Instructional Suggestions for ELLs: PARCC Assessment Task (Part 2)

In my last post, I analyzed a third grade English PARCC language arts research simulation task through an ELL lens. For that task, students are asked to read one passage (in this case, a text excerpt from the book Eliza’s Cherry Trees) and answer questions about it. Then, they read a second text (a text excerpt titled The Peanut Man) and use the two texts to complete a “prose constructed response” item.

My findings related to the task for ELLs probably weren’t too surprising – largely, that the two informational texts used as a basis for the task would be difficult for ELLs at lower levels of English language proficiency to comprehend and that it would also be challenging for ELLs at lower levels of English language proficiency to score well on the “prose constructed response” item.

Effective teachers know that assessment and instruction should go hand in hand. So, in this week’s post, I’ll suggest some instructional strategies that teachers of ELLs can use to prepare their students for this type of task that their ELLs will encounter on the PARCC exam in English language arts/Literacy. While I don’t believe in strictly teaching to the test, I do believe it’s in teachers’ and students’ best interests to be aware of what the new CCSS-based assessments will be asking ELLs to do. I also think that teachers will need to prepare themselves and their ELLs will strategies targeted at the CCSS and their assessments to position their ELLs to have a better chance at success in demonstrating what they know and can do on the CCSS ELA/literacy assessments.

In this blog post, I will briefly recap what students are asked to do on the third grade assessment task, describing two overall types of tasks. For each type of task, I’ll provide some suggestions for what teachers of ELLs can do to help students prepare for the Grade 3 ELA tasks I reviewed as well as other tasks that are similar. (I do have to share that I sought some inspiration from Maria Dove and Andrea Honigsfeld’s Common Core for the Not-So-Common Learner, Grades 3-5 for this post.) In the future, I also plan to do an ELL analysis of tasks at different grade levels and also in math and suggest some instructional strategies.

Support for Sample Items 1 & 2

Evidence-Based Selected Response and Technology-Enhanced Constructed Response

In these multiple choice sample items, students are asked multiple choice questions related to information they read in the Eliza’s Cherry Trees text excerpt. Students are told three details about Eliza’s life (that are included in the text) and are asked “What do these details help show about Eliza?” After they answer that question, they are then asked to click on two other paragraphs from the entire text that include additional support for the answer they just chose. Please look at my previous blog post which includes all these sample items verbatim.

Next, students are asked to choose a statement that best describes how events in four paragraphs from the text are related to each other. Finally, students must choose a sentence from the text that best supports the answer they just gave.

Identifying Central Ideas and Details from Informational Text

To me, the salient skills ELLs would need to develop to answer these assessment items would be how to identify central ideas and pull out details from the text that support those central ideas. A two-column note taking graphic organizer such as the one below could help ELLs discern the central ideas of a text and list the supporting details from the text. The organizer could be pre-populated with some information depending on the ELLs’ level of English language proficiency. ELLs could use this graphic organizer with a partner or in a small group. The table also contains a space for students to list vocabulary words they feel are important from the text.

Note: All tables in this post are available in a PDF.

Title of Text: Eliza’s Cherry Trees

Central Ideas

Details Supported by Evidence from Text

  Eliza enjoyed ________________   new places.
  • She traveled to __________ when not many tourists had been there before.
  • She visited her older brother ____________.
  • She wrote a book about ____________.
  • She loved Japan and wanted to share her _____________ with ____________________.
  Eliza’s favorite plants in Japan   were __________________.
  • She called cherry trees “___________________.”
  • ________________________________________
  Important vocabulary words from the text:

Sequence Support

First, Eliza traveled to ___________________ and _______________________.While she was in __________________, her favorite plant was ______________________.
  Next, she wrote _______________________________________.
  Afterward, she had an idea to plant ________________________________________ in   Washington, DC.


Along with knowing what the central ideas and details are in the order in which they occurred, students will also need to articulate the important vocabulary words to be able to recognize and describe the central idea and details. Students could take the important vocabulary words they listed earlier and use a Frayer model template  to help them define some salient words from the informational text. As they gain practice pulling out key words and defining them while reading complex texts, they will be able to refer back to the text and use vocabulary words from the text when citing evidence in their writing.

Support for Sample Item 3

Prose Constructed Response

After answering questions about the first text, students are then asked to read The Peanut Man, and they write an article for their school newspaper describing how Eliza and Carver faced challenges to change something in America. In students’ article, they also need to describe in detail why some solutions they tried worked and others did not work. Finally, they need to tell how the challenges each one faced were the same and how they were different. In sum, there are lots of moving parts present in this task.

Framework for Ensuring Students Comprehend the Task and Gather Evidence

Students need to address multiple areas when they complete the prose constructed response. To help students fully address a complex writing task such as this, teachers could practice giving students multi-step tasks and guide students into breaking down all their parts. The table below breaks down the many components students need to address in this task and provides a framework for students to gather evidence from the text.

Task Comprehension Organizer



What is Needed

What kind of writing am I  producing? (What is the task?)An article for a school newspaperWhat an article for a school paper should look like:
What is the purpose of my writing?To describe how Eliza and Carver faced challenges to change something in AmericaReword this into a topic sentence (introduction)
What are the components of this writing task? Why one solution workedExample of Eliza’s solution that worked:
Why another solution workedExample of Carver’s solution that worked:
Why one solution did not   workExample of Eliza’s solution that did not work:
Why another solution did   not workExample of Carver’s solution that did not work:
Challenges that were the sameDescribe two challenges:How the challenges were   the same:
Challenges that were differentDescribe two different challenges:How the challenges were different:
What other information do I need?ConclusionSummarize topic sentence and components (solutions and challenges)

Addressing the Genre of Writing Called For in the Task

In order to provide students the strategies they need to be successful with this task, I would also make sure students were familiar with the genre of a school newspaper article. To do this, I would share some sample school newspaper articles with them and have them find the following information in pairs. Depending on their level of English language proficiency, I would also provide them a word bank and sentence frames to support them answer the questions.

  • What are some special features about school newspaper articles?
  • Who is the audience for a school newspaper article?
  • Is the writing formal or informal? How do you know?
  • How do I write for a school newspaper article audience?

Teachers could also apply the framework above to different genres of text (e.g., a report, a speech, etc.) so students can see the differences between each and adjust their writing according to the task and purpose.

Comparing and Contrasting Texts

When completing the prose constructed response, students will need to write about the similarities between the challenges Eliza and Carver faced that were the same and challenges that were different. Using a graphic organizer such as the one below will help students locate the similarities between the two texts and cite the differences.

Text 1:

Text 2:





After completing the graphic organizer using both texts, ELLs would then need some language support to help them effectively compare and contrast the challenges faced. Comparing and contrasting sentence frames, such as the ones sampled below, can help ELLs to frame their thoughts.

Sentence Frames for Comparing

The things ________________ have in common are _______________.

___________________ are similar because ____________________.

__________________ is like __________________ because ___________________.

Sentence Frames for Contrasting

_____________________ and __________________ are different because ________________________.

___________________ is unlike __________________ because ________________________.

There are some differences between ______________ and ________________. One of the differences is _______________.

Student Self-Assessment Rubric

One final facet of linking assessment with instruction is that ELLs should have a sense of how their performance on their tasks will be graded. Creating a self-assessment tool based on the PARCC rubric for this task using student-friendly language will help them assess their own work. They could also partner with someone to assess each other’s written work.





Does my writing demonstrate that I understood the central ideas of the text?   
Does my writing clearly use evidence from the text?   
Does my writing use details from the text?   
Is my writing appropriate to the task and purpose?   
Does my writing contain an introduction?   
Does my writing contain a conclusion?   
Does my writing use linking words and  phrases (for example, as a result, in conclusion, etc.)?   
Does my writing use descriptive words?   
Does my writing use words that show time?   (first, next, then, finally, etc.)   

Is my writing’s grammar and spelling   correct?



While these suggested supports don’t address each facet of the assessment tasks I analyzed, they do provide a sense of some areas in which teachers can help their ELLs begin to feel more comfortable with the new demands of the PARCC assessment task. The idea would be to have students become so adept with using these supports that when they are in an assessment situation and can’t use these supports that they will draw from their own strategies to better recognize the central ideas in informational text, cite text-based evidence, and compare two texts in writing.

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Thank you for breaking down these tasks and providing great strategies, tools, and scaffolds for ELLs to acquire and demonstrate the content that is being measured.

This will help me as I struggle with multi level high school classes for ELLs and need to differentiate. I think all students will benefit from parts of this.

Hi, I found your post a bit late, but it is very helpful as I prepare my students for PARCC. I have a question about research simulation. What do you think of the block format for approaching the compare/contrast essay?

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