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),