Prepare for Testing with Writing Stems

Inside: Writing stems help students answer constructed response questions as they cite evidence from the text. Learn how to use writing stems in class. 

Something that’s often repeated during reading class is “Cite your evidence,” and “You need to PROVE your answer.” State test questions often ask students to “use information from the reading” to prove their answers.  

Citing Text Evidence is hard work

Students tend to write answers without referring back to information from the reading. They need to cite evidence directly from the text to support their answers to questions.  Students are stuck before they even get started!

When students are answering constructed response questions, they must:
  • accurately understand and interpret the question 
  • identify important information in the reading
  • develop a quality written response that proves that they know the answer

That’s a lot of skills!

I’ve seen students write “The proof is . . . .” and “Here is the proof.”  I’d like them to be smoother when citing evidence, so I introduced them to some writing stems.

Writing stems are sentence starters

What I’ve discovered with my students is that they’ve learned how to find the answer in the text (we practice that skill a lot!), but students still can’t seem to get the answers from their heads to their papers.

writing-stems-for-constructed-response-questions

Writing stems are also known as sentence starters or sentence frames. They give students an effective way to word their sentences to cite text-based evidence.

I’ve found that simple posters can are really helpful to students as they’re developing quality written answers.

Writing stems give students a starting place when citing evidence from a text.

Citing evidence is difficult for many students because, even when they are able to find the evidence in the text, they aren’t sure how to put it into words. The mini-posters and small individual task card sized cards eliminate the uncertainty and give students confidence.

Using writing stems in class

When I first introduced the stems to my class, I gave them a short nonfiction passage to read. I kept it short because I planned to have them focus mainly on the writing, rather than comprehension of a difficult text.  After we read the passage together, I modeled how to answer text-based questions using several of the writing stems.

how-to-teach-students-to-cite-text-evidence-blog-bulletinboard

On the second day of practice, I chose a nonfiction article about golden snub-nosed monkeys (which is part of a new product that will be coming out soon!) and wrote the following question on the board:  “Explain two facts that you learned from the text.”  (Yes, I know it’s an easy question – but once again, my focus is on the writing!)

citing-text-evidence-student-reference-cards

As I modeled the steps and procedure, I made sure to share my thoughts out loud. It’s important that students understand and follow how I put my thoughts together and organize them for writing.

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Lots of practice with writing stems

Modeling is really important as you teach students to cite text evidence. You’ll find that students mimic your thinking and writing.  Practice, practice, practice this skill. Overlearning is really important to make sure students don’t forget over time.

It’s important that students practice wording the answers in several different ways. I wanted my students to realize that there’s more than one correct way to write their answers.

Even though there are many different writing stems, I encourage students to choose just a few favorites and get comfortable using them. With practice, students will naturally begin to branch out and develop their own style without relying on reference posters or cards.

constructed-response-writing-strategy-cards

You may find that you need to teach students how to quote the text directly. Depending on the age and skill level of your students, they will need to know how to quote directly from the text and also how to paraphrase (indirect quote) from the reading.

text-evidence-for-writing-responses

Writing stems are perfect to use in all subject areas, especially science and social studies or history. Constructing quality responses and proving answers are skills that students need in all class settings to provide quality, top-notch answers. While these are reading and writing skills, they aren’t just for reading and writing classes!

writing-stems-for-constructed-response-answers

Constructed response student reference cards

There are times you may find it convenient to make smaller sized student reference cards. The small posters can be printed the size of task cards by changing printer or copier settings. I often change the settings to print two pages worth of cards on one single page. On a small printer, you change the layout and print 2 pages per page. On a school copier, shrink the pages to 50% or 75% to get the desired size. Hole-punch them and add a book ring.

writing-stems-student-reference-cards

Writing stems provide confidence for students

Citing evidence is an important part of the Common Core standards, and even good readers need a lot of practice with this skill. By displaying posters in the classroom, teachers provide working references for students that are easy and available for use.

In my humble opinion, writing stems provide confidence for students and give them a starting point for writing their answers.

constructed-response-writing-stems-for-students

As with any new strategy, students need repeated practice with new skills, and they need reinforcement and feedback.  With practice, their answers get better and better.

Thinking stems for group discussions

As we talk and discuss reading passages together as a group, we use the bulletin board reference posters as thinking stems. I remind students that we call them thinking stems while we’re thinking and talking, and we refer to the sentence starters as writing stems when we’re constructing written responses.

Whether they’re being discussed orally or written out, the purpose of the writing and thinking stems is to communicate text evidence to others.

citing-text-evidence-with-writing-stems

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Related articles to learn more

How to Teach Students to Cite Text Evidence is a step-by-step guide for teaching students to identify textual evidence and support answers to text-based questions with text evidence from passages.

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