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Tips for Teaching Textual Evidence in the Secondary Classroom

    teaching textual evidence to secondary students

    Teaching textual evidence can be a challenge in the secondary classroom. The students still need explicit teaching on finding, citing, and explaining textual evidence. Read this post to learn my favorite tips and how-tos that will help you turn your students into textual evidence experts in no time.

    We both know that finding, citing, and explaining textual evidence is a crucial piece of high-quality writing in the secondary classroom. This is true for various texts, from novels to articles, and different writing responses, from short written responses to full-blown research papers. So, if you’re looking for tips for teaching textual evidence, you’ve come to the right place.

    However, textual evidence can be a pain point for teachers and students. Teachers are often frustrated when students fail to support their answers with textual evidence – let alone strong evidence. But what if the pain point with students is that they are being asked to do something that they don’t really know how to do?

    But they should have learned that last year, right? Maybe. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room (or need) for teaching textual evidence this year, in your classroom, to your students.

    Fear not! This article is here to help and is filled with tips for teaching textual evidence in the secondary classroom.

    Checking For Understanding First

    Before you dive into teaching textual evidence, it’s worth checking in with your students to see where they are at with this skill. Do it before formally assessing students’ ability to find, cite, and utilize textual evidence in their writing. Since textual evidence is a cornerstone writing skill in secondary language arts, I recommend checking for student understanding at the start of the school year. 

    Assign students a short level-appropriate text with a few short questions. Strive for a mix of comprehension and analysis questions, ensuring a few require students to support their answers with textual evidence.

    This might sound extremely simple – and it is. However, it is also a quick and easy way to establish students’ baseline understanding of textual evidence. From there, you’ll have more clarity around just how much explicit teaching you need to do around textual evidence.

    You know it’s time for teaching (or reteaching) textual evidence if students struggle with:

    • Finding answers to questions that are directly stated in the text
    • Finding answers to questions that are inferred in the text
    • Connecting their correct answers back to specifics from the text
    • Supporting their ideas with ideas or excerpts from the text
    • Incorporating textual evidence seamlessly into their writing

    I’d also be willing to bet that, even if students can incorporate textual evidence into their writing, there’s room for improvement. There’s always room to learn, right? 

    Teaching Textual Evidence, but Make it Relevant

    First, it’s worth taking a step back and making it clear why it’s an important skill. I don’t just mean explaining why it’s important for writing in school, either. Students have already heard the classic reasons: Because you need it for your paper. Because it’s on the rubric. Because you’ll have to do it on standardized testing. Or the worst, just because. Yet, students know that their ability to write an essay about the theme of freedom in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn likely won’t play an imperative role in their life beyond high school. And that’s where we lose them.

    Therefore, students are more likely to buy in if they feel that the skill is relevant to them beyond academic success. Here are a few points of emphasis to help make teaching textual evidence more relevant:

    • Textual evidence is important in crafting strong arguments of all kinds, not just in school
    • Textual evidence helps support the inferences we make, whether it’s about characters in a text or the world around us
    • Textual evidence provides a “double-check” on the accuracy of our answers and ideas
    • Textual evidence aids in adding a sense of credibility to our thinking

    I always end with my favorite analogy of a courthouse trial: Imagine if jurors decided a defendant’s fate without hearing any evidence from the lawyers? That’s ridiculous, right? While freedom might not be on the line for your students, it’s a great reminder that if they make a claim, they better be ready to back it up with evidence.

    Start With the Basics

    You might think this is too obvious, but hear me out. While students might be familiar with the term “textual evidence,” they might need a refresher on what exactly that means. The truth is, when we ask students to “use” textual evidence, we’re asking them to do four different things:

    • First, after they read, they must make an inference or draw a conclusion about something they read. We might ask them to do this with fiction or nonfiction texts.
    • Then, they must go back to the text and find information within the text that helps support or prove their thinking.
    • Next, they have to embed the textual evidence into their own writing while keeping a sense of flow to their writing. They can do this by directly quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing the text.
    • Finally, and perhaps most challenging, they must explain how the textual evidence supports their thinking from step one. This is imperative in bringing it all together into a cohesive response.

    It’s worth breaking these skills down with your students. Explain how each is a skill on its own. However, together they make up the overall ability to successfully use textual evidence in their writing.

    The following tips will help you with teaching textual evidence, including how to find it, how to cite it, and how to explain it – regardless of which type of text they’re using.

    Teaching Textual Evidence Starts with Drawing Conclusions

    Textual evidence is vital when it comes to inferential thinking. For example, when students make inferences about a character’s emotions, citing textual evidence helps support their inference. William Golding might never explicitly call Jack a selfish egomaniac in Lord of the Flies, but there’s plenty of evidence to support that statement – you just have to find them.

    When it comes to drawing conclusions and making inferences, students should start by identifying the important parts of the text. From there, they can look closely to uncover the main idea. To help them understand the connection between inferences and textual evidence, try this simple warm-up:

    After reading a short text as a group, provide students with a list of inferences one might make about the topic or text at hand. Include some that are stronger than others and a few that are a bit out of the left field. Have students select one of the inferences they agree with based on the text. From there, have students return to the text to find pieces of textual evidence that help “prove” their chosen inference.

    When it’s time to have students make their own inferences, these questions can help get them started:

    • What’s the main message of this text? How do you know?
    • What’s the theme of this story? How do you know?
    • What do you know about the character? What does this make you think about the character?
    • What is the topic of the text? What does the tone tell you about how the author feels about the topic? What is the message the author is conveying about the topic?

    Need more support on this step? Read my post about teaching inference here.

    Teaching How to Find Textual Evidence

    If you’re tired of your students using weak – or worse, irrelevant – pieces of evidence, it’s a sign it’s time to explicitly teach how to find textual evidence. Encourage them to look back at the text and find supporting evidence that backs up their thinking. After all, not any old quote will do.

    However, you can’t stop there. It’s important to explain to students what makes for strong evidence. Explain that strong evidence has a clear connection back to the question, prompt, thesis, or topic.

    To help with this, provide students with a series of textual evidence that supports an idea. For example, maybe it’s three pieces of evidence to support why animal testing in the beauty industry should be banned. Or maybe it’s three pieces of evidence that Katness Everdeen’s character is highly resourceful. Have students work in small groups to order the evidence from strongest to weakest. Then, go around the room and let them share their reasoning behind their choices. After the class discussion, you can reiterate the key points to establish a benchmark for what constitutes strong textual evidence.

    Once students are ready to dig into a text and find evidence that supports their ideas, ask these questions to help guide them:

    • What is the author saying that aligns with your interpretation of what was written?
    • What is the character doing or saying that reiterates your inference?
    • Find evidence of the author’s opinion/viewpoint/perspective on the topic?
    • What happens in the story that emphasizes your chosen theme?

    Before they can move on to the next step, students often need one final reminder: to zoom in on the most significant part of the chosen passage.

    Teaching How to Cite Textual Evidence

    Breathe easy, my friend. This might just be the easier part to teach. (Getting students to consistently do it is a different story.) For this step, introduce students to the three different ways to incorporate and cite evidence in their own writing:

    • Direct quotes: Referring to a word-for-word excerpt. These pieces of evidence are identical to the original text and must be followed by an in-text citation.
    • Paraphrasing: Puts the textual evidence into their own words beyond simply swapping out a word or two with synonyms.
    • Summarizing: A significantly shorter overview of an author’s or text’s main points or message. This is usually done when referring to a text in its entirety.

    Regardless of which way they cite their evidence, be sure students understand they need to give credit to their source. Otherwise, it’s plagiarism. To avoid any issues here, I recommend showing an example of each type of citation as well as providing guidelines for giving credit to the original source and author. Take it one step further and hang a poster in the classroom or provide students with an informative handout reviewing how to properly cite a piece of textual evidence in their writing

    Teaching How to Explain Textual Evidence

    The final step in teaching textual evidence is teaching students how to – and the importance of – explaining their evidence. Many students struggle with this part. Some students avoid it altogether and just end their response with their evidence. Many spend the sentences after their cited evidence just restating their evidence. It pains teachers to see either one.

    Therefore, when teaching students how to explain their textual evidence, it’s important to emphasize that they have to add something to the conversation. While they can refer back to the specific quote or textual evidence, the explanation should aim to connect the dots between what is stated by the author and how they interpreted the information. This is a great place to remind them that the explanation helps to clarify how the evidence helps support their claim, thesis, inference, or idea.

    This is a great opportunity to return to the lawyer analogy here. Remind students that lawyers don’t simply present evidence to a jury and walk away. Instead, they spend time explaining how the evidence proves innocence or guilt. Explaining textual evidence to them like that can help them understand just how important it is to add this final component.

    Additionally, you can provide questions to help prompt these connections:

    • How does this quote prove my thinking?
    • How does this piece of evidence strengthen my idea?
    • What is happening in this scene that supports my idea?
    • What is stated in this text that supports my thinking?

    General Tips For Teaching Textual Evidence

    Here are some more of my go-to tips for teaching textual evidence in the secondary classroom:

    • Use short stories. Short stories are a great teaching tool for a variety of lessons. Teaching textual evidence is no different, especially since they can read the entire story to give them confidence in their inferences. 
    • Start simple. If the text is too difficult, students will be heavily focused on comprehending the text, leaving little room for strong inferences or conclusions. In fact, they might opt to avoid reading it at all. Either way, you will likely struggle to pull solid textual evidence and well-rounded responses from them.
    • For struggling students, take a step back. If you realize a few, or all, of your students, have big gaps in their understanding of textual evidence, don’t ignore it. If you’re working with students significantly below grade level, it’s okay to start with text-dependent questions to build a foundation. It will also help to foster students’ confidence as they work with more difficult texts. 
    • Think beyond writing. Students assume textual evidence is only used in writing. However, encouraging students to “cite” textual evidence during conversations is a great way to build upon their skills. Ask students “how do you know?” as a follow-up question during class discussions about a text.
    • Provide support. Teach strategies like annotating to help students track their thinking and connect it to specific textual evidence while they read. Additionally, providing resources to help scaffold or organize their thinking can be a huge help. Graphic organizers, like theme trackers or quote logs, and writing stems offer effective support.

    Fun Activities for Teaching Textual Evidence

    As you work with your students to practice their textual evidence skills, don’t be afraid to have a little fun with it. That means moving beyond the classic written response. While I love a good essay, these are great ideas too:

    • Create a series of character Instagram or Twitter posts. The twist?  Students must find a piece of textual evidence to support each creative post.
    • Create a quote-to-song playlist. This works great when it comes to character or theme analysis. Students start by pulling 5-10 quotes that represent a character or theme. Then, they must create a playlist, one song per quote, that helps deepen their analysis.
    • Create a comic that is a mix of original text/interpretations and 2-3 direct quotes to help support the scene. Just remember to emphasize that this is more about interpretations and inferences than it is about drawing ability.
    • Fill out a character chart. Character traits are often inferred but can be backed up throughout a text by what a character thinks, says, or does. Therefore, tracking a character can help track student inferences throughout a text.
    • Hold a mini-debate (great for informal texts) or mock trial to help students practice using textual evidence without having to write an essay. Nothing But The Truth by Avi is a great teaching tool for middle-grade students when it comes to Mock Trials and citing textual evidence!

    Remember, before you wave the white flag when it comes to teaching textual evidence, it might just take some explicit teaching to guide your students toward success. It’s easy to assume they’re learning it the year before or expect them to have mastered the skill already. However, as teachers, we need to be ready and willing to meet our students where they are at. That’s the only way we’re going to see real results in the classroom and beyond.

    I hope you found this post useful as you get ready to teach textual evidence. If you have any other ideas, tips, or activities to throw into the mix, let me know in a comment below. Remember, when it comes to being engaging and effective educators, we’re stronger together.

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