The Other Stuff: How to Approach High-Level Thinking Questions

It is important that educators exude a sense of passion for the content that we teach. Whether it be math, science, English, etc., our love for our subject areas helps to engage our students and keep them motivated. While much of our instruction focuses around the content, we are also tasked with teaching skills that allow students to access the content that we are teaching. Depending on grade level and ability, students could be all over the map when it comes to these essential, foundational skills. We must first assess the tools that our students bring with them to the classroom and then be prepared to focus part of our instruction around these crucial basics.

“Dissecting the question” is a practice that students will encounter in EVERY content area throughout their education. Whether responding to a writing prompt, answering a word problem, or following chemistry lab procedures, students must be aware of the end goal when confronting a task. Often times across content areas, questions or practices are framed in wordy, complex, or very involved language. This type of wording has the potential to not only confuse students, but also to discourage them right from the beginning before they have even considered the question. To hone in on an answer, students must first learn how to identify exactly what the question is asking.  

Consider the following prompt: Authors use many different literary devices to convey mood in a narrative. Identify and analyze two devices that J.K. Rowling uses to convey mood in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone using evidence from the text to support your claim.

Now, this prompt is a tall order in terms of a student’s need to focus in on the actual question. Model the process of “skimming the fat” from the question so that only the essentials are present. For example, have students cross off any “fluff” or unnecessary information in the question. This goes for math, English, science, history, etc. For our example above, students could cross off the entire first sentence in the prompt—this simply frames the context of the prompt.

Next, help students to translate or better comprehend the academic language that all content-area questions will use. Terms like analyze, assess, compare, estimate, and classify may seems straightforward to us; however, students often find these directives to be confusing. Have students practice highlighting the common academic language terms as they encounter them in questions, prompts, and tasks. Then, spend time as a class discussing what these terms actually mean—i.e., what actions will we take as readers when we identify and analyze something? What does it mean by devices? Perhaps students need a refresher on literary devices. This is where graphic organizers and other note-taking strategies will come in handy for students needing a quick review of a concept.

Next, help students understand that identify simply means to find, name, or choose two devices that the author uses, while analyze means to explore, examine, or question how these devices convey, or show, mood. Students that are still struggling to begin responding to the question may benefit from a sentence frame or sample starter. This strategy is great for English and math, where teachers are likely seeking complete sentences or full thoughts in the answers and responses. Consider providing students with something like this as their starting thesis statement:

(AUTHOR’S NAME) uses (DEVICE AND DEVICE) to convey a (SPECIFIC TYPE OF MOOD) in (TITLE).

Once they have filled in the blanks for the thesis statement, prompt the analysis piece by asking leading questions. These suggestive questions will help students with the initial practice of analyzing, assessing, or making connections between their claim and their reasoning or support for the claim. Again, this practice takes time and repetition—attacking a high-level thinking question like this is not something that can be mastered in one class period. The key is to provide students with strategies to help steer their thinking in the direction of the actual meat of the question. By helping to define, explain, eliminate, and order the process of the question, students are much more equipped to begin answering.

So remember:

  • Eliminate fluff
  • Locate key terms/academic language that indicate what is being asked
  • Define those terms for students
  • Provide graphic organizers or refresher notes when necessary
  • Consider providing sentence frames or examples for students to use as a springboard

Writing a Paragraph: High School

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Writing is arguably one of the most beneficial skills taught in the academic realm. Since strong writing abilities are valuable in every content area and career down the road, mastery of this skill is essential. As with most undertakings, practice is key to developing a student’s writingthe more a child writes, the better that child will progress as he advances through his education. Once in high school, students are expected to have mastered writing concepts such as organization, mechanics, and varied sentence structure.

At the high school level, the expectations for writing tasks are elevated. It is assumed that students have a proficient grasp on the basics and are now prepared to tackle concepts such as writing for a specific audience and maintaining tone and fluidity. These concepts are touched upon in the middle grades; however, they really become the focus of higher level academic writing when assignments are required to serve a specific purpose.

No matter the content area, secondary level writing assignments involve persuasive, argumentative, and expository writing techniques. From the chemistry lab to the AP government classroom, students will be required to juggle and synthesize many small parts to compose a fluid paper. Some of these writing skills include:

  • Stating a claim
  • Supporting that claim with clear evidence and/or research
  • Providing analysis of the evidence (i.e. how does the research support your claim?)
  • Embedding quotations
  • Paraphrasing or making inferences from direct quotations
  • Drawing the argument to a final conclusion  

Considering the number of key components involved, as well as the high level thinking skills required to accomplish these components, it is no wonder that writing at the high school level can be stressful and strenuous. Here are a few helpful tips from the teacher to avoid future headaches with high school writing.

Utilize the organizer. While graphic organizers are sometimes viewed as elementary tools, high schoolers and college students can greatly benefit from an outline. Of course, these outlines and organizers will not always be provided by the teacher—students will have to do the prewriting legwork. The extra step may deter your high schooler at first, especially those students who prefer to cut corners. However, an outline is a proven strategy to ensure that a large writing assignment is organized, cohesive, and complete. The outline also allows for students to see that they have gathered all of the essential pieces before beginning the writing process. Thus, an outline will save your high schooler time and hassle in the end.

Read examples and samples of similar writing pieces. This is especially helpful when a section of the assignment or essay is more complex, like parenthetical documentation. Viewing samples of how other writers have constructed these components provides students with additional help, almost like a step-by-step guide.

Be sure to proofread. Again, high schoolers who are reluctant writers to begin with will likely shy away from the editing process. However, rereading written work aloud is the only way to ensure that the writing flows, maintains clarity, and adheres to the claim throughout. This fluidity piece is essential for secondary writing assignments.

Use the rubric to assess the writing before submitting. This additional step is yet another strategy that many students choose to disregard. However, “grading” themselves before submitting a paper allows students to look at the writing from another angle. Since the rubric is created by the teacher, and will be used to assess the writing piece, it only makes sense for high schoolers to perform a self-check of the assignment according to the criteria.  
While high schoolers may be loathe to add any more steps to their writing assignment, these strategies will help to focus their efforts and ease them into the writing process. And, best of all, these strategies can help them to enhance their written work!

Writing a Paragraph: Middle School

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Writing is arguably one of the most beneficial skills taught in the academic realm. Since strong writing abilities are valuable in every content area and career down the road, mastery of this skill is essential. As with most undertakings, practice is key to developing a student’s writing—the more a child writes, the better that child will progress as he advances through his education.

For middle school students who have simply scratched the surface of paragraph writing in elementary school, writing takes a rather large leap in the middle grades. The expectation is that students arrive to middle school with a basic grasp of appropriate conventions and sentence structure. However, the concept of writing a thesis statement and supporting that claim with evidence is likely unfamiliar. These terms can be intimidating; however, they are guaranteed to show up in every content, from math and science, to English and history.

Similarly to elementary writing, middle school students need to practice structuring a paragraph concisely and cohesively. While younger students focus on including and organizing each component of the paragraph, middle schoolers begin to synthesize the information and write purposefully. Middle school students should be prompted to pay close attention to the purpose of their paragraph or argument. This is where parents and educators can play an important role. Ask your middle schooler questions like, “Did your paragraph address the question or prompt?” “Did your paragraph have a clear thesis or claim?” “Did you provide evidence or support that clearly connects to and addresses your thesis?”  If these questions prove difficult for your young writer, consider a graphic organizer to help.

Elementary students are not the only writers that benefit from a graphic organizer. Like the cheeseburger method commonly used for K-5 grades, middle schoolers can benefit from an organizer that assists in ensuring that each supporting detail relates directly to the claim. For instance, a commonly used organizer would include the thesis statement, each key detail or piece of evidence in support of the thesis, and a brief analysis of how that support reinforces the claim or thesis.

Many see the graphic organizer as a prewriting strategy, one that must be done prior to constructing the paragraph. However, middle school students can also benefit from using the graphic organizer as a post-writing checklist. This is an opportunity for writers to work backwards and become cognizant editors of their own work. Too often, middle school writers complete a writing task without much revision or editing. Using the graphic organizer as a checklist avoids the issue of missing components in a paragraph. It also forces writers to reread their work, checking for grammatical errors and any issues involving clarity. A tip for parents would be to model the use of a graphic organizer and/or the process of proofreading. Teachers do this on a regular basis, allowing students to follow along as they “think aloud.” As you help your middle schooler with a written paragraph, go through the editing process together verbally. As you read your child’s work, ask questions such as, “Could this sentence be written more concisely?” “Do we have to use this word, or could we find a better replacement?” “Does this sentence make sense here?” “Does the paragraph seem to flow nicely?” These types of questions model the process for young writers—something that they will eventually begin to do on their own.

Writing a Paragraph: Elementary-age

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Writing is arguably one of the most beneficial skills taught in the academic realm. Since strong writing abilities are valuable in every content area and career down the road, mastery of this skill is essential. As with most undertakings, practice is key to developing a student’s writingthe more a child writes, the better that child will progress as he advances through his education.

For elementary-aged students, writing a cohesive, organized paragraph is a relatively new concept, one that can be taxing and frustrating in the beginning. Style, conventions, and technique will evolve with time, but structure and organization should be a writing objective from the start. When it comes to helping young writers compose a paragraph, structuring an organized paragraph is best explained simplycomplex writing will come later.

A helpful strategy to prompt organization is to use a visual tool or graphic representation of how a well-organized paragraph should look. Some educators use the cheeseburger method, in which writers structure their paragraphs like a cheeseburger: the top bun is the introduction, the burger patty is the main idea, the toppings provide added detail to the “meat” of the paragraph, and the bottom bun concludes the paragraph. The cheeseburger method allows young writers to see that every part of the cheeseburger or paragraph is essential. It is also a good way to practice peer editing, as students can examine other paragraphs to ensure that their classmates have included enough toppings (detail), a solid patty (main idea), and an obvious top and bottom bun (introduction and conclusion).

Once writers have mastered the concept of the cheeseburger structure, it is time to instruct them on each individual layer. For example, the top bun, or introduction, needs to be enticing enough to get the reader interestedthis is called a “hook” or “attention-grabber.” The meat or main idea of the paragraph needs to stand out. Explain to your writer that you would not want to eat a burger that has a flavorless patty; the burger, or main idea, is the star of the sandwich. Therefore, it often requires the most attention. The purpose of toppings is that they add to the deliciousness of the sandwichtoppings, or details, accompany the flavor of the burger and add crunch, sweetness, tang, or texture to the patty. Finally, students must include a conclusion, which draws the paragraph to an endthis is their bottom bun. Without the bottom bun, the burger seems incomplete or unfinished; the reader is left unsatisfied by the abrupt end to the sandwich and the missing concluding component.

Again, the cheeseburger method is aimed at young writers to help with practicing structure and organization. More developed writing techniques will expand over time with practice and further instruction. For now, parents can help elementary-age children by focusing on the basics when it comes to writing a paragraph. For even more of a visual, parents can search cheeseburger paragraph graphic organizers to print from the computer. These organizers help children visually plan and construct a paragraph, ensuring that each section is represented.