Category Archives: short answer responses

Students lack practice in wide array of writing genres

Last winter, before covid 19 closed schools and eliminated statewide exams, I was tutoring Georgia students for the writing portion of the ELA state exams they faced.

Almost all of the writing portions of the exams required responses to reading.  A student would read a short passage and then be asked to answer a question about the passage.  A more complicated response might require a student to read two passages and combine information from both passages to answer a question.  Both kinds of writing tested reading comprehension.

In preparing for their exams, students might think that the only important writing required of them was responses to questions about reading passages.  “Why did the author call the dog “That Spot” instead of just Spot?  Use details from the passage to support your answer.”  “In what way was the bird in The Secret Garden similar to the horse in Black Beauty?  In what way were the animals different?  Use details from the passages to support your answer.”

The kind of answers required by the exams was short answer responses:  two or three sentences for some responses, or maybe five or six sentences for others.

Some students I tutored had been taught in school to start every answer the same, and to use a fill-in-the-blanks approach to writing.  “One way the bird in The Secret Garden is similar to the horse in Black Beauty is ____.  [Give a detail.]  One way the bird and the horse are different is ____.  [Give a detail.]

Unfortunately, high scores on the exams are so important to school’s and teachers’ reputations that the main focus of the writing program is how to answer these kinds of questions.  Almost no essays.  Almost no book reports.  Almost no responses to current events.  Almost no journal writing.  Almost no poems or letters or research reports.  Almost no science experiment reports.

For most of the students I teach, coming up with their own topics tortures them.  They don’t organize a topic because they haven’t practiced that skill in school.  Revising?  They don’t do it because they don’t know how.  A first draft is good enough.  Editing means correcting spelling errors.  All they know how to do well is answer short response questions.

We are teaching children to be skilled adults.  How many adults are asked to read a two-page passage and answer comprehension questions about it.  “Read this section of the debate between Vice President Pence and Senator Harris.  In what way were their responses similar?  In what way were they different?  Use details from the passage to support your answer.”

Teaching for the test is limiting our students’ ability to write.  It is limiting the genres they practice.  It is limiting the research they do and combine meaningfully in writing.  It is limiting the expression of their own ideas.  It is limiting their thinking.

The curtailing of state exams in spring 2020 was probably good for student writing.  Or rather, it could have been good if students instead practiced other kinds of writing.  Hmm.

What parents want writing teachers / tutors to teach

When parents ask for writing help for their children, what kind of help do they want?Child writing

  • Grammar?
  • Vocabulary?
  • Sentence structures?
  • Organizing?
  • Transitions?
  • Introductions and hooks?
  • Conclusions?
  • Spelling?
  • Cursive handwriting?
  • Details?
  • Revising?
  • Particular types of writing (paragraphs? essays? book reports? short answer responses? long answer responses? summaries?)
  • Narrative elements (character development? plot? setting? foreshadowing?  point of view? conflict? dialog? voice? suspense?)
  • Verb tenses?
  • Paraphrasing?
  • Clarity?
  • Dialog?
  • Figures of speech?

Most parents have no idea so many elements combine to create good writing.  When they see a list like this, they are taken aback.

That is why it is important for parents and teachers to agree on what students should learn at various ages.  If a parent thinks the student should be perfecting grammar, but the teacher instead focuses on organization of information, the parent will not be happy.  Or if a parent thinks a student should be using a great piece of rhetoric as a model, but the teacher wants the student to develop his own way of expression, again the parent will be dissatisfied.

Only when a parent is aware of all that a student is expected to learn can the parent and teacher have a meaningful conversation about how to improve a student’s writing.

Dialectical journals

If you are a high school English teacher, you might know about dialectical journals.  But elementary and lower grade teachers—and parents of younger children—might never have heard of them.  That’s too bad because they are a great alternative to a book report.

Quote word-for-word the text you are analyzing Citation

Q = question

C = Connect

CL = Clarify

P = Predict

R = Reflect

E = Evaluate

Write your response


A dialectical journal is a method of recording information about a book as you read the book.  It requires three types of information:

  • A direct quote of a passage which is worthy of consideration.
  • A one- or two-letter identification of the kind of response the student will make plus the page number or the act, scene and line.
  • The student response.

The response can take many forms.  Suppose the students are reading Lord of the Flies.  A response can ask a question about the text:  Why did Ralph decide on a conch shell to call the children to order?  Why not just whistle?  A response can notice a problem:  All the boys survive the plane crash without injuries while the pilot dies.  That seems unusual.  And items from the plane, like clothes, are not recovered.  A response can draw attention to the plot:  The naval officer arrives just as the boys are about to kill Ralph.  That timing seems unreal.

In using dialectical journals, students should strive to use higher level thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation so that the information can be used to spark class discussions.  Sometimes a response by one student can open the eyes of another without the adult intervening.  If no students are mentioning a concept that the adult thinks is important, the adult can suggest that they keep “tone” or “figures of speech” in mind when they do the next few pages of reading and responding.

By the kinds of responses students make, teachers can gauge what interests or perplexes students about a text and can provide supplementary materials.  If students can write, they can use dialectical journals.   They can be appropriate for students as young as third grade.

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.