Getting Past the “Gobbledy Gook” in Responses to Open-Ended Questions

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By Kathy Checkley

Education Update: The Open-Ended QuestionThis month’s Education Update feature, “The Open-Ended Question,” shares tips for helping students construct sound written responses to open-ended questions. As ASCD author Kathy Glass explains, students must learn to (1) mine the text; (2) understand the task; and (3) write with purpose and clarity. Graphic organizers are a great teaching tool to help students gather text-based evidence—and teachers can find many resources online.

At Englishlinx.com, for example, teachers can download worksheets that provide for many different ways of organizing information graphically. Type the words “constructed response” into the search bar on Pinterest to find a wide sampling of student work and tools used for building students’ skills in crafting answers to constructed response questions.

Darlene Eirish-Schofield, who teaches English at Pawling Middle School in New York, combed the web when she was ready to tackle the classic coming-of-age novel To Kill a Mockingbird. “It’s the unit where we really focus on finding the textual evidence we need to back up our claims, whether the claim is a topic sentence for a paragraph, a thesis statement for an essay, or an open-ended statement or quote proposed by the teacher,” says Eirish-Schofield, who ended up tweaking a module she found online from Engage NY (developed by the New York State Education Department). With resources in hand, she and her students explored Harper Lee’s world together.

Throughout the unit, students were asked students to write responses to open-ended questions in preparation for the culminating argumentation essay. “I love posing thesis statements because many of them can be open-ended and can be proven either way,” says Eirish-Schofield. “A great open-ended question for a journal entry could be: Does Atticus succeed or fail as a parent? Support your claim using textual evidence. One can certainly glean information that Atticus was a faulty parent as well as an admirable one.”

As students progressed through the book, Eirish-Schofield asked them to use “notecatchers” to organize their thoughts for each chapter, explaining that they would refer to these notes—and find them to be invaluable—come essay time.

Because she believes that students will only write with passion when they “are given the choice to explore something that lights a spark in them,” she provided them with a list of 12 thesis statements and had them choose two or three—or to create two or three of their own—to help narrow their focus. Students were then required to write responses to each of those prompts. “When finished, they read over their responses to see which one they backed up with the most evidence.” That evidence-laden response would be the summary for the essay. The “notecatchers” would make it easier for students to locate the specific page numbers and quotes they would use in their essays.

Eirish-Schofield reminds students that textual evidence has to do more than merely summarize, regardless of which tool they use. “I tell my students that the evidence has to support a specific claim and it has to demonstrate their understanding of the text.” Anything short of that, she says, is “gobbledy gook”—a fun way of saying “unintelligible jargon.”

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Kathy Checkley is a freelance writer from Austin, Texas.

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