The BEST Choice (Part 2): Are Questions With Negative Words Extra Tricky for Students?

Last week, we found that CCSS Anchor 2 (finding the main idea) questions were often a challenge for our readers. Often, these questions used qualifying words such as “except”, “most”, “best”, “does”, and “does not”. These questions might ask students to find the BEST answer for which sentence contains the main idea of the article when other answers contain important or interesting ideas.

Our next question was whether or not some of these words were more tricky than others for students. We decided to put the words into two categories: positive and negative. Questions that asked students to find the “best” answer or locate a sentence that “does” include a main idea from the story were considered positive. Questions that asked students things like “All of the following sentences include key ideas from the article EXCEPT” were considered negative.

We found that, overall, students performed better on the positively worded questions.

With that said, we wanted to see which qualifying words are the hardest and easiest for each grade. The table below provides a list of the toughest and easiest qualifiers for students, by grade. For example, if you teach eighth grade, your students will tend to find “DOES NOT” questions the most difficult, while performing relatively better on “BEST” questions.


So do your students do best on “BEST” questions? Most likely. Except for 11th graders, students perform best on “BEST” questions or questions with a positive qualifying word. So now the questions become:

  • What is the BEST technique to improve outcomes on negative qualifying questions?
  • What DOES NOT help students in answering questions with a qualifying word?

Again, we asked our Manager of Assessment what a good teaching strategy would be to help students struggling with the “EXCEPT” or “DOES NOT” questions. A lot of the time, she says, not taking the time to read questions carefully is the main culprit. As simple as it sounds, asking students to slow down and to read every word of the question can help them improve their scores.

Have you noticed any trends with qualifier questions in your classroom? Tweet us @Newsela and let us know what is working BEST and what is NOT working.