The Best Way To Create Constructed-Response Essays

by | Mar 1, 2022 | Educational Resources, Teaching Strategies, Writing | 0 comments

Writing essays today looks a lot different than it did when I first started teaching. 

Many states have shifted away from narrative (story) writing to focus more on informational and opinion essays. In Florida, students in fourth grade are expected to write text-based essays. 

This switch to fact-based writing in elementary grades is one of the biggest changes I’ve seen since I started teaching.

First Things First: Understand the Terms 

Let’s be real, the terminology around fact-based writing varies from person to person. So for our discussion here, I thought it would be best to define things before going forward. 

Essay 

Honestly, the word essay seems to be used rather generally to refer to a long piece of writing about a topic. Some people also refer to extended response questions on tests as “short essays.” 

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

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

We have discussed in other blog posts the best ways to teach text-based essay writing. 

Many teachers use the acronym RACE. Personally, I like to use the acronym TEACH. If you want to learn more about TEACH, you can read here

Helping students learn to manage their time can help ensure that they receive at least partial credit for their essays. Running out of time can be a huge problem for many students, as they can spend a lot of time in the prewriting stage.

These are eleven 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 and answer that question in your writing is the #1 most important thing students need to do during standardized testing. 

Teachers can focus on the prompt 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.

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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 start practicing writing from the beginning of the year on – don’t wait until right before testing. A good way is to break the writing skills down and focus on just one at a time. For example, just practice writing topic sentences, then the introductory paragraph, etc. By the middle of the year, students will be ready to write a complete essay. During the month before testing, teachers can hold one or two writing practices in test format so students get the feel of how much time they will have.

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.

3. Read Closely

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: “Planning is key to easy writing.” (I also tell them a stitch in time saves nine but they don’t always understand that….)

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 who 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 past their fear of failure.

6. Make an Outline

Every student should learn how to outline. I strongly believe that outlines make writing infinitely easier, and even students who think they don’t like to write do better when they learn to plan what they will say before starting their paragraphs.

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. One way to do this is to number the paragraphs. When citing information from the essay, students write the number of the paragraph next to the evidence.

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 they summarize their points in the conclusion?

Reviewing their plan before beginning the essay can save students a lot o

8. Introduction

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.

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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, and 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.)

10. Conclusion

Restate the thesis/opinion and summarize the evidence used. Again, it is more important to finish than be fancy.

11. Reread

With whatever time students have left, they should reread what they wrote 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.

 

I find it most effective to select 1 or 2 of these and create a min-lesson from them. Honestly, our students won’t remember more than that in one lesson. In fact, we might practice each step a few times before adding the next one. It is better to master a step before moving on.

Free Resource For Students!

I created a resource for teachers to use with students that will help them review best practices for writing an evidence-based essay. You can get this resource by signing up for my newsletter. Just click on the photo below!

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Over twenty plus years, my educational career has spanned four continents and two states, as well as eight grade levels!

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