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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Answering Questions and the CCSS

"Do we have to answer in complete sentences?" If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that question, I'd be a really rich woman!

When I began teaching, I decided that my students should write answers to questions in complete sentences. Each answer was required to use question parts, avoid pronouns, and answer the question succinctly. "A complete sentence makes a complete answer" was drilled into my students' heads.

But times are changing, and so must I. 

Question: What is the driving force of this change? 

Answer: The driving force of this change is the Common Core State Standards. College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard R.1 states, "Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text." Tucked in the Common Core State Standards website, two standards for each grade level spell out requirements for answering questions. One is listed under Reading: Literature, and the other can be found under Reading: Informational Text. This set of standards moves the expectation for answering questions from a complete sentence to a complete paragraph.

Question: How can a teacher prepare his/her students for answering questions?

Answer: A teacher can prepare his or her students for answering questions by providing a clear process and lots of practice. Expectations scaffold from grade level to grade level in the Reading: Literature and Reading: Informational Texts sections of the Common Core State Standards. RL.3.1 and RI.3.1 indicate that third grade students should answer the question using a topic sentence, paraphrase to provide evidence from the text, and conclude. Fourth graders need to do all of this and "refer to details and examples in a text" (RL.4.1, RI.4.1).  Fifth grade students (RL.5.1, RI.5.1) are required to quote from the text. Regardless of grade level, preparation must include thoughtful instruction on how to answer a question and ample opportunities for practice throughout the year.

In the above answers, I've attempted to model answers that your intermediate and middle school students should be writing. Each answers the question in the first sentence using question parts, provides evidence with citing and quoting in the middle, and concludes at the end. With guidance and practice, your students can master this process.

This year, I decided to take the RL.4.1/RL.5.1 plunge. During the first week of school, my students began answering questions for our summer read, The Black Stallion, in paragraphs. Although I did not expect full paragraph answers for every question in every subject, longer answers were required at some point nearly every week. I dug deeper into texts I was already using, such as Ella Enchanted and Hatchet, to offer plenty of opportunities for answering explaining and inferring questions. When that didn't seem like enough, I pulled excerpts from classic literature, such as The Wind and the Willows and Just So Stories, and provided more modeling and practice. Planning sheets and posters and rubrics were created. Was it worth it? Yes, with hard work and persistence, my students have become solid question-answerers.

Now it's time for classrooms across the nation to move their students from one-sentence answers to one-paragraph answers. How important is this standard? Well, let's just say that I don't think it is Standard #1 by accident. Come on in, the water's fine.