Working to Improve Reading Responses (Part 1)
February 26th, 2014 by jonmoss

Note from Jon: This is the first of (probably) three posts that address reading comprehension and critical response skills.  This particular post is an updated version of a message I wrote three years ago on our class website.  I know it’s long, but you might find it helpful!

One of the primary focuses of reading instruction is helping students to improve the quality of their short answer responses.  Unlike multiple choice, true false, or fill-in-the-blank items in which there is a clear right answer, SAR tasks create situations in which students’ success hinges on the quality of their responses, not just their accuracy.  I tend to find that there are three rules that often help students to be more successful when writing their own short answer responses:

  1. Always show the reader that you read and understood the story or article.  PROVE IT!
  2. Always include some sort of textual support to explain your answer.
  3. Read the WHOLE question!  Answer the WHOLE question!

Can you tell what the big trouble spots are?  All three rules include the idea of needing to fully address the question by including relevant story details.  Frequently, students lack the necessary supportive evidence from the text to reinforce their answer.  As I often remind the students, any SAR question faced during reading has one main goal:  To determine if the student understood and can interpret what he or she has read.  If the student’s response lacks specific detail from the text, the reader has no way of measuring the student’s understanding.  Take, for example, the following question and answer:

Question: What two questions would you ask the author of this article?

Answer: I would ask her why she chose to write about insects and what kind of insect is her favorite.

At face value, this response looks like it successfully answers the question – and in all fairness, it does.  But while the question does not explicitly require students to integrate information from the article, this (fictional) student’s failure to do just that leaves us with a weak answer that does not show any understanding of the story.  Both of the questions that the student suggested in his or her response show only a cursory understanding of the text: the story is about insects.  There is no evidence of any in-depth understanding.  This alternate response shows more in-depth comprehension by including details from the (pretend) article:

There are two questions that I would ask the author.  First, I would ask her “Why are centipedes called centipedes if they can actually have between 20 and 300 legs?”  Centi means “hundred,” so I would expect a centipede to have 100 legs.  I would also ask “Are insects with exoskeletons larger than those with skeletons inside their bodies?”  I’ve never seen a large insect before.

Notice a few particular strengths with this response.  First, the student clearly wrote two questions – ending in question marks.  (Yup, that matters!)  Second, the student’s suggested questions include appropriately used terminology from the text (centipedes, exoskeletons) and concepts from the text (20-300 legs, meaning of centi, exoskeletons are outside the body).  By including relevant details from the text, the student has shown that he or she is able to read and understand the text and that they can evaluate information in order to use the most relevant details as supportive evidence.  This is a strong response.

This type of activity is hardly new.  Students have been going “full-steam” on short answer responses since the start of third grade, if not earlier.  Our expectations for short answer responses don’t change much from year to year, minimizing the “moving target” problem for kids.  So why do some students continue to struggle?  I see three possible causes:

  1. Some students are having a genuinely hard time.  This describes the student who sees the question, thinks about what the best possible response could be, but for any number of reasons, he or she is not crafting successful responses.  The student may not be struggling with the skill, per se, but he or she may simply have yet to master the grade-level expectations that go with the skill of writing a short answer response.   I’m continuing to work with students on an ongoing basis to help them to strengthen their skills.
  2. Sadly, some students are unsuccessful because they simply did not carefully read the question being asked of them.  Consider the two part question: “Do you agree with Laura’s decision at the end of the story?  What advice would you give her so she could solve her problem without hurting Lester’s feelings?”  A student could write an outstanding response about why they do or do not agree with Laura’s decision, citing lots of support from the text.  But without addressing the second part of the question, the response falls short, and so will the score.  Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for responses to be more off-base than the example I’ve cited in this paragraph.  Sometimes kids write an answer that may be well-crafted and thorough, but it may also be entirely irrelevant to the question asked, and again, points cannot be given.
  3. The most disappointing cause of difficulty is when students simply do not appear to be working with their best effort and focus.  This is not a lack of understanding or mastery.  Rather, in this situation, students may quickly write a cursory response that lacks detail or support because they chose not to work to their potential because, perhaps, they hurried through their work.   These responses do not show a thorough understanding of the text, even though the student may truly have a high degree of comprehension.  Convincing students of the need to put more thought and effort into their work is very challenging, because it’s a decision they need to make for themselves.  No amount of prodding from you or from me will make it happen.  Rather, they need to choose (hopefully with our help) that it’s time to bring their proverbial “A-game” to class.  I’m bringing this up to you en masse for two reasons:  First, I think that all students can benefit from a reminder about the importance of doing their best possible work.  All of us, every now and then, fall short of this, so some helpful encouragement is valuable.  Second, in some cases, I see this as a behavioral issue – if a student is choosing not to put in their best effort, despite having been reminded of the importance of doing so, they are not following directions and are not showing responsibility.  That’s something I hope we can tackle together.

At the end of this week, your fourth grader will bring home his or her literacy binder for your to review over the weekend.  In it, you will find several new work samples, many of which are short answer responses.  As you review your child’s responses, look at their use of evidence and see how it influenced their score.  (As a reminder, short answer responses are scored out of four possible points, with a goal of three points.)    Conferences are coming up in a few weeks, and I look forward to talking with you more about this.

In my next post, I’ll share some strategies for how students can carefully select the most helpful textual evidence to support their responses.  

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