Welcome to The Literacy Cookbook

Recipes for Effective Literacy Instruction

Connecting Reading, Writing, Test-Prep



Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin, and we use tests as one way to measure students’ abilities to do both. In this section, we show strategies that take advantage of the connections among these different skills to strengthen literacy skills overall.



In Part I, “MAIN IDEA/ARGUMENT: Finding One vs. Building One,” we consider how to find a main idea/argument (reading and test-taking) vs. how to build a main idea/argument (writing). 

Part II, “CRITICAL READING AND ROBUST WRITING” provides code words for different types of critical reading questions, strategies for reading fiction and nonfiction, and suggestions for how to create more robust writing. 

For more information, check out the home pages of the following sections:

* * * 

PART I: MAIN IDEA/ARGUMENT: Finding One vs. Building One 

The MAIN IDEA/ARGUMENT is supported with EVIDENCE.  In both reading and writing, you need to know the difference between ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE. Go to the Argument vs. Evidence page for detailed recipes for how to teach students to identify arguments and write their own.


1. Demonstrate the difference. 

Ex.: Which is an ARGUMENT?  Which is EVIDENCE?  How can you tell? 

  1. __________________________ Allie, Holden’s brother, is dead. (FACT, so it has to be EVIDENCE)
  1. __________________________ Losing his brother causes a major impact on Holden’s life. (NEEDS EVIDENCE/EXPLANATION TO PROVE IT, so it has to be an ARGUMENT)
*For more practice, use  Argument vs. Evidence-Catcher in the Rye.  History teachers, see Argument vs. Evidence-President Harding and Argument vs. Evidence-FDR (Thanks, Hans Winberg!).

2. Practice SUMMARIZING in various ways:

  • SUMMARIZE PASSAGES:  Read a passage and summarize it in 1-2 sentences.
  • SUMMARIZE SENTENCES: Condense them (say, from 20 words to 10).
  • READ PASSAGES and GIVE THEM TITLES.  Explain WHY these titles are appropriate.
In nonfiction, the MAIN IDEA is an ARGUMENT.  When answering questions about MAIN IDEA, eliminate choices that are TRUE but are FACTS, not ARGUMENTS.   

Show students examples of choices they could eliminate without even having read the passage! 

Ex.: The main idea of this passage is

  1. The yearly festival in Pamplona, Spain, always includes the Running of the Bulls. (FACT)
  2. Running alongside the bulls as they are moved from the corral to the bullring in Pamplona, Spain, has become an exciting and dangerous sport.
  3. The bravest runners carry newspapers with which they touch the bulls as they run through the streets. (FACTISH and TOO SPECIFIC)
  4. The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, has been going on for about three hundred years. (FACT)

1. Take POE (Process of Elimination) to a higher level: Leave a blank next to each multiple-choice answer, where students must EXPLAIN WHY EACH WRONG ANSWER IS WRONG. 

2. Teach students to notice the word choice.  In the example above, you could ask, “What’s your definition of ‘exciting’?”  Ditto, “dangerous”?  These words need to be explained.  That’s how you know they are not merely facts.  They require evidence and explanation. 

GENERAL REMINDER: Just because it’s true, that doesn’t mean it’s the right answer.

Check out What is the Main Idea? handout in the Download Zone.

When reading nonfiction, you need to be able to locate the TOPIC SENTENCE that expresses the MAIN IDEA/ARGUMENT in each paragraph.  And before you can write your own topic sentences, you need to know what a good one looks like. Go to the Argument vs. Evidence page for detailed recipes for how to teach students to identify arguments and write their own.


1. Teach students to identify and underline the thesis/topic sentence.  Given passages, use “I do/We do/You do” approach to practice this skill.  

*See How to Find the Topic Sentence. 

If you can FIND a topic sentence, you should also be able to WRITE one. 


1. After some practice in FINDING TOPIC SENTENCES (see above), give students sample effective topic sentences for which they must generate relevant evidence (bullet points are OK to start; later they can add the rest of the paragraph).  Model this, then have groups try it and report back to the whole class.  Then students can do it independently.  PS, this is a great way to review material! 

2. Give students a range of effective and ineffective topic sentences and ask them to evaluate the sentences.  Ineffective ones should suffer from these common problems:

  • fact, not argument
  • too broad/general (“Everyone knows…)
  • too specific (not much you could say about it)
  • irrelevant to the thesis (if one is given).
Once you can WRITE an effective TOPIC SENTENCE, you need to support it with EFFECTIVE EVIDENCE. 


1. Give students sample paragraphs (from passages that address content you want them to read) that include effective and ineffective evidence and ask them to evaluate the evidence.  Ineffective evidence should suffer from these common problems:

  • irrelevant to topic sentence
  • self-contradictory
  • inaccurate/imprecise (eg, hyperbole)
  • not convincing (relevant but not compelling as support—ie, “So what?”).
2. Repeat the exercise above using sample paragraphs written by (anonymous) students in the class.  This approach will raise their awareness about their OWN writing. 


  • Use content that you want to reinforce, so the reading serves two purposes.
  • Use pre-existing texts and simply doctor them to suit your needs so that you won’t have to create sample paragraphs from scratch.



Teach students “code words” that indicate what kind of question is being asked.  Then give them sample questions and ask them to determine what kinds of questions they are.  For tips on how to create critical reading questions, see How to Create Critical Reading Questions: A Recipe.


  • After reading the article/passage/story…
  • The central idea
  • The theme
  • This passage is mostly about
  • The author would probably agree
  • The best summary
  • Infer
  • Suggest
  • Conclude
  • Because/why
  • Most likely
  • Facts
  • In other words
  • According to the story/passage
  • What does this mean?
  • Plot
  • Paraphrase
  • What does ____ mean in this context?
  • Based on the passage, what does ____ mean?
When you read, ANNOTATE! 

Model this repeatedly.  Use the overhead and say what you’re thinking as you read and take notes.  Note that we approach non-fiction and fiction differently. 

*See the following documents:

For non-fiction:

  • Underline thesis/topic sentences.
  • *Star supporting details.
  • ???Note questions in the margin.
  • [Bracket] or circle unfamiliar words.
  • SUMMARIZE the passage in 1-2 sentences.

For fiction/narratives:

  • Begin with a question in mind—eg, “What kind of person is ____, and how can we tell?”
  • *Star evidence that addresses the question.
  • ANSWER THE QUESTION in 1-2 sentences.

If annotating with Post-Its, students can pre-write the questions they are trying to answer on the Post-Its, then stick them next to appropriate passages where they find answers.

USE CLAUSES AND PHRASES to enrich your writing. 


1. Teach the difference between an independent and a dependent clause.  Independent clauses, AKA “sentences,” can stand alone.  Dependent clauses would topple over (good idea to model this physically); they cannot stand alone. 

2. Teach different types of phrases/clauses/ways to elaborate/enrich a sentence, eg, appositives, -ing phrases, and other types of dependent clauses that can be removed from a sentence. 

3. Have students insert these different types of clauses and phrases into their own writing. 

*See Clauses and Phrases Overview.

  • Ex.: Given the following sentence, add an appositive.  “Mr. Jones praised our hard work.”--> “Mr. Jones, the principal, praised our hard work.”

4. Teach Why Punctuation Is Important.   See also A Poem on Why Punctuation Is Important.

USE ROBUST VOCABULARY to enrich your writing. 

Model the use of robust vocabulary by speaking redundantly/parenthetically, e.g., “Halt, stop, cease, desist!” 

Give students bland passages, triple-spaced, and ask them to rewrite them using more robust vocabulary. 


Want to review the FOUR CRITICAL READING SKILLS (paraphrasing, inference, vocabulary in context, and summarizing/inferring main idea) and teach your students how to identify test questions that deal with these skills?  Check out this Sample LESSON PLAN TO LABEL CRITICAL READING QUESTIONS and HANDOUTS for the lesson.

IN THE DOWNLOAD ZONE for Connecting Reading, Writing, Test-Prep:  AND FOR A SNEAK PREVIEW, CLICK HERE!

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