Assessing Writing, a Predicament

Like any other skill, writing improves with practice. The more we write, the more proficient we become; indeed, if a student is inspired to write—and truly enjoys the process—he or she will get a bit better at it without any teacher direction at all. Of course, we still need qualified teachers to introduce all students—even the most self-motivated—to the various forms of written expression, the traits that define good writing, and the rules of mechanics. In the end, of course, they also must assess their students’ progress, and therein lies a problem.

Some teachers feel they have to grade everything their students write. This is hard, because it involves commenting on every aspect of content, as well as utilizing proofreader’s marks to point out mechanics issues (spelling, punctuation, and grammar); after all, you can’t just tell a student his story isn’t detailed enough or that his mechanics skills are weak; you have to show him. Grading everything is unrealistic, however, especially for secondary writing teachers; indeed, middle and high school students should produce more writing than their teachers can even read, much less grade. And yet, some things have to be graded, so what’s a teacher to do?

• First, focus on better writing; forget formal assessment for now. If you can help students look to their emotions for inspiration, and motivate them with unique exercises and assignments, they’ll write freely, and you’ll have plenty of samples to choose from when it comes time to assess their work. What’s more, if they write from the heart they’ll be more willing to revise, edit, and proofread, for students learn best by studying their own work.

• Engage your students in teacher/peer feedback—a form of assessment, really. Call your young authors to the Writers’ Workshop share circle, where they can listen to each other’s work, ponder its content, and respond by demanding more detail or clarification. If a student shares a story, for example, that fails to include a description of an important character, a classmate might ask her a few questions: How tall is he? What’s his ethnicity? How is he dressed? How old is he? She then jots down these queries in the margins of her paper; later, she can create sentences that answer them and insert those revisions into her story. The beauty of this process is that writers already know the answers to these questions because they imagine characters and scenes as they write about them; in their haste, however, they don’t always think to describe them. Writers, especially young ones, need to learn that readers don’t like to be left wondering about the details. These “Questions in the Margins” will lead to better content, which will result in higher achievement.

Note: In chapter two (Revising Moment One) of my book, there is a complete description of this questioning process, which can be conducted orally or in writing. The questions can be far ranging, and go beyond the details we associate with sight, sound, smell, texture, and taste. Thoughts, too, have to be clear to readers, as well as the order of events and the passage of time.

• Be selective; don’t reveal which writing exercises and projects you’ll be assessing, or how much weight they will carry. This keeps kids on their toes, and it allows teachers to recognize improvement wherever it appears. Good writing can leap out from a four-line poem just as it can from a research report, and it needs to be affirmed by teachers and peers. Yes, there are certain skills that all good writers must possess eventually, but it’s a long process. Proficiency comes with quality writing instruction, exposure to all forms of written expression, and lots and lots of practice.

• During silent writing time, move about the classroom. Offer comments, write questions in the margins to elicit more detail, drop a proofreading mark or two, and move on. This is your chance to get a sense of how students are doing and compliment them on their use of powerful verbs, vivid detail, sentence fluency, etc. This on-the-go monitoring, questioning, and correcting is an alternative to Writers’ Workshop “conferences,” which tend to pull students away from their work at inopportune times. It’s sometimes better to roam the room, sensing when it might be appropriate to offer a comment, pose a question, make a mark, or simply leave someone alone.

• Set up an “Editors Round Table,” and, yes, it’s better if it’s round. When students are beyond the revision stage, they can help each other edit and proofread their “final drafts.” Outfit a table with pencils, erasers, and a proofreader’s chart, and invite students of varying proficiency to gather there with their papers. There are rules to follow, of course: Place your initials on the top of the front page; never make a mark unless you’re certain it’s appropriate; check for spelling errors by reading from the end of the document to the beginning; consult with the author if necessary before you make a mark; and pass the papers around the table until everyone has had a chance to review each one.

Writing is a unique endeavor; it’s at once complex and as simple as truth. It’s the most sophisticated means of communication, yet a first-grader’s poem can bring us to tears while   many adults are afraid to even attempt one. Teaching writing isn’t easy, but it can be managed if you know the rudiments, introduce your students to their emotional selves, and present them with interesting options. It’s also a good idea to look into your own self, write your truth, and become one of your students; they’ll welcome you with open arms.

Even the most accomplished writers are never quite satisfied with their work, and your students are just beginning their quest to find their voice. Your job is to affirm their best work, teach them how to correct as many of their mistakes as you can, and send them on their way.