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Increasing Rigor Through Close Reading and Argumentative Writing



With only 40 percent of American students who enter college actually completing an associate’s degree or better, the educational shift from focusing on simple recall to higher-order cognitive tasks could not have come soon enough. New academic standards are rolling out across the nation to address this problem. And no matter which standards your state has chosen to adopt, it’s clear educators, parents, legislators, and citizens alike agree that critical thinking is a key component to getting our students ready for life outside the classroom.

But how do we, as educators, foster these skills in our students? At ThinkCERCA, we believe it’s as simple as returning to the basics of education—by focusing on the skills Aristotle and other great thinkers have encouraged for centuries. This includes teaching our students how to make a Claim, support it with Evidence, explain their Reasoning clearly, address Counterarguments, and use Audience-appropriate language when constructing a formal argument. In other words, what we like to call a CERCA. As adults, we CERCA every day in our personal, academic, and professional lives.

ThinkCERCA’s personalized literacy platform helps teachers unleash these critical thinking skills by making it easy to deliver rigorous instruction across disciplines to students at all readiness levels. We do this through engaging content and expert-designed lessons that walk students through the process of close reading and argumentative writing. Here’s how ThinkCERCA nurtures these two skills:

ThinkCERCA for Critical Reading

Helping our students develop sufficient background knowledge (across disciplines) is a critical component to delivering rigorous instruction. Without first having the background knowledge to comprehend a topic, students cannot engage in higher-order thinking about it. Depth is essential for formulating cohesive arguments. Our content creates coherency across schools through leveled text sets—not rewritten texts for multiple readiness levels—that build up students’ background knowledge and allow them to support more complex texts in the future.

As life-long educators, we know just how much time and energy it takes teachers to find standards-aligned informational and literary texts, let alone texts that engage every student in the classroom and encourage peer-to-peer knowledge building.

ThinkCERCA’s robust, standards-aligned lesson library includes engaging texts from authentic sources, including the New York Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine and more, to help your students learn important background knowledge.

Each CERCA Set includes texts for 10 different levels of readiness (grades 3 through 12) that are grouped thematically around a key question. These themes make it easy for teachers to match standards-aligned informational texts to existing curriculum. More importantly, our scaffolded lessons help students strengthen their critical reading skills so they won’t just learn—but also retain—this valuable background knowledge.

STEP 1: Students get engaged prior to reading by reflecting on a related personal experience. Personal-Experience-ThinkCERCA

STEP 2: After reading through the text (using audio support and in-text vocabulary, as needed), students take an automated assessment to gauge reading comprehension.


STEP 3: Students reread the article and analyze the text using built-in highlighting and annotating tools.


STEP 4: Further comprehension is assessed by asking students to summarize the article in a few sentences. Standards-aligned sentence stems are provided to help students formulate their thoughts.


These scaffolded steps, along with ThinkCERCA’s built-in vocabulary and audio support tools, keep students engaged in rigorous cognitive tasks while helping them learn and retain valuable background knowledge.

ThinkCERCA for Critical Writing

In addition to close reading skills, teaching students how to formulate and write a cohesive argument better prepares them for the real world. In fact, decades of research by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research indicates that students who write at least five times per month across disciplines perform better on standardized tests and assessments and are more career- and college- ready. As our CEO, NCTE author and former ELA teacher, Eileen Murphy Buckley, says, “writing helps improve learning, not just prove learning.”

ThinkCERCA doesn’t just help students develop close reading skills, we also help them formulate arguments through evidence-based writing. Through writing, students learn how to construct a point-of-view while reinforcing background knowledge.

STEPS 1-4: After completing the close reading steps within a lesson, our Argument Builder helps student CERCA. They are prompted to make a claim in response to the key question, support their claim with evidence, explain their reasoning, and address counterarguments. Once again, standards-aligned sentence stems are provided to help students formulate their thoughts.


STEP 5: Finally, students complete their CERCA by constructing a formal argument using audience-appropriate language. Drag-and-drop features make it easy to pull in components from the Argument Builder.


To close the achievement gap, students need to be exposed to a social and collaborative learning environment that engages them in rigorous cognitive tasks. The rigorous demands of college and the workplace require our kids to think critically and express their opinions using sound evidence and reasoning. That starts by focusing, from an early age, on close reading and argumentative writing. ThinkCERCA's personalized literacy platform helps educators deliver this type of instruction while also saving teachers valuable time.

Elizabeth Riley Boyer
Elizabeth Riley Boyer

Elizabeth Riley Boyer is an experienced journalist, digital content strategist, and operations manager. Prior to joining ThinkCERCA, she was part of the founding team at Impact Engine, Chicago’s first social impact investment fund and accelerator. As Impact Engine’s Director of Operations & Communications, Elizabeth oversaw the company’s overall processes, day-to-day planning and finances, curriculum development, marketing strategy, and community outreach.

Elizabeth also spent three years at Chicago magazine, most recently as its Digital Engagement Editor, where she managed the organization’s social media and reader engagement initiatives. Elizabeth also works as a freelance content strategist, writer, and communications consultant. Her recent writings on impact entrepreneurship have been featured by the Huffington Post and Crain’s Chicago Business.

In 2007, Elizabeth helped open a private school for underprivileged children while volunteering for a nonprofit organization in the Dominican Republic. This experience inspired her to quit a paper-pushing job at an insurance brokerage firm to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Elizabeth also holds a bachelor’s degree in American studies from the University of Texas at Austin.