Where’s Your Evidence?

I teach seventh grade. In my universe, citing evidence is not intuitive or automatic. It is a skill we work on all year with varying levels of success. Students love to say how they feel about something they’ve read. They don’t always love supporting that idea with evidence from the text.To be honest, I haven’t quite solved this one yet.

The last thing I want to do is take that joy away from student readers. And, trust me, constantly asking people to cite evidence can be tiresome. How can teachers encourage natural responses to reading while at the same time enforcing the academic skill of citing evidence?

Anchor Poster: Cite Your Source

Anchor Poster: Cite Your Source

 Start with an Image

Most students don’t learn how to cite evidence in one or two isolated lessons. They need practice.  Over and over.

For some, it’s easier to cite evidence from a non-print text, such as a video or image. For example, in preparation for reading “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, I asked my students to study this image:

Claude Duval painting by William Powell Frith Public Domain via Wikipedia

Claude Duval painting by William Powell Frith Public Domain via Wikipedia

We used the thinking routine I see…I think…I wonder… developed byHarvard’s Project Zero. The routine prompts students to make factual observations of a text. What do you see with your eyes? If a student says, “The lady is sad,” I can ask, “What do you see that makes you say that?”

I see..I think...I wonder...

Thinking Routine from Harvard’s Project Zero

Academic Discussions

Before jumping straight to writing, it helps to talk it out. I have found success with whole-class discussion protocols, such as Socratic seminar (click HERE for a recent presentation on the topic) and with a similar routine using cognitive strategies. For more on how this works, click the link to my recent post Class Discussions that Run Themselves.

Talking through ideas before writing gives students confidence and helps form the habit I want: Make a claim and refer to the text to support the idea. It is low stakes because when the discussion is live, the teacher or other students can prompt the speaker to clarify when they need more evidence. Writing is more permanent; it takes longer to get feedback. In an academic discussion, the feedback is immediate.


Sentence Stems for Academic Discussion (Small-Group or Whole-Class)

What About Writing?

When students write for academic purposes—no matter what the genre or writing type—we expect them to make claims and provide evidence. Add that complicated task to an unfamiliar academic genre and possibly a topic students don’t really care about, and suddenly the whole thing is overwhelming.

Even when students understand they need to cite sources, using the correct format—in my class we use MLA—can be a big hurdle for emerging writers.

Formatting concerns are especially on my mind right now because my seventh graders recently went through the process for their final argument blogs (see kidblog.org/blogon2017). I found at least two points of confusion:

  1. During research, you need to record the title, author, and other relevant details, so you can give credit to your source. Some students fight this concept, either hoping to remember their sources or simply not understanding how important this step is. They get frustrated when they start writing and realize they don’t have the information they need to properly cite their sources.
  2. The convention of in-text source citation is quite detailed: Web site titles are in italics; you may use the author’s First and Last Name or the Last Name alone, but not just the First Name; print sources require the page number, but the same information for a digital source does not require a page number. (And that’s not even all of the rules!)

If students already have experience supporting ideas with evidence during class discussion or informal writing tasks, they do better when they get to the big time, otherwise known as the academic essay. If we don’t get them enough practice time, we are asking student writers to do too many new things at once. It’s a recipe for failure.

Teaching In-Text Citations

To teach in-text citations, I go with Kelly Gallagher’s method outlined in Write Like This (218).

1) Students study  mentor sentence, like these:

For example, in the NPR article “Social Media Strikes Today’s Teen Girls Especially Hard,” psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair points out girls are “continually bombarded by media messages, dominant culture, humor and even political figures about how they look — no matter how smart, gifted, or passionate they are.”

For example to the NPR article “Social Media Strikes Today’s Teen Girls Especially Hard,” girls are “continually bombarded by media messages, dominant culture, humor and even political figures about how they look — no matter how smart, gifted, or passionate they are” (Steiner-Adair).

2) Together, we come up with “rules” for in-text citations:

  • Use the author’s last name (of First and Last)
  • Website / Book titles in italics
  • Article or chapter titles in quotes
  • If the author’s name is in the sentence, don’t put it in parenthesis
  • No parenthesis = period inside the quotes.
  • If you embed the quoted material as part of a sentence, you do not capitalize the first word

3)  TAG: At this point, I depart from Gallagher’s lesson and teach students the mnemonic device TAG (title, author, genre). “You have to tag each piece of evidence with the source information!”

4) Practice this in your writing. In the beginning, students often need sentence stems to get this right. It is a necessary scaffold:

  • According to (Author’s Last Name) in the (Source) article titled “Title,”
  • One example from (Author’s Last Name) from the (Source) article “Title,”

The slides below are a helpful way to review:


Next Steps

Of course, this is an ongoing process. The main thing for students to understand is that they need to support ideas with evidence and they need to give credit to their sources. Formatting concerns will come but they are secondary.

One thing I want to try it having students license their own work through Creative Commons. Once students think of themselves as creators, they may realize how important it is that they themselves get credit for their hard work. Then they may have a better understanding of why they have to give the same respect to others.

This license took me less than a minute to make! I know my students would get a kick out of the process. I simply need to find the time.
Creative Commons License
Where’s Your Evidence? by amyjmcmillan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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