Category Archives: citing evidence

College writing is moving into high school

I am working with a high school sophomore who is writing an argumentative research paper, the kind of research paper I was required to write in college.

His teacher identified the type of information required for each paragraph in a handout.  It includes a hook leading into an introduction leading into a thesis, using a funnel effect to taper to the thesis.  The thesis must have several elements, all of which must be backed with data in the body.

The body must have at least three sections of data supporting the thesis, plus a counter argument which must be debunked.  The conclusion should not merely repeat the thesis but in some other way support the ideas of the essay.

This essay is due not for an A.P. course but for a regular sophomore English class.

With another high school sophomore, I worked on a Toulmin essay.  This kind of essay has a rigid structure for each body paragraph.  First comes a position statement or thesis; second, a claim or example supporting the position; third, data cited to support the claim; fourth, a warrant or a clarification of the connection between the claim and the data; fifth, a counterclaim which rebuts the thesis; and last, a rebuttal with data to destroy the counterclaim.

With another high school freshman I worked on a response to a news article using the SAOQ method:  summarize the article in a few sentences; analyze the main idea or some aspect of the article; offer your opinion on the ideas in the article, using logical arguments to back your opinion; and offer three discussion questions of a probing nature to show you have pondered the article.

These assignments call on higher level thinking skills:  analyzing information; researching, using and citing appropriate data; recognizing truth from stereotypes or “fake news”; recognizing valid counterclaims; evaluating ideas; and synthesizing information into new literary forms.

In short, these writing assignments require critical thinking, the kind of thinking the Common Core Standards advocate.  No matter what you may think of the Common Core Standards, they are putting pressure on schools to develop students who can think.  In the three schools where my three students study, the schools and the students are meeting the challenge.

Connect back to the thesis in persuasive essays

Click on the chart for a larger version.

Suppose you need to write a persuasive or argumentative essay, as do many seventh graders whose states are following the Common Core curriculum.  Suppose you need to take a position on the following statement:  Santa Claus is real.

You decide to take the position that yes, Santa is real.  For your evidence, you use the following points:

  • The Weather Channel and many other news media track Santa’s whereabouts all over the world on Christmas Eve.
  • Santa’s image is used in advertising by Coca Cola and retailers during the Christmas season.
  •  Many movies have been made featuring Santa, including Miracle on 34th Street, The Polar Express, The Santa Claus I, II and III and A Christmas Story.

For your first body paragraph topic sentence, you write, “Many television and radio stations track Santa’s sleigh and reindeer around the world on Christmas Eve.”  If you add, “thus proving Santa is real,” you have a perfect topic sentence.  Then to back up your topic sentence, you list  TV and radio stations which do this.

So far so good.

You start your second body paragraph with, “Second, Coca Cola and other retailers use Santa’s image to sell items.”  The problem here is, “second” what?  You need to say something like, “A second reason to prove that Santa is real is that Coco Cola and other retailers. . .”

Every sentence in every body paragraph should support the topic sentence of that paragraph.  Just as importantly, every topic sentence should support the essay’s thesis.  Some students think, well of course, if I say “second,” the reader knows that what I mean is that this is the second reason why Santa is real.  Not so.  You need to say that.

You always need to state the connections between the evidence and your topic sentences, and between your topic sentences and your thesis.

In working with students writing persuasive essays, I see this lack of connections all the time.  To show the flow of connections, I draw arrows on students’ essays.  One group of arrows goes from the data in a body paragraph to the topic sentence of that body paragraph.  Another arrow goes from that topic sentence to the thesis or topic sentence of the whole essay found in the first paragraph.  If the connections is not stated, I draw the arrows with dashes rather than with solid lines to show that the connection is not explicit.

Make your connections obvious.

When to use parentheses

Parentheses are marks of punctuation used to separate a word, phrase, or sentence from the rest of a sentence.  Here are some suggestions on how to use them.

parenthesesIf the parentheses contain words which are part of a sentence but not a complete sentence themselves, don’t use a period or a comma within the  parentheses.  The exception is when the words within the parentheses are a question or an exclamation.  Then use a question mark or an exclamation point as appropriate.

  • My mother (but not my father) has blue eyes.
  • Both of my mother’s parents had blue eyes (no surprise there!).

If the words in parentheses are a complete sentence, use punctuation at the end of the sentence, within the parentheses. 

  • My father and his mother had brown eyes. (But they each had at least one parent with blue eyes.)
  • My father’s father had blue eyes. (So why didn’t my father have one brown eye and one blue eye?)

Parentheses within parentheses can be grammatically correct, but they can be confusing to the reader.  It’s a good idea to rewrite those ideas using one or no parentheses.

  • I have brown eyes (the brown from my father (who probably had a recessive blue gene, like me)).
  • I have brown eyes.  The brown gene came from my father, who probably had a recessive blue gene, as I do.

When a name can be reduced to its initials, say the complete name first, and immediately after the name put the initials in parentheses.  Later, when you use the initials in place of the name, you need to use an article in front of the initials.

  • Both my mother’s parents were born in the United States (US), but neither of my father’s parents were born in the US.

When writing a research paper, you will be directed by your teacher to to use a particular style book.  That style book will have  information on how to use parentheses for citations and specific Latin abbreviations.  If you are not told to use a particular style book, you can use the Associated Press (A.P.) style book, or you can use a dictionary.  Name that book in the references part of your paper.

In general, it is better not to use parentheses if you can separate information with commas, or if you can rewrite idea to obviate the need for parentheses.  Too many parentheses can muddy the meaning, and the first rule in good writing is to be clear.

Citing evidence is an important writing skill

Citing evidence used to be a skill learned in high school, but with the Common Core State Standards, it has moved to middle grades.  This is because of the Common Core’s emphasis on problem solving.  But it is also because reading critically is an important life skill.


Click on the above graphic to open the pictured web page.

  • Here is the standard for ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade literature reading: ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1
    “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”

“Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”  (The only difference between high school and middle school standards is the degree of reporting textual evidence.)

  • Here is the standard for sixth, seventh and eighth grade social studies: ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1  “Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.”

Middle school students I tutor need to be able to read a selection and answer a question based on the reading.  The students are expected to cite two or more lines of evidence from the reading when they answer the question.

With practice, most are able to do it.  But some students encounter problems, namely

  • Using in their answers information they know is true but which is not given in the reading passage.
  • Taking two sides of an argument when they are expected to choose only one.
  • Citing not enough evidence to thoroughly support their answer.
  • Citing evidence okay but not showing how the evidence supports the answer.
  • Talking about the text in general without actually citing evidence.
  • Writing evidence as direct quotes, without adapting it to the student’s sentence structure. This can include copying pronouns without identifying what they mean.
  • Not paraphrasing.

How to overcome these problems?

  • Emphasize the difference between a guess or hunch and evidence.
  • Model the difference between strong and weak evidence.
  • Make sure students can explain why evidence they choose supports their answer.
  • Practice paraphrasing.
  • Practice using nouns when pronouns are not clear.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

The new SAT writing essay is an improvement

Big changes have come to the SAT essay.

  • It’s optional, not required any more.
  • You have 50 minutes, not 25, to complete it.
  • It’s based on a reading passage, not an out-of-the-blue idea.
  • It will be judged on three criteria: your understanding of the reading passage, your ability to analyze the reading passage, and your writing skills.

It’s still not easy, but it’s certainly more like the writing students do in college.  Often college students need to read a book or a journal article and write a response to it.  Students need to show that they understand what the reading is about, that they can analyze the thinking that went into the passage, and that they can do so in clear, sophisticated English.  Rarely are college students ever offered a philosophical problem with no warning and no preparation, and rarely too are they asked to respond with an essay in one sitting.

The old, 25-minute limit was ridiculous.  Planning a response was reduced to three minutes; writing was limited to 20 minutes; and checking for errors lasted about two minutes, or more often, not at all.  When I work with students on writing anything we spend significant time on planning, developing details and ordering the paragraphs.  You can’t do that in three minutes.  And for most of the writing college students do they have overnight or longer to provide a response.  Good writers put their writing down, take a walk or a hot shower, and then return to the writing inspired.  At least with the new SAT there is breathing room.

Even though the reading selection might contain highfalutin vocabulary, you don’t need to understand every single word to get the gist of a reading selection and to analyze it.  The reading passage is long enough and contains enough persuasive arguments that the student can readily understand it with a strong high school vocabulary.

And the essay is optional.  For students who can write, this is their chance to prove it, adding another way to impress college admission officers.  For students who can’t write well, their lack of skill will show in the multiple choice section of the writing test.

Google the new SAT writing test to find websites offering greater perspective on the change.  See if you agree that the change has improved the test.

Teach children how to think and write like reporters

Reporters are taught to begin news stories with the most important facts first—the who, what, when, where and how.  Less important facts go later in the story.  That way, if the story needs to be cut to fit a space, all the important facts remain.

Writing this way can be a worthwhile exercise for children.  It forces them to use higher level thinking skills:  to analyze a situation and rank facts in a hierarchical order, most important to less important.

news reports JFK's death

A good time to teach this kind of writing is during a social studies class.  Suppose the students have just finished studying the assassination of JFK.  What if they are reporters in Dallas and the assassination has just happened?  How would they write the story?

First, discuss with the students what the important facts are.  Then ask students to consider in what order the facts should be reported.

  • Would the story’s lead sentence start with the time or date? “At 12:30 p.m. central time on Friday, November 22, 1963. . .”
  • Would the sentence start with the place? “At Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. . .”
  • Would the sentence start with the how? “With gunshots. . .”
  • Would the sentence start with who? “President John F. Kennedy. . .”
  • Would the sentence start with what? “An assassination. . .”

In this case, the news story would start with the who since the most important fact is the President of the US.  The next most important fact is that that the President died.  How and where probably rank next.  The least important fact is the date and time it happened.  “President JFK died from gunshot wounds in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 today” might be a good first sentence.

News stories don’t always begin with the who.  Suppose Hurricane Katrina is approaching Louisiana and Mississippi but has not struck yet.

  • Would the lead sentence start with the time or the date: “Sometime tomorrow, Monday, August 29. . .”
  • Would the lead start with the where: “The coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. . .”
  • Would the lead start with the who: “Millions of Americans. . .”
  • Would the lead start with the what: “A category four hurricane. . .”
  • Would the lead start with the how: “With a storm surge expected to surpass 12 feet and winds of more than 130 m.p.h. . . .”

In this case the what and the where are most important, followed by the when.  “A category 4 hurricane is expected to slam the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi in the early hours of Monday” would be a good lead sentence.  How many people could be in harm’s way and the details of what a cat 4 hurricane can do are important, but they are less important than the fact of a strong hurricane threatening a particular area.

Writing like a reporter combines critical thinking skills with writing skills.  If the children report on a breaking news event, they can match their efforts with the stories of real reporters.  Or they can report on real happenings in the classroom–a spelling bee, a field day, a class visitor.  Connecting writing activities to real life events is a sure way to engage students.

Short written responses on tests prove difficult for students

student writing test answerTest questions requiring students to write responses in paragraph form are becoming a standard part of student evaluations. Previously, most written tests, especially at the state level, were composed of multiple choice answers.

This change comes from the Common Core’s requirement for more critical thinking by students. They need to be able to cite evidence, explain their reasoning, summarize a passage, and draw conclusions. They need to use logic and write coherently in complete sentences.

It’s hard, especially for third graders new to this kind of thinking and writing. Here’s why.

  • Students make up evidence from previous reading or life experience, not realizing they must use only the evidence presented in a reading selection.
  • Students offer one piece of evidence when two or three examples are called for.
  • Students forget to include the evidence.
  • Students quote the evidence correctly but fail to connect it to the main idea.
  • Students provide irrelevant details.
  • Students misinterpret what is required of them. If the directions ask students to conclude, they might summarize. If the directions ask students to describe, they might identify.
  • Students do not stick to the point; they go off on tangents.
  • Students write using incomplete or illogical thoughts.
  • Students write around a topic without ever responding directly to the question asked.
  • Students leave out information which they take for granted the reader will know.
  • Students tire or become distracted before they are done writing a response. Their responses seem to stop in the middle of a thought.

Parents and teachers can help students overcome these problems, but it takes practice. We’ll talk about how in coming blogs.