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5 Mini-Lessons to Improve Explanations in Writing

Updated: 4 days ago

If I had a dollar, a quarter, nay...a penny for every time I've sat with a teacher or a team and heard them say, "They can provide an answer, they can even find and support their answer with reasonable evidence...but they just can't explain..."


Well, I would have A LOT of pennies.


Said differently: We all know that students, for the most part, do not inherently know how to explain what they are thinking, why they are thinking it (or if they even thought about their response at all!)


We know this, and the good news is: We can start to proactively plan for this.


I'm in my 18th year in education, and I started my journey as a middle school language arts teacher, so I have my fair share of experience with students being asked to explain their thinking in short answer (or constructed) responses. I've led trainings and workshops on this topic, and I coach departments and professional learning communities (PLCs) on specifics related to short answer, evidence-based responses.


I created my simple 3 Mini-Lessons That Strengthen Constructed Response guide and offer a 90-minute, virtual course, Strengthening Constructed Response. I've written about the impact of acronyms on this type of writing (especially as students progress into middle and high school). I help teams create rubrics for this type of writing, and I also help them create data sheets to track progress on this type of writing.



constructed response rubric

Based on the amount of attention I devote to this type of evidence-based writing, you might think I really like it, or that I really enjoy teaching it, or I'm passionate about it or something.


Truth bomb: I do not LOVE this type of writing, nor am I passionate about it, nor do I think it's the end-all-be-all type of writing for students. I do believe students should be able to write a well thought-out paragraph that answers a question, provides evidence to support their reasoning, and explains their perspective and creates connections--but it's not my favorite type of writing.


I do believe we should have CLARITY around what is expected in this type of writing, and then teach our students mini-lessons that allow them to think, process, and decide what it is they will write.


I am passionate, not about this type of writing, but about clarifying how to teach this type of writing (and I suppose...how not to).


 

Back to the focus: Improving/Enhancing/Expanding the "E" or explanation expectation of evidence-based writing.


Mini-Lesson #1: Explain What it Means to Explain

Very few teachers/teams/students seem to have clarity on this. Some teachers think the explanation should restate the answer. That's repeating. That's summary. Nope.


To explain means to provide more details, provide more context, provide more connection, provide more description. To explain means to make an implicit connection explicit. To explain means: Tell. Us. Why.


How do we explain explain to students? One ways is to create a This not That anchor chart.


Chart


 


Mini-Lesson #2: But, Because, So

Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion and Reading Reconsidered, shared Judith Hochman's But, Because, So sentence expansion activity in his TLAC (Teach Like a Champion) blog.


Essentially, if you want students' thinking (and writing) to expand, you need to show them how to use words to answer a question in more than one way.


The explanation of evidence really requires that students think, and to help students think--ask them to answer the question with three different sentence extensions.


For example:


Imagine the question is, "What streaming network is the best?"


And a student answers, "Youtube is the best streaming network." Using But, Because, So, you would ask the student to add on to this thought by adding each of these conjunctions:


  • Youtube is the best streaming network but...

  • Youtube is the best streaming network because...

  • Youtube is the best streaming network so...


These three sentences are not the answer or complete response. This is an exercise (or mini-lesson) in how to think more deeply about an answer before we settle on just one. You can use this style of writing after the evidence as well.


I also believe it's helpful to have students brainstorm their various answers in a web format--so they can see their options visually!



 


Mini-Lesson #3: Talk Before Writing

If explaining their thoughts/connection is where students pause their thinking--ask your students to explain--out loud--their reasoning for choosing the evidence.


Having to justify and explain themselves out loud will provide them opportunity to actually think critically about their choice and provide further details and context.


Ask students to pair and share 2-4 times before they sit back down and put into writing why they chose what they chose. If they are struggling to articulate their thoughts from their brains to paper, give them another processing step--discussion--to allow them to expand (or start) their thinking.



 


Mini-Lesson #4: Avoid PRONOUNS

We have all seen the anchor charts filled with sentences stems such as "This shows/explains/illustrates/proves." We put these sentence stems on the wall and think we are helping the students explain their thinking.


We're not.


We're giving them a vague start to a sentence that primes them to repeat their answer. Is this working? Nope. Should we keep doing this? Probably not.


Rather, ask your students to start their explanations with a noun (not a pronoun). Have them circle the a word or phrase from the evidence that they believe is important. Then, have them start their explanation sentence with that word or phrase. Starting with a noun or phrase increases clarity, word choice, and sentence fluency.


For example:


Serena Williams is one of the greatest athletes of all-time. In fact, she won 23 grand slam singles titles over the span of her career. Winning 23 grand slam titles is significant because it is the most wins of any tennis athlete and one more than tennis legend Steffi Graf.


Explanations add additional, specific information to the evidence that was just referenced. Be specific!


 


Mini-Lesson #5: Answer "Why" 3-5 times

To explain is to add thought, detail, context. It's an expansion--an addition--not a summary or repetition. Rather than giving our students sentence stems that set them up to repeat themselves, let's ask them to answer "Why" or "Why does this matter" 3-5 times.


For example:


It's important that children and young adults are allowed time to experiment and create. According to the organization My First Five Years, "Creative play supports the development of cognition in multiple ways...creative play allows young children the freedom to be able to explore their thoughts and feelings and come up with new and original ideas. "


Why? (#1)


When a child is able to explore, they must rely less on previous experience and more on their own inner landscape of thoughts and feelings in the moment.


Why does this matter? (#2)


Relying on their own thoughts and feelings is a helpful way to develop efficacy and agency--beliefs that they are capable of problem-solving and relying on themselves.


Why does this matter? (#3)


While we don't want to grow up and become adults who never rely on others or never ask for help, we also don't want to be people who are overly needy or dependent upon others. Believing in ourselves and trusting in our own thoughts and emotions allows us to take risks and trust ourselves later in life.


Why does this matter? (#4)


People who trust themselves experience less anxiety and overall dis-ease with their lives. They are able to live more comfortably in their own skin with a sense of true value and belonging.


(Now let me put this paragraph together):


It's important that children and young adults are allowed time to experiment and create. According to the organization My First Five Years, "Creative play supports the development of cognition in multiple ways, predominantly, creative play allows young children the freedom to be able to explore their thoughts and feelings and come up with new and original ideas. " When a child is able to explore, they must rely less on previous experience and more on their own inner landscape of thoughts and feelings in the moment. Relying on their own thoughts and feelings is a helpful way to develop efficacy and agency--beliefs that they are capable of problem-solving and relying on themselves. While we don't want to grow up and become adults who never rely on others or never ask for help, we also don't want to be people who are overly needy or dependent upon others. Believing in ourselves and trusting in our own thoughts and emotions allows us to take risks and trust ourselves later in life. People who trust themselves experience less anxiety and overall dis-ease with their lives. They are able to live more comfortably in their own skin with a sense of true value and belonging.


I would venture that this example paragraph is more appropriate for 7-12 students versus 3-6, but still--you can use a 5-Why method with any age.


You may also ask students to think through and answer the 5-WH questions after their evidence, too. A writer might explain the impact on who, what, when and where or even how the evidence will impact people, places, ideas, and environment.


 

In general, if you want your students to explain--they need to write more. And, to do that they probably need to say more and think more.


Give your students visuals, webs, questions, and discussion to spark their thinking. Try not to overly "example" them all the time. Too many words just clutters their eyes and minds.


Rather, help them brainstorm/map/discuss other answers or add-ons to their answers.


Your goal is expansion--so let them expand. And be sure they understand the goal is expansion, too.


You know, you may also want to try to have them practice explaining what they think about topics they already know A LOT about, too.


You might have them write some constructed response paragraphs about the following topics--with no text involvement:


  1. Who is your favorite family member? Why?

  2. What qualities make a good friend?

  3. What are the best apps to use to connect with your friends?

  4. What's the best meal you've ever eaten? Why?

  5. To be successful in life, you need to do ________. Why?

  6. One of the best qualities about you is ________. Why?

  7. The _______ team will beat the _______ team on _______ because...

  8. ________ is the best performance artist or band of their generation because...

  9. One thing that always brings a smile to your face is...because...

  10. Think of a hobby or something you like to do in your spare time. Explain why this is worth your time.


Practicing adding details and expanding is really fun to do when we're writing about things we have experience with. Make sure you build in practice with this type of writing away from texts, too.









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