5 Steps for Great Extended Responses

Students discuss CommonLit lesson around table.

In this post, teacher Cara Popecki gives tips to make writing effective, collaborative, and fun.

It’s on every major college readiness and state exam, and it also elicits the most groans from students and teachers alike: the dreaded extended constructed response. Students are generally asked to read and answer questions about two passages that share a common theme, and then they must write an essay that incorporates evidence and analysis from both texts.

On-demand writing, especially writing that requires students to understand multiple texts, can be really stressful and challenging for students. On this high school Smarter Balanced test, students must read two articles about mandatory financial literacy classes before writing an argumentative essay. Building these types of assignments is also challenging for teachers — where do you find all those paired texts?

At CommonLit, we have tried to make this as easy as possible! Use these five steps to create rigorous, high-interest cross-textual assignments that can be implemented all year long:

STEP 1: Pick Two Interesting Texts that Share a Common Theme and Genre

Extended constructed responses offer a great opportunity to expose students to high-interest fiction and informational texts.

We’ve made finding two texts that share a common theme and genre extremely easy. First, go to www.commonlit.org and select the library. Use the search filters to narrow the library to the particular grade level that you teach. You can also use the search filters to narrow your search by genre.

Once you’ve found a text that will pique your students’ interest, navigate to the “Paired Texts” tab to find a list of related texts. For example, the informational article “Fear Prompts Teens to Act Impulsively” (1090L) comes with a host of great paired text suggestions:

The Paired Texts tab for "Fear Prompts Teens to Act Impulsively."

The informational text “Raising Elephants” (1020L) explains the social interactions that teenage male elephants must navigate in order to make the transition to adulthood. Students reading both texts will have fun uncovering the similarities and differences between the behaviors of teenage elephants and teenage humans.

Once you’ve selected your pair of high-interest texts, you’re ready to write the essay prompt.

STEP 2: Write an Aligned, Extended-Response Prompt

To write an aligned, extended-response prompt, start by reading an example extended-response prompt from a released state test. Here is a sample prompt from a 7th grade Smarter Balanced assessment:

Your Assignment: Now that you have completed research on the topic of sleep, the journalism club advisor has asked you to write an explanatory article about sleep and naps for the next issue of the school newspaper. The audience for your article will be other students, teachers, and parents.

Next, read the CommonLit suggested pairing prompt for the two articles you have chosen for inspiration:

CommonLit reading lesson "Raising Elephants" introduction.

Finally, craft a writing prompt that mirrors the style of the state assessment:

Your Assignment: Now that you have completed your research on the topic of social interactions during adolescence, the director of the zoo where you work has asked you to write an explanatory article comparing and contrasting the adolescent phase of humans and elephants for the next issue of the zoo’s newsletter. The audience for your article will be other students and adults who are thinking about visiting the zoo.

STEP 3: Create a Student-Friendly Rubric

Especially if your students are new to extended constructed response, they will likely get overwhelmed by a traditional teacher-centric rubric. Our recommendation is to introduce students to a student-friendly rubric and focus your lessons on helping students master one rubric row at a time.

How do you create a student-friendly rubric? CommonLit provides a rubric for short-answer responses that you can edit. You can also create your own student-friendly rubric based on the SAT, ACT, or your state test.

CommonLit's rubric for Short Answer Response.
Make a copy of this rubric for your own use by clicking here.

If you are showing students a rubric for the first time, don’t just hand them a complex rubric. Make time to go over each section using an actual essay as a model.

STEP 4: Help Students Internalize What Success Looks Like

If students are going to be successful, they need to develop a vision of mastery that is similar to the teacher’s. Letting students read and score sample student essays (both good and bad) by using the rubric is a wonderful way for students to internalize the goal. For each rubric row, ask students to explain why they gave the score they gave.

You can find sample essays either from your own students’ work (keeping them anonymous), from the college readiness exams (SAT or ACT), or from your state assessments (PARCC, Smarter Balance, FSA, STAAR, etc.).

Do this activity multiple times throughout the year to really drive it home.

STEP 5: Involve Students Through a Peer Revision Process

Especially if you have loads of students, it’s nearly impossible to give students thorough feedback on their drafts before grading their work. One great strategy to address this is through peer revision as a way to help students become more proficient writers.

To kickoff peer revision, first model some essential revision strategies through a think-aloud:

Give specific praise 3–4 times

  • I like the way you…
  • This [word/sentence] is really…

Write 1–2 specific suggestions for improvement

  • I recommend that you…
  • Have you tried…

Summarize your feedback

  • To sum it all up…
  • Remember…

Doing regular peer revision will help students understand that writing is a process, not just a product. Many students struggle with writing because they think they only need to attempt it once without revisiting their own work. It’s tough, but if you build the habit with peer revisions, students will become more self-sufficient over time.

Final Thoughts

These strategies are not just for test prep. The best way for students to build confidence as writers is not to just practice but to receive clear expectations, feedback, and assignments that compel them to think analytically.

Follow the 5 steps to improve student writing and let us know how it goes in the comments below.