The Effectiveness of Using a Written Response Strategy for Responding to Texts

by Lindsey Nichols, University of Bridgeport

Author’s Note: Lindsey Nichols, School of Education, University of Bridgeport. This research was submitted in partial fulfillment for the Reading and Language Arts Consultant Sixth Year Certification Program with Dr. Patricia Mulcahy-Ernt, Advisor, University of Bridgeport.


This study examined the effectiveness of using the RACE strategy in students’ written responses to text. The strategy was taught to sixth grade students in an average level reading class in order to determine if it helps students write more thorough, elaborated, and organized responses to texts. The students were given a pre-assessment prior to learning the RACE strategy and a post assessment upon three months of practice applying the strategy in their own written responses. It was predicted that the RACE strategy would help students to write more thorough, organized, and elaborated responses to text and improve students’ scores on reading assessments containing open-ended responses. The RACE strategy did have a significant effect on students’ reading assessment scores, and the overall quality of the students’ written responses improved.

RACE Strategy: The Effectiveness of using a Written Response Strategy for Responding to Texts.

Students in classrooms across the nation are being asked to demonstrate their reading comprehension of both expository and narrative texts through their written responses on state and district assessments. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which have been accepted by forty-five states, emphasize higher-level comprehension skills to a greater degree than previous standards. Reading and writing are equally important according to the new standards.

Reading is now being assessed through student writing.

The current study was designed to determine the effectiveness of using RACE as a response strategy when composing a written response to text. It was predicted that students who accurately use the RACE response strategy would have improved scores on the school’s benchmark assessments and the state reading assessments, and that the overall quality of their written responses to text would improve.

RACE is an acronym that reminds students of the specific criteria needed in a quality written response. The R in RACE represents the topic sentence in which the student restates the question, framing the entire response. The A signifies the answer to the question, articulating the student’s thoughts and/or ideas. The C represents the text citations, which are needed to support the answers. Finally, the E reminds the student to explain how textual evidence supports the answers, concluding the responses.

In the past decade there has been an emphasis on the connection between reading and writing. In todays’ classrooms, reading and writing are taught together rather than in isolation from one another. “A growing body of research has demonstrated that reading and writing are closely related and that both processes can be learned better in connection with each other rather than in isolation. Making meaning is the core of the reading-writing connection ” (Savage, 1998, p. 342). Both involve critical thinking skills. “Today’s readers are asked to integrate information from several texts and to explain relationships between the ideas and author’s craft. The CCSS expect students to cite evidence as they explain what the text teaches in their writing” (Calkins, Ehrenworth, & Lehman, 2012, p. 41).

Under the new Common Core Standards, by the third grade students are expected to explicitly refer to the text and cite specific examples and pages to support their written responses. By fifth grade, students must accurately use quotes from the text to explicitly explain their answers. As a reading teacher, I frequently ask my students to demonstrate their thinking about a text through an open-ended written response. In the book, Pathways to the Common Core, Calkins et al., (2012) state that, “The ability to convey knowledge is becoming just as important as knowledge itself” (p.110). The more students write about literature the more proficient they become with reading and writing; therefore, their reading comprehension increases. Students need specific strategies when writing an open-ended response text. “Reading-writing connections must be made explicit. The transfer of knowledge between reading and writing is not automatic. Writers construct meaning as they select words and craft language structures so that they will convey on paper this meaning to others” (Savage, 1998, p. 344-346).

Many students struggle with writing quality answers to the open-ended comprehension questions on reading assessments. Teachers do their best to explain to students how to formulate and write a written response to text, but there is no specific formula that students learn year after year for something they are constantly asked to do. Students now more than ever need to be able to effectively demonstrate their reading comprehension through their written responses with the new Common Core Standards that are currently taking effect.

The stakes have been raised for students’ written responses to text. Student responses and scores on district and state testing are compared between classrooms as well as between different schools and districts within each state. In her book, Teaching Written Response to Text, Nancy Boyles explains, “We should not assume that children can automatically translate their thinking out loud about text into thinking on paper” (Boyles, 2002, p.2). To help students write clear and logical responses to text, they need to be familiar with the expository text structure.

During my first few years of teaching, I noticed that my students’ written responses to text lacked specific information, organization, and overall quality. In addition, several teachers that I spoke with at the elementary and middle-school level also expressed that getting students to write quality responses to text was a common challenge. One teacher commented that her students’ responses, “lacked organization and elaboration.” It is my hope that students’ responses to text will improve through the use of the RACE strategy.

A written response to text is a form of expository writing and can be explicitly taught just as the five-paragraph essay is taught in classrooms. Teachers must make students aware of the type of information that should be included in their responses and how each response should be organized. Calkins states, “It is important to teach students how to organize and elaborate on facts and ideas, to decide on priorities, to look at information through different lenses, and to entertain questions” (Calkins et. al., 2012, p.153). The CCSS expect that students can independently include a variety of types of evidence (e.g., facts, definitions, quotes) and use language that connects that evidence within their writing. Under these new standards, students learn to craft their writing, find key details, elaborate on the details, and include them within their own writing in a way that clearly expresses their ideas.

A typical written response to text contains a topic sentence, some details from the text and/or quotes, and a concluding sentence. In order to write a quality response to texts, students need to have a solid comprehension of the text. “We cannot expect students to respond to literature they don’t understand” (Boyles, 2002, p.28). Writing a thorough, organized, response requires good instruction in the process of writing. Explicit instruction (also known as direct instruction) is important to teaching students how to write effective responses. It sets the purpose for learning and provides clear explanations of what to do. It begins by modeling the process and is followed by multiple opportunities for guided practice until students gain independence. This is the gradual release of responsibility to the students.

Teachers often ask students to add more details to their written work, but students typically do not understand what the teacher means when he or she says this. “This may mean adding a physical description, a private thought, a gesture, dialogue, a comparison, examples, and/or anecdotes. Teachers sometimes assume that students understand exactly what the word
‘details’ means” (Boyles, 2002, p. 14.) Teaching students what adding details means and showing them modeled examples of responses with the ideal number of details helps them to better understand what to do when they are asked to add more details to their written work.



Participants included thirty-one sixth grade middle schools students from a rural community. The students were of average ability and placed in an average level reading class. Class placements were determined based on the Connecticut Mastery Test results from the previous school year and teacher recommendations.


Students read four passages and answered eight open-ended responses on both the pre- assessment and post assessment. The reading passages and questions were taken from 4th- Generation CMT Language Arts Coach books. The written responses of the students were measured using the same criteria as the Connecticut Mastery Test. Students responses were scored with a 0, 1, or 2.


Students were given a pre-assessment at the beginning of the school year prior to any instruction on the RACE written response strategy. The pre-assessment contained three reading passages along with eight open-ended responses for students to answer which were based on the readings. Unlimited time was given to all participants to complete the assessment. A post-assessment was administered after three months of explicit instruction and guided practice on how to effectively use the RACE strategy. The post-assessment was in the same format as the pre-assessment. An unlimited amount of time was given to read the passages and write eight responses to the open-ended questions.

The written response strategy used during the study was termed RACE. RACE is an acronym that reminds students of the specific criteria needed in a quality written response. The strategy is a tool to help students write more thorough, elaborated, and structured responses to text. The RACE written response strategy was shared with me by a fellow colleague. My colleague had observed her mentor teacher use the strategy during her student teaching. It is unknown where or from whom this strategy originates.

The purpose of this research study was to determine if using the RACE strategy would improve the overall quality of students’ written response on reading assessments containing open- ended responses. Although, there may be some relationship between using the RACE strategy and students’ reading comprehension, the central purpose of the strategy is to improve written responses to text using specific textual evidence which is needed to support their answers. A strategy poster explaining RACE was posted in the classroom and a copy was given to the students to use as a resource when writing a response to text.

The RACE strategy was taught at the beginning of the school year in order to allow students multiple opportunities to practice it and become proficient using it. A poster containing the acronym RACE and the meaning of each letter was posted in the classroom so that students were constantly aware of the criteria needed in order to write a well-crafted written response to text.

Instruction began by first making sure students were aware of what the questions were really asking. This was done by showing students how to carefully read the questions and highlight key words or phrases. This step was modeled for the students until they were able to recognize the key words and phrases on their own.

Once students had analyzed the questions and determined the type of information needed to answer the question they began using RACE. The R in RACE represents the topic sentence in which the student restates the question, framing the entire response. This demonstrates that the student understands what the question is asking. The A signifies the answer to the question, articulating the student’s thoughts and/or ideas. The C represents the text citations, which are needed to support their answers. The citations must be relevant and meaningful to the answer. Finally, the E reminds the students to explain how their textual evidence supports their answers, concluding the responses.

In order for the students to accurately do this, the RACE written response strategy must be modeled and many opportunities for guided practice must be given.

The RACE strategy was explicitly taught to the students beginning the day after the pre-
assessment was administered. Using a PowerPoint presentation, students were introduced to the term and what it represented. The students looked at actual samples of student responses and how the strategy applied to the responses. They were able to see the difference between responses that were general and vague when the strategy was not used, compared to the responses that were more detailed and organized when the strategy was applied. Just as with teaching any new skill or concept, it was important to model the use of the strategy first. In order to show each element of the strategy, I would highlight or color code each part of the acronym in a sample response. This helped students visualize each step of the strategy. For example, R is highlighted in red, A in blue, C in green, and E in yellow. The students could then look at the modeled responses and clearly identify how each part of the strategy was used to create a complete response.

Students were continuously exposed to the strategy during the three months time between the pre-assessment and the post-assessment. Initially, the strategy was modeled using a picture book. Students were asked to identify which word best described the main character. Through the use of think alouds, the students were always aware of my thought process as I was responding to the question. When the response was complete, I asked several students to color code my response.

The Value of a Sample Response

“Good written responses don’t magically occur in most students’ writings. Students need help with understanding how to write with clarity, organization and insight. If you want your students to delve into characters’ motivations and choices, you may need to model your own response in front of them and help them pick out the words writers use to get across a point” (Boyles, 2002, p. 17). Many great literature teachers model writing assignments in front of their students – perhaps writing on the overhead or on chart paper and thinking aloud as they go. This makes the composing process more visible to students. In addition to modeling their own writing, teachers can save student samples and use them (anonymously) as examples in later classes.


The initial data taken from the pre-assessment of the thirty-one students indicated that 36% of the students passed or reached the goal score of 10 points or higher on the pre-assessment. Sixty-four percent of the students failed or did not meet goal on the pre-assessment. The majority of students appeared to struggle with the phrasing and/or the format of their responses during the pre-assessment. The results showed that many students also struggled citing specific text details and/or explaining their responses.

The data from the post-assessment show that 67% of the students passed or met goal and
33% of the students failed or did not meet goal. Goal was a score of 10 points or higher. There was a significant increase in the number of students who passed from the pre-assessment to the post- assessment. It appears that the RACE written response strategy was effective in helping students write more thorough, organized, and elaborated responses to the texts.

Out of the thirty-one students who participated in the study approximately 80% of the students’ scores increased from the pre- assessment to the post-assessment. This does not mean that everyone whose score increased passed or met goal on the test, but rather it shows the percentage of students who displayed growth from the September assessment to the December assessment. On average, students’ scores increased by 2.3 points and students whose scores decreased did so by an average 3.44 points.


The purpose of this study was to determine if using the RACE written response strategy helped to improve the overall quality of students’ written responses to texts. It was predicted that when applying the strategy to their open-ended response, students would have more thorough, organized, and elaborated written responses. The results of the study showed that using the RACE strategy when answering open-ended responses did in fact help to improve students’ responses overall. The hypothesis was supported in this study. Of the thirty-one students analyzed during the research, 80% of the students’ scores increased after being taught how to use and apply the RACE strategy to their own written responses. Not all of the 80% of students whose scores increased reached goal. The students whose scores increased did so by an average of 2.3 points; however, the students whose scores decreased from the pre-
assessment to the post assessment decreased by an average of 3.44 points.

It is interesting to see that although only nineteen percent of the students’ scores decreased, their scores decreased by a greater numbers of points than the number of points the students’ scores increased. It is unclear as to why this may have happened, but it may be due to poor
comprehension of the text. The texts given to the students were selected from the 4th-Generation CMT Language Arts Coach books. All of the texts students were asked to read were at the sixth grade reading level. Students’ interest level in the text topics from the pre-assessment to the post- assessment may have decreased or may have been a contributing factor as to why some students’ scores were lower on the post-assessment.

Both the pre-assessment and the post- assessment were given at the same time of day for the students; however, the time of the school year in which the tests were given may have also affected the scores. The post-assessment was given close to the holiday break when students’ excitement level tends to be much higher and their concentration is lacking.

The RACE written response strategy may not improve students’ reading comprehension, but rather helps educators understand students’ thinking about a particular text. The strategy allows students to better organize and elaborate their written responses clearly showing their thinking on paper. Students not only answer the questions when using the strategy but are also able to support their answers with specific text citations and explain how the citations they chose help to support their answers. In conclusion, the results of this study show that the RACE written response strategy is effective in helping students improve the quality of their responses with respect to organization, elaboration, fluency, and thoroughness.


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