Why do students struggle when answering open response questions?

By Joan Pokrant, Collins Education Associates consultant and author of Open Response Writing: 18 Strategies to Improve Student Performance

I often ask teachers this question when beginning a workshop on open response writing. As you can imagine, teachers can list many reasons why students struggle with open response questions such as:

  • Students do not understand test question vocabulary, words like explain, describe, label, etc.
  • Students do not understand the expectations of each kind of test question.
  • Students do not support their responses with sufficient details.
  • Students do not use content vocabulary in their responses.
  • Students lack the stamina to successfully answer all kinds of questions.

For this blog, let’s concentrate on the first reason: “Students do not understand test question vocabulary, words like explain, describe, label, etc.”

We all recognize the importance of teaching students content vocabulary (fulcrum, rhombus, sonnet, etc.). After all, how will students learn those vocabulary words unless they are formally taught? The real question is whether teachers spend enough time teaching test question vocabulary or, as described in the Common Core State Standards, general academic vocabulary. Without a clear understanding of general academic vocabulary, students will be confused by the question and spend valuable time and energy trying to determine what is being asked. Some students will be so discouraged that they will just skip the question and not even attempt to answer it. General academic vocabulary should not be a surprise to students or a reason to skip the question. The terms need to be taught and used regularly.

I once asked a principal of a high-scoring school what she felt was the one thing that made a difference on students’ scores at her school. Her reply was that in a previous year the Massachusetts’ math test asked students to “compute the answer,” and students thought they had to do something on the computer. As a result of this experience, teachers at her school are now explicitly teaching and using general academic vocabulary in written or oral directions. The principal felt that using general academic vocabulary on a daily basis made a significant difference in her school’s scores.

Specific examples of test question/general academic vocabulary in reading are genre terms, usually found in test directions or questions. Readers of all ages tend to call everything a story. State tests use different literary terms when referring to the “story” such as “the selection,” the “passage,” “the excerpt,” “the folktale,” “the text.” Although the word choices used on state tests cannot always be accurately predicted, one thing is certain, the word “story” will not appear very often, if at all. The MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) and NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) used the words in the list below in their test questions when referring to reading selections. Teachers and students should always use these terms when referring to the genre. When you read the list below, think about whether your students would have a clear understanding of these words if they were to appear on a test question.

expository text
imaginative story
magazine article
nature article
tall tale

Whenever I share this list with teachers, there is always someone who comments that, “Just the other day the word ‘stanza’ came up in class and no one knew what it meant!” Do not assume that because students have read and written poetry that they know what the term “stanza” means. Unless literary and general academic vocabulary are part of a student’s verbal and written repertoire, there are no guarantees that they will know what the terms mean when they read them in tests.

In Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement, Marzano, Pickering and Pollack provide detailed research on the power of direct instruction of academic vocabulary–especially to English language learners. They summarize five “generalizations that can be used to guide instruction in vocabulary terms and phrases.” (p. 124–127)

  1. Students must encounter words in context more than once to learn them.
  2. Instruction in new words enhances learning those words in context.
  3. One of the best ways to learn a new word is to associate an image with it.
  4. Direct vocabulary instruction works.
  5. Direct instruction on words that are critical to new content produces the most powerful learning.

The following are action steps that support Marzano’s five “generalizations for teaching test question vocabulary.

  1. Have students create vocabulary cards that include illustrations for test question vocabulary they do not know.
  2. Post test question vocabulary along with their definitions and examples in your classroom or writing center as a reference for students when answering open response questions.
  3. Periodically, facilitate games or activities to reinforce test question terminology.
  4. Analyze the release questions from your state and make a list of test question vocabulary that your students should know.
  5. Use test question vocabulary on a regular basis when giving oral and written directions or when asking questions.
  6. Expect students to use test question vocabulary orally and in writing on a regular basis.
  7. When reading a selection, always refer to the genre to familiarize students with genre vocabulary.
  8. Expect students to use genre terms orally and in writing on a regular basis instead of the word “story.”

By implementing these suggestions and setting aside class time to focus on general academic vocabulary, students will be better prepared to answer open response questions on high stakes tests.

For more ideas on how to improve open response writing, refer to Open Response Writing: 18 Strategies to Improve Student Performance by Joan Pokrant. To preview the book click here.

Marzano, R. J. Pickering, D. J., & Pollack, J.E. (2001) Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.