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8 Steps to Better Written Responses

Writing Across the Curriculum

In schools across the country, come September, all students will be sitting down for a 45-minute writing prompt. It will be about something predictable: a fictional narrative for third graders; an informational piece for fifth graders; a persuasive essay for eighth graders..pe. Preparing students for these quarterly or monthly prompts is a major focus for most language arts teachers.

What is often missing in writing instruction is explicit instruction on how to compose high-quality written responses to questions across the curriculum. The work we do to help students write narratives with elaboration, or explanatory texts with excellent use of citations, or a well-developed argument, doesn’t seem to translate into well-written responses to questions in their biology textbooks, or even their responses to literature in English class.

This summer, I spent six weeks teaching my students how to analyze question types (recall, explanation, application, synthesis, analysis, evaluation) based on the book, Because of Winn-Dixie, and how to craft well-structured responses that show their understanding of what they read.

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These 8 steps to better written responses can be used with any age group, in any subject. {Image credit: (c) 2014, Kim M. Bennett}

The State of Written Response Work: Our Baseline

On the first day of school, I assigned an easy reading passage (so the students could focus on their comprehension questions, rather than decoding). Here is a typical response, which earned zero points using my 10-point writing rubric:


Atka and the other socialized wolves at the center are not afraid of people. Why are the other 19 wolves at the center afraid of people?

“So they can go back into the wild.”

{Student J, Grade 8}


I set out to develop an instructional sequence which would help students to analyze the question being asked, determine what was essential information to include in their response so that the reader could understand the answer and to show understanding of what they read, and teach them how to check their response to make sure it had everything it needed to be excellent.

Steps for Writing a Good Response

We used the four areas of the 10-point rubric as a guide for analyzing the question and constructing an answer.

Step 1: Listen to the question.

Students follow along as you read. Most writing prompts allow the teacher to read the prompt aloud, to ensure that students are clear about the task. Remember – you have already read the book. This task is to assess understanding of the text – not the words of the question.

Step 2: Determine how many parts your response should have.

Next, students analyze the task, to determine how many parts there should be to the response. Underline the parts that require a response.

  • Hint #1 for finding “parts:” Look for the question mark – read that sentence. What do you have to do to answer it?
  • Hint #2: Look for other “direction words” in questions without a question mark: describe, explain, list, explain…

Step 3: Identify 3-4 words to include in your response.

Students should then circle 3-4 words in the prompt that they want to use in their response. They might try to circle words like the or because, since they are common words. Ask them what are the MOST important words in the question.

  • Hint #1: Who or what is the question about? Circle those important words or names. Without this, it won’t be clear who you’re writing about. In my example, above, it isn’t clear if “they” refers to “Atka and other socialized wolves” or “the other 19 wolves.” So, students might circle the words “other 19 wolves.”
  • Hint #2: What is this question about? In the case above, the question is about why the non-socialized wolves are afraid. So students might circle the word afraid.

Don’t hurry this step. While we often tell kids, “Circle words you might use in the answer,” we don’t usually spend a lot of time helping students analyze what the prompt is really about, and what the essential words are to a good response.

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Help students analyze the question and plan their responses by selecting critical vocabulary and brainstorming ideas. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Step 4: Plan at least 2 ideas to include in your response.

I don’t know about your kids, but mine don’t have the habit of thinking deeply about a question before they answer it. This step helps everyone review (and better understand) the text before writing a response, and helps them orally rehearse the words and phrases they might use.

  • Hint #1: I project or write the question on the board, and show students how to write marginal notes around the question. I draw lines to the parts of the question a word or phrase goes to. I stop when I have a handful of ideas.
  • Hint #2: Before I move on, I ask the kids each time, “Do you have to include ALL of these things in your answer?” And, of course, they say, “no.” Then I ask them, “How many ideas would be in a good response?” And they have learned to say “two,” unless the question states something different.

Some of my kids worry about finding THE correct answer, and struggle when the question just isn’t that kind of question. So this step helps them learn that there are multiple ways to correctly answer the question.

As my kids got better at this step, I added the part where I told them to make sure that their ideas went together well, and modeled that with them.

Step 5: Find at least one detail from the text to support your ideas.

While the ideas are still on the board, I change the color of my pen, and write down specific details from the text to support a few of them, as the kids generate them.

  • Hint: This is a good time to review the proper use of quotation marks for direct quotes from the text.

Step 6: Compose your response.

By this time, some kids will already have an idea how to respond, and will be starting to compose their answer. Give them five minutes or so to put their answer together.

  • Hint: Let kids orally rehearse their answers with you before they write them, if needed. One of my students leaves words out of his responses, so if he rehearses with me first, I can tell him, “I’ll say what you said – check your answer and see if that’s what you wrote.” Then I show him how to use a carat to insert words – don’t worry about re-writing.

Step 7: Review your rubric.

Before we share out, I direct students to review their rubric and check their answer:

  • Did you answer all parts of the question?
  • Is your information correct?
  • Did you include important words from the question in your answer?
  • Did you capitalize the first letter and use an end mark at the end of each sentence?

Usually, they realize they have to edit when they get to the last bullet point.

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Share adult models as well as student models of successful responses and discuss as a group. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Step 8: Share your response.

To show students how there are multiple ways to answer the same question, I like to have two students come up and share their responses on the board.

  • Hint #1: Review the rubric quickly, as a group, so students can analyze the response.
  • Hint #2: Identify places where the student added something to their response to take it from “good” to “great.”
  • Hint #3: If the response needs work, invite students to suggest ways to take it from “good” to “great” – talk about sentence combining, word choice, style – whatever comes up.

Written Responses: Our Finished Work

By the end of the six-week period, the students’ response work was much more well-developed. Here is an example at the end of summer school, by the same student as the previous example {underlined words were words the student selected for his response}:



Opal describes her friend Gloria as the best adult she knows. In what ways does Gloria act like the mother that Opal doesn’t have? How do Gloria’s qualities bring Opal closer to her real mother?

“Gloria has mother-like qualities, and she gives them to Opal. Some of them are that she gives Opal hugs, and she gives her good advice. Opal and Gloria cook together, too. She also talks about her mistakes. For example, Gloria showed Opal a tree and that tree had beer bottles and whiskey bottles, and she told Opal she used to drink. Gloria has Opal thinking about her own mom.”


Who Benefits From This Explicit Instruction?

My group, as yours, is a group of students with diverse learning needs. Here are some of the specific learning needs that this step-wise instructional sequence addressed with my kids:

  • students who don’t know how to begin the response process
  • students with slow processing speed
  • students who don’t understand questions above recall and explanation level
  • students who answer questions impulsively and superficially
  • students who need more scaffolding with reading comprehension strategies
  • students who need to orally rehearse their writing ideas
  • students who struggle with questions that aren’t “right there” questions
  • students who are working on increasing their sentence complexity
  • students who are working on increasing their vocabulary

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Ten Writing Strategies to Jump-Start the Reluctant Writer

The Problem of the Blank Page

I remember my first public school teaching position. We were required to administer writing prompts to our students on a quarterly basis (for the district), but were encouraged to repeat the process in between for evaluating student progress.

Every quarter, my colleagues and I would sit and collaboratively score our prompts. Every quarter, we had a pile of prompts that were scored as zeroes or ones out of 12, simply because the pages were blank, or nearly so.

Fast forward to my time as a consultant, where, once again, I was meeting with teachers (kindergarten, third grade, tenth grade – it didn’t matter) who were faced with the dilemma of what to do with a stack of writing papers that were blank. Sometimes the students were students with disabilities. Usually they were not. The teachers had lessons for teaching elaboration, or paragraph structure, or citing sources correctly. But what to do about the student who sat in front of a blank page for 45 minutes?

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For many students, the writing process gets stalled from the start when they face an empty page. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2016}

Common Causes for the “Empty Page Syndrome”

During data team meetings, we would look at that pile of low-scored prompts, and ask ourselves questions about why each student failed to gain more than two points on the prompt. {I will refer to this as the “Empty Page Syndrome,” because, like any other syndrome, it is a cluster of symptoms that has a singular, often difficult to see, reason behind it.} In order to do this, we had to think about each individual student, and look at the story behind the numbers. Assuming the prompt was read to all students (something teachers are allowed to do), the student is physically able to write, and critical vocabulary was explained (again, something that is allowed by the assessment), what are the common reasons for not scoring on a writing prompt?

  • No ideas on how to respond to the prompt;
  • Had ideas, but took to long thinking and/or planning and didn’t start on time;
  • Lacked stamina to write enough for a well-developed response;
  • Wrote sufficiently, but response was off-topic;
  • Refused to write because writing tasks are historically too complex for the student.

Almost all cases of writing “refusal” and empty responses can be attributed to one of these causes. By breaking down and addressing one of these specific obstacles, we can get students to begin the writing process and get out of the starting gate.

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Refusal to write can often be attributed to the student’s lack of confidence in his writing skills. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2017}

Ten Focused Writing Strategies to Use With Reluctant Writers

Here are the ten strategies I’ve used to help writers of all ages to begin the writing process, whether it’s in reading response work, answering social studies chapter questions, or completing a writing prompt. Each of these would be used INSTEAD of the actual written response work. NOTE: Remember ~ these strategies are to be used to help students get from NOTHING to SOMETHING; most of these are not suitable for refining the work of students who write sufficiently but miss the mark in some other way.

To score written tasks as you are working through these strategies, a response would be considered sufficient if the student used the strategy successfully. Once the strategy is mastered, you can add other components to the tasks. {NOTE: These also make good starting points for IEP goals and objectives for writing.}

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When a student lacks certain writing skills, or is not confident in his abilities, the writing process often ends before it can really begin. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2018}

For the Student with No Ideas:

For students who aren’t sure what to write, the focus of these strategies is on understanding the prompt or question and having a plan for how to respond to it.

  1. Restate the question in your own words. Instead of answering the questions, the student will state, in his own words, what the question is asking him to do. This also allows you to see if the student understands the task, at all. {This works GREAT in math class, too}.
  2. Write 3 ideas that you can use in the answer. This allows the student to share a small number her ideas without feeling overwhelmed by the whole writing process. The ideas can later be turned into a response, if you wish.

For the Student Who Needs Writing Stamina:

For most of my current students, I just want to get them to write more than a sentence or two. In order to build endurance, I use a variety of strategies that focus on the simply putting pen to paper for a specific amount of space or time. The content, right now, is not important. I even told one student, “Just write ‘I don’t know what to write” over and over until the bell goes off.” He did.

  1. Write X lines. Sometimes, students have a hard time knowing when a written response is completed. By giving the student a target number of lines to fill (which can change as students build endurance), they can easily see when they are “done.”
  2. Fill the time. I often start with 5 minutes, then move up in 5 minute increments to 15 minutes, then upward in 15 minute increments to 45, with the goal that students should be able to write for a full class period, including planning, writing, revision and editing. This is an easy strategy to use with daily journaling.
  3. Fill the space. Some students don’t understand that you can’t write a high-quality response with too few words. In this strategy, students must write enough to fill in all the space provided. This strategy can be used with all ages, and for all subject areas.

For the Student Who Has Trouble With Time Management:

For students who need to use MORE time to write, you can use the “Fill the Time” strategy (described above). For students who get lost in their thinking, I would use the next strategy.

  1. Start within 5 minutes. I set a time for 5 minutes, then make a check mark next to any student who is actively writing anything. Students sitting and still looking at their paper would not get a check.

For the Student Who Writes Off Topic:

I once knew a second grader with autism, who only wanted to write about robots. Sometimes, he’d start writing about the prompt, but he’d always end up writing a robot story. If he was told that the prompt was about something else, he would refuse to write.

  1. List X words or ideas that are related to the prompt. To help students focus better on the topic, a good starting place would be just to list words, phrases and ideas that are related, no matter how obtusely. Simply drawing their attention to the topic initially, often keeps them on the right track in their response.
  2. Cross out X ideas that don’t relate to the prompt. I have a teen student now whose writing is a full page of scattered words, phrases and doodles. On the same page will be names of rap artists, swear words, love notes to his mom, random words copied from the board, and, usually, some content that answers the question. He has an IEP goal of taking this writing and crossing out ten things that don’t match the prompt. This is easier for him than stopping the flow of random ideas.
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Word banks and other strategies can make writing tasks simpler for reluctant writers. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2015}

For the Student Who Needs a Simpler Task:

Sometimes, the student’s skills in writing (or lack of skills) make the whole process uncomfortable for them, so they avoid or refuse it. For these students, consider a strategy that is focused on what their learning obstacles are:

  1. Use a word/idea bank . Providing a word bank with key words or ideas helps students who aren’t sure if they understand the prompt, have difficulties with recall, struggle with spelling, or just need a place to start. You can even teach students how to create their own word/idea bank from the prompt, itself, as a next step.
  2. Write X sentences. Sometimes, organizing a whole essay is too much for a student. In this case, reducing the prompt to a certain number of sentences makes the goal more attainable. You can also use the “Write X Lines” strategy, if sentence construction is challenging.

Looking for Writing Resources?

If you are looking for notebook resources that you can use with your struggling writers, check out my Teachers Pay Teachers materials.

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Please visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store for writing resources for all ages.