Six strategies to help students cite and explain evidence

Discussions give students an authentic reason to find and explain evidence. But if you’ve ever encountered silence after asking a student to find or explain evidence for an answer, you know the challenge of teaching students to use textual evidence meaningfully. As with any skill, students must learn it through modeling, practice with support, and coaching. Try these classroom tips to help students understand how to find, evaluate, and explain evidence.

Model the importance of evidence whenever you can. From the beginning of the year, emphasize the difference between a guess and an idea that can be supported with reasons. Model giving evidence for your opinions or statements across different subject areas.

Choose texts and questions that reward close reading. Open-ended questions about rich, thought-provoking texts engage students’ interest and naturally support looking for and explaining evidence. To make sure a text and question will repay some deep digging, try answering the question yourself. If you have at least two different, reasonable answers you can support with evidence, your students will have enough to work with. Choose shorter texts when students are new to working with evidence.

Explain what makes evidence “strong.” Many students may not have learned what it means to say that evidence for an answer is “strong” or “solid.” Explain that evidence is strongest when others can clearly see how it connects to the question and answer; it doesn’t have to be stretched or twisted to fit an argument. Show students three pieces of textual evidence for an answer that you have rated from strongest to weakest, explaining your reasoning. Then have students try the exercise themselves with a different question, answer, and evidence. Identifying examples of strong and weak evidence from the same text can give students a valuable benchmark.

Ask follow-up questions. When a student gives evidence, ask a follow-up question about how it supports the student’s point. Questions like, “What about this passage makes you think that?” or “Can you explain how that sentence shows [student’s answer]?” help them understand that evidence is not self-explanatory. Asking, “Did anyone get a different idea from this passage?” can reveal that the same piece of evidence may be used to support different answers.

Draw on the power of pairs. Especially for struggling or quieter students, working with a partner to find and explain evidence can be very beneficial. Pairing up to talk about ideas before a discussion can help all students find relevant evidence and participate confidently in a whole-class conversation.

Help students reflect on their use of evidence. Sharing simple benchmarks with the class (see sidebar) can help students take more responsibility for their progress. After a discussion, pause to have students reflect on the evidence that came up and how it was used. Encourage students to cite particularly compelling uses of evidence, and to set goals for the next discussion.

Using Evidence: Student Benchmarks

The following will help you gauge a student’s skill at finding & explaining textual evidence from struggling (level 1) to proficient (level 4).
Level 1: Has difficulty supporting an answer with evidence
Considers answer self-explanatory
Talks about things other than the text
Level 2: Refers to the text in general to support ideas
Looks back at the text when asked to do so
Recalls major facts from the text
Level 3: Recalls or locates evidence from the text to support ideas
Often looks back at the text without prompting
Recalls or locates relevant parts text
Level 4: Locates evidence and explains how it supports ideas
Habitually looks back at the text for evidence
Explains how specific parts of the text support an idea
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