How to Get Engagement, Growth and Stickiness When Teaching Kids to Write

Language Arts

How to Get Engagement, Growth and Stickiness When Teaching Kids to Write

By Ann Whitehair     Mar 28, 2017

How to Get Engagement, Growth and Stickiness When Teaching Kids to Write

This article is part of the guide: What Personalized Learning Looks Like Across the Country: The 2017 Fifty States Project.

As an English teacher with 24 years of experience, I often feel I’ve explored every possible avenue to help my students grow as writers. That is truer today than ever as new technology has increased the instructional possibilities, and evidence-based, on-demand testing has forced me to get creative. But while the educational landscape has shifted, my core values as a teacher have remained the same: to ensure engagement, growth and the retention of learning— “stickiness”—for each student.

In order to meet these goals while also responding to testing demands, I needed a new resource: one that would provide my students with a strong framework for writing and use technology as the primary composing tool. Fortunately, I found everything I was looking for (and more) in the online reading and writing program ThinkCERCA.

The letters in ThinkCERCA represent the building blocks of an essay: claim, evidence, reasoning, counter argument, and audience. But ThinkCERCA is more than just a traditional framework; the online program provides a lesson library with texts related to literature, math, science, and social studies. Once teachers choose a lesson, the program provides a six-step process to help students analyze the readings and produce a cohesive essay. Best of all, it assists me in meeting my own criteria for effective writing instruction, ensuring all students are engaged, growing, and that the learning sticks.


The CERCA framework allows for thoughtful learning that is as close to “100% engaged, 100% of the time” as I’ve seen. The topics of texts connect to students’ interests and provide endless opportunities for groupings and discussions that help students stay invested, even during long periods.

Take a recent CERCA lesson we completed on Romeo and Juliet, where students were asked to argue how the use of modern costumes impacts the audience’s interpretation of the original text. Preceding a video of a staged production, students learned about costuming through discussion, videos, and exposure to multiple versions of the scene, building interest. While viewing the scene, CERCA allowed us to stop frequently and connect students’ ideas to specific lines of the text.

The schema-building activities proved highly stimulating: during the discussion, 13 of the 17 students participated over 30 times. Students pinpointed moments where modern dress changed their interpretation of the text and gave insightful reasoning to their claims. They took notes during the discussion that led to strong evidence in their essays, all while having fun discussing one of the great pieces of literature.


The CERCA framework also makes learning stick by allowing students to transfer their understanding to future assignments, across content areas. This is mostly done through the six-step process—connect, read, engage with the text, summarize, build an argument, and create—which relies on a combination of critical thinking skills and developing consistent patterns of thinking.

When I first started using ThinkCERCA, students struggled with the terminology and close reading required to build evidence along with strong reasoning. The third step of the CERCA framework—engage with the text—has been instrumental in bridging this gap. The program allows students to highlight evidence, answer guiding questions, and connect back to the prompt, thus setting the stage for strong evidence-based paragraphs. Along with each highlight, students are prompted to type a note that gives reasoning to support the idea in the highlight, thus leading to strong analysis that goes beyond paraphrasing.

I have also created “CERCA stations” where students work together to analyze their progress towards each step, using learning activities to incorporate quotes correctly, use transitions effectively, and write strong sentences that maintain a formal tone. These exercises are not only engaging, they also create a lifelong foundation for writing strong essays on any topic, regardless of subject.


The final piece of the puzzle is the growth the CERCA framework creates. I find when students can use the CERCA rubric to see their growth, give themselves feedback, and set future goals, they gain a sense of confidence and self-efficacy. ThinkCERCA has worked for my students because it provides a consistent process for writing and consistent rubrics. These rubrics allow them to know how to think about writing versus what to think and have empowered them to think independently.

ThinkCERCA also asks students to take a five-question reading quiz that connects to the text and uses standards-based terminology and higher-order thinking skills. To supplement these quizzes and measure growth, I have created a questionnaire in which students answer three questions about the multiple-choice items: what made the question challenging; what strategies can I use to get this type of question correct in the future; and why is the correct answer the best choice? This sustained focus on analyzing questions has given my students confidence and increased accuracy.

Through using ThinkCERCA, I have witnessed first-hand my students grow into stronger writers, with a writing framework they can use in any situation as long as they remember to think, claim, use evidence, reason, counter argue, and determine their audience. I'm sure the future will bring new solutions to try, but for now, I'm just glad to have found something that works.

Ann Whitehair is an eighth grade English Language Arts teacher at Oakwood Junior High School in Oakwood, Ohio, as well as a National Board Certified Teacher.

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