Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, more seeds, special education

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

Posted in general education, literacy, mind, special education

A Simple Scoring Rubric for Writing

Teaching and Assessing Writing

In my teaching career, I’ve taught preschool through adult education. Writing, of course, happens in every age group.

I also have certifications, and have taken educational coursework, that taught me how to “teach” writing at all those ages. And what I’ve learned contradicts itself!

When kids are in preschool, we work on letter formation and sounds, drawing colorful pictures to tell a story, and getting kids to use symbols to represent ideas and sounds. We are excited when they “write” stories, and encourage them to use symbols of any type to communicate.

When kids enter the elementary grades, we give them writing prompts. We teach them how to elaborate, how to develop a narrative, how to provide important details. We tell them that “spelling, punctuation and capitalization don’t count.” We continue focusing on the content of the writing and the development of “story” through the middle grades.

Then kids hit high school. And we ding kids for not spelling correctly, using punctuation appropriately, and capitalizing proper nouns.

And think about the last time you received something written by an adult, and you discovered a “there/their/they’re” error. Just one. What did you think of that adult? I recall receiving an invoice for having my pipes thawed from a big name plumbing company, and the plumber had written the service as “thrall pipes.” His plumbing work might have been excellent, but what impression do you think I got about that plumber, and the company?

Writing is a complex process for students… and challenging for teachers to score. {Image Credit (c) 2013 Kim M. Bennett}

We’ve Been Scoring Writing All Wrong…

Too often, while kids are younger, we tell them that the mechanics of writing don’t count. We do this from a well-meaning place, for we don’t want them to interrupt the flow of ideas because they are worried about spelling. Their short response work, if it is graded at all, is based on a 0-1-2 score (not answered / partially answered / fully answered). And writing prompts are usually a 12-point assessment of the development of the essay or narrative. Yet, we give the kids spelling tests where the kids must spell the words correctly in isolation, then tell them, where it REALLY counts  – in their writing – that, well… it doesn’t.

We continue to ask teens and young adults to respond in writing, and focus on the development of the answer. But, by the time they are grown, and they continue to show errors in spelling, grammar or other conventions, we look at them and say, “She’s a terrible speller,” and then don’t teach spelling any more.

Think about the student you have who struggles with any of these conventions of writing. We tell him spelling doesn’t count, but he doesn’t know how to get past that. Let me tell you, by the time that this student is in 10th grade, he will be paralyzed by not being able to spell, and will refuse to write a word without a teacher telling him how to spell everything. And, at this point, when the student is filling out job applications and writing letters to universities, these things, sadly, DO count.

Additionally, telling students not to worry about writing conventions also assumes that a student’s main obstacle to successful writing is developing the actual “guts” of the writing piece – not simply starting the writing process. The students in that “zero” pile (ones who have little or no written response on their papers) are left at the starting line when we ignore the above causes for poor writing performance. And most writing lessons focus on the development of writing, not the actual event of putting your pen to paper and beginning it.

The development of the written piece, writing mechanics, question analysis and writing strategies are often taught, and evaluated, separately. {Image credit (c) 2011 Kim M. Bennett}

The Four C’s: Creating a Balanced Scoring Rubric for Writing

A colleague of mine once let me borrow a stamp that she had used to grade summaries. It used a simple 10-pt scored that broke the written summary into four discrete areas that covered all the bases in writing. I liked it so much, that I developed a simple, balanced scoring rubric for teaching students what well-written response work was. It also allowed me to identify a specific writing focus so that we could take baby steps toward becoming confident writers.

ComponentMax PointsDescription What it Assesses
Complete3All parts of the question or prompt are addressedAbility to analyze a question or prompt and comprehend it, in order to form a response
Correct3The question or prompt is answered correctlyMastery of curricular content
Content2The focus skill or strategy is demonstratedMastery of the taught learning strategy or skill
Conventions2The response demonstrates the targeted writing mechanics focusMastery of the taught writing mechanics skill

I have found this scoring system so helpful with writers of all ages and abilities, because it takes the very complex writing process and helps the students (and me!) focus on the specific set of skills and strategies that I have been teaching them for that instructional segment. It also keeps me focused when I’m grading (grading writing can be hard!).

This rubric is also helpful when I’m monitoring IEP goals and objectives, too, as I can customize a student’s rubric to his or her writing goals.

The proper writing rubric can quickly score any type of written response work, in any content area. {Image Credit (c) 2013, Kim M. Bennett}

The Four Cs Rubric in Action: Earth Science

Let’s demonstrate the use of this rubric to evaluate student response work in a high school Earth Science class. Examples are given based on the question type.

Text-Dependent Question, Type I: “Right There” Questions

“Which ancient civilization’s calendar gave rise to our modern calendar?”

  • Is the response complete? This question has only one part to it. The answer should be the right TYPE.
    • 0 pts: no answer
    • 3 pts: answer given that is on-topic (NOTE: the answer might be incorrect – the answer is the Ancient Romans; students would get credit for misidentifying the culture [Ancient Greeks] but not for “IDK” or “yes”)
  • Is the response correct? This question is fact-based.
    • 0 pts: correct answer not given
    • 1 pt: student says “Gregorians” or “Julians” – not ancient cultures
    • 2 : student says “Pope Gregory” or “Julius Caesar” – individuals but not their cultures
    • 3 pts: correct answer (“Ancient Romans”) given
  • Is the skill or strategy content (let’s say, “Turn the Question Around”) demonstrated adequately?
    • 0 pts: Not attempted.
    • 1 pts: Attempted, not fully demonstrated.
    • 2 pts. Fully demonstrated.
  • Is mastery of writing conventions (e.g., spelling words correctly that are in the question) demonstrated?
    • 0 pts: 5 or more errors
    • 1 pt: 2-4 errors
    • 2 pts: 0-1 error

This is just an example. You will adjust the rubric to reflect your own students and teaching. Below are examples with questions of other question types (NOTE: the scoring for Content and Conventions will remain the same as the above example).

Text-Dependent Question, Type II: “Read and Find Out” Questions

“What advantage did Galileo have over the astronomers that went before him, and how did it help him?”

  • Is the response complete? This question has two parts to it: mentioning use of telescopes, and what it showed Galileo about celestial objects
    • 0 pts: no parts answered
    • 1.5 pts: one part answered
    • 3 pts: both parts answered
  • Is the response correct? This question is fact-based, but requires more extended reading, and a comparison.
    • 0 pts: no part answered correctly
    • 1 pt: one part answered correctly
    • 2 pts: both parts answered correctly
    • 3 pts: both parts answered correctly, with explicit comparison made

Text-Dependent Question, Type III: “Author and Me” Questions

“ANALYZING RELATIONSHIPS. Is Copernicus’s theory completely correct? Why or why not? How does his theory relate to what we know today about the sun’s position in our Solar System and in the Universe?”

  • Is the response complete? This question has four parts to it.
    • 0 pts: no parts answered
    • 1 pts: one part answered
    • 2 pts: two parts answered
    • 3 pts: 3-4 parts answered
  • Is the response correct? This question, as stated in the text, is an analysis of the overall ideas presented in the section. It requires the student to pull in his or her background knowledge about the Solar System and the Universe. It is easier to score the parts then total the points.
    • Part 1: “Is Copernicus’s theory completely correct?”  – The answer is no. (1 pt)
    • Part 2: “Why or why not?” – Although a helocentrist, Copernicus thought the Sun was the center of the whole Universe, not the Solar System (1 pt)
    • Part3 & 4: “How does his theory relate to what we know today about the Sun’s position in our Solar System and in the Universe?” – 1) Modern telescopes, computer modeling, and photography have confirmed the Sun’s position at the center of the Solar System ~ 2) We also know that each star represents another Solar System, with movements that confirm Copernicus’s theory ~ 3) The same technology also has shown that there are many solar systems in many galaxies, and that our Sun is near the edge of an expanding Universe. (0.5 pts each for reference to technology, the position of the Sun in the center of the Solar System, and the size and nature of the Universe – potential for 0.5 bonus points).
The same rubric can be used to score writing across all content areas. {Image Credit (c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett}

Hints for Scoring Written Responses

As a teacher, I found it helpful to take the assessment along with my students – I recommend you do this, as well. It will allow you to catch mistakes or typos (it always happens), and you can write out the answer YOU expected to see, making it easier to score when you correct your students’ work.

Don’t use this rubric to score everything the students write. Choose one assignment a week as a writing assessment. Use the results to guide your writing instruction, but not necessarily as a grade.

Download a Free Copy of the Scoring Rubric

Try this rubric out with your students. Download the directions for the rubric, and a blank copy of the rubric. You can write in your own focus areas in the proper columns, and change them as you need to.

Please feel free to comment, below, if you’d like tips on identifying a focus for your writing, or on how to score a written response. I’d love to help!

The 4 C’s Scoring Rubric for Writing – Directions

The 4 C’s Scoring Rubric for Writing – Template (pdf)