Moving Students to Think with Writing

Our school has been knee-deep in data from our state’s standardized testing results (a mixed bag) since the start of the year as we work to orientate our Professional Learning Communities towards using weaknesses we are noticing to drive changes in our curriculum and approach.

For me, as the sixth grade writing teacher, two things jump out. First, our students do a poor job on being able to read and use non-fiction text. We noticed this trend a few years ago and it continues. We are working to address that by teaching more reading skills across the curriculum (how to read a map in Social Studies, how to analyze a data sheet in math, how to pull out information from a chart in Science, etc.) and I am doing more current events with the students, using Time for Kids magazine for non-fiction reading as well as supplementary text. (We intend to read Three Cups of Tea for young readers later this year but more on that some other time).

Another major area of weakness is in reading a text and then answering an open response question that uses evidence and examples from the text to support the answer. Gosh. This is going to take a lot of work, I can tell, and it’s clear that they have not been asked to do this enough in prior grades. They can do literal thinking but moving them into critical thinking is a challenge.

So, a big shift for me this year is really using rubrics (that tie in to our new standards-based reporting) and paragraph writing prompts that will give them plenty of exposure to analyzing a text and give me more chances to walk them through exemplars of student writing.

On that note, I created this list of generalized writing prompts that will be more specific to the book or text that they are reading. Much of this is tied directly to standards in our Sixth Grade ELA curriculum. But I would appreciate an outsider’s opinion.

Am I missing any major points here when it comes to critical thinking in reading text? If you notice anything, please let me know.

Sixth Grade: Common Open Response Writing Questions for Literature Class

Main Questions

Character development is important and good books will often have characters “change” over the course of the story. Choose a character and explain how that character is different by the end of the novel. Be sure to use at least two pieces of evidence from the book to back up your ideas on what the character was like when we first met them and what they are like by the end of the story. Also, explain why it was important for the character to change through the course of the book.

Setting plays a large role in any story. Where a story takes place — the time, the environment, the location, etc. — will often shape how the story is being told and what happens. Identify the main setting of the novel and explain its importance to the story. Why did the writer choose this setting for this book? Be sure to include evidence from the novel to support your answer.

The theme of a book is the overall message of the story. It is often explained to the reader through a lesson that is learned by the main character. Identify the theme of the novel and explain how the characters in the book come to learn this lesson. Make sure you use evidence from the novel to support your answer. Also, in your answer, be sure to reflect on why the writer choose this particular theme to develop a story around. Why is this theme important to a reader?

Plot development is how the story unfolds over the course of the novel (remember: Exposition/Rising Action/Climax/Falling Action/Resolution). The main element is the climax of the story, which is the “main event” of a book when everything comes together for a dramatic moment or decision by the main character. Identify the climax of the novel and explain why you chose it as the climax. Include evidence from the book to support the idea that this is the main event of the story.


Symbolism is the use of a concrete image to represent something abstract (not seen). One example might be the American flag, which is a physical object that represents the United States of America. Identify the use of symbolism in the novel and explain how the writer used that symbol to tell the story. Make sure you provide evidence from the novel to support your answer. And, explain why you think the writer chose this particular symbol for this story.

Foreshadowing is when the author leaves clues for the reader early in the story. It is often only later in the story that these clues make sense to the character and the reader. Identify at least two elements of foreshadowing in the book and explain how these clues became important as the story progressed. Be sure to back up your ideas with evidence from the book. Also, explain in your answer why you think the author used foreshadowing in this novel.

It often helps a reader to connect with the experiences of a character. Choose a character from the novel and write about experiences that you have had in your life that seem similar to the experiences of the character in the book. The experiences may not be exact, but you should be able to understand the emotions, reactions or actions of the character based on your own life experiences. Be sure to support your answer with evidence from the novel and from your own life.

Peace (in the teaching),

  1. I’ll be interested to follow this, Kevin. Thanks for blogging this process and your efforts to document your “big shift.”

  2. This was a fascinating read and clearly outlines your process toward a new curriculum angle. The TEST we are pushed to improve on has a trickle down effect all the way to kindergarten. My listening center starts with a headphones listening piece, where the small group of students is asked to listen closely and examine the illustrations. This is followed by a general discussion by the group of 6 students. They each have a comment card and a question card that can help them through the discussion. The final piece is the report. This is where the proof of the pudding comes out. They are asked to identify the main character(s) and then finish the sentence. The most important thing that happened in the story was… This is all scribed by an adult. After all, we are not focusing on writing text here but focusing on comprehension. It’s not always clear in these picture books what the most important event was but the student/teacher conversations reveal whether they followed the plot well enough. In the story this week “Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” They can say that the dog ran away or the dog came back. Both work. It is not that the dog rode the bike. This is very challenging for many of the students and they frequently need adult help for the discussion. A few students need to listen to the story again by themselves so there are fewer distractions and the reread fleshes things out more. Let’s keep in mind that it’s the process and the practice with the text that will get them there K through 6.

  3. Kevin,
    This is a really good outline for writing prompts. I think it is important to include in your setting prompt a question about the time the story takes place, i.e. what was going on in history, as it often has a large impact on the plot that kids may or may not be aware of. You may want to have the students find out a little background information if you think it plays a pertinent part of the story. I find this is especially true in being able to interpret poetry and being able to understand the author’s intention.

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