggle in my house, too.) Planning is key. Planning makes writing the essay a million times easier.
At this point, it is the mantra I tell my children: “You must plan your writing before you can start.”
Before writing ANYTHING, students should determine what their opinion or thesis is and have three general ways they can support it. As soon as they have figured out those, they should write them down.
5. Partial Credit Is Better Than Nothing
We all have students that just get stuck and sit there. In part, students do this because they are afraid to fail. Teachers need to remind students during practice that any essay – even an incomplete one – will earn a score. Any score is better than no score.
The goal is not for students to turn in a partial essay, but to move students passed their fear of failure.
6. Make an Outline
Every student should learn how to outline. I strongly believe that outlines make writing so much easier, and even students who think they don’t like writing do better when they learn to plan what they will say in each paragraph.
Even if teachers don’t specifically use the outline format, they can show students how to organize their thoughts in “buckets” or “clouds.” Students should know what their general evidence topics are and add at least 2-3 things they will say about that evidence to their plan.
Teachers should also show students how to add the text evidence directly to the outline, which saves a lot of time when they are writing the essay. Students won’t need to search for their evidence because it will already be on their plan.
7. Does Your Essay Stand Alone?
So many times, students write their essays like the reader has read the texts or the prompt. Teachers need to drill the idea that the reader should understand the essays without anything else to receive a good score.
After students have an outline, they should review it and ask themselves if they have included enough information for the reader to follow their argument.
- Is their opinion/thesis clearly stated?
- Is the evidence easy to understand?
- Did they explain how the evidence supports their thesis?
- Did the summarize their points in the conclusion?
Reviewing their plan before beginning the essay can save students a lot of time.
I know a lot of students (and myself) just get stuck on how to start. Writers waste a lot of time trying to think of the perfect opening. Emphasize to your students that they should just start. A simple introduction is better than not finishing while they think of a clever hook.
Their introduction should clearly state the topic or problem and their opinion or thesis. Students should also quickly overview what their evidence or reasoning is for their thesis.
If students have extra time at the end, they can go back and try to improve the introduction. However, it is essential for them to not waste a lot of time on it before their essay is written.
9. Get’er Done
Use the outline to write the essay. Students should do the best they can on grammar and mechanics as they write, but they can always edit if they have time. Having an outline will help them write the essay a lot faster.
If students learn to put their text evidence on the outline, it helps them to remember to add it, and it saves time during this step because they aren’t searching for support to fit their “evidence.” (Another reason to find that text-based evidence during planning – students make sure there is evidence before moving on.)
Restate the thesis/opinion and summarize the evidence used. Again, it is more important to finish then be fancy.
With whatever time students have left, they should reread what they write for clarity. The ideas in the essay must be clear to the reader, so students should focus on that first. Editing for grammar and mechanics should be done in a second reading.
How Many Of These Tips Should I Teach At A Time?
Teachers should select 1-2 of these tips at a time and make them a mini-lesson. Students won’t remember more than that. Remember, breaking essays into manageable steps is the best way to help students master essay writing.
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