Assessment that Improves Student Writing

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Assessment that Improves Student Writing
Kelly Gallagher

Magnolia High School

Anaheim Union High School District

The Seven Commandments of Building Successful Young Writers
Commandment #1: Remember that all writers, especially young writers, are fragile. They break easily. Don’t pound them by pouncing on every error. Nurture them by keeping the focus narrow and attainable. In regards to editing, focus on teaching the Big Eight editing skills first, and then branch out.
Commandment #2: Start with the overarching goal that every student in the class will improve as a writer.

Focus less on grading and more on improvement. Expect more out of remedial students; expect more out of average students; expect more out of honors students. “Everyone improves” becomes the mission of an effective writing classroom.

Commandment #3: Don’t focus solely on editing issues; help students develop their craft as well. The best writer in your class is you. Model how you write by frequently writing in front of them. Show students that effective writing extends far past correctness. Show them excellent models of student craft. Show them models from professional writers. You cannot model enough. Show them how you do it.
Commandment #4: Don’t wait until the end of the writing process to provide feedback. Assessment in the middle of the writing process drives better revision than assessment at the end of the process. Don’t “sucker punch” grade. Coach the students as their papers are developing.
Commandment #5: Conference, conference, conference.

Remember that you can achieve more in a two-minute conference than you can by spending five-to-seven minutes writing comments on a paper. Developing writers need face time with the most experienced writer in the class (again, that’s you).

Commandment #6: Students should have voice in developing the rubric.

A rubric can drive better writing if students understand its language. This understanding of what is expected from the task should come before they have finished the paper. Buy-in will occur when the students take part in creating the rubric and when they see that each rubric is personalized to some degree to their needs. When it comes to rubrics, one size does not fit all.

Commandment #7: If you worry too much about the first six commandments, you’ll become nuttier than Barry Bonds at a Slim-Fast Convention. Do your best. Rome was not built in a day. Accept the notion that you will come up short at times. When the task of teaching writing to adolescents seems insurmountable, take a deep breath. Walk your dog. Get lost in a trashy novel. An occasional margarita, on the rocks, is helpful.

Focus on Teaching CRAFT

Things Writers Do: Elements of Craft

Mistakes Writers Make: Editing

  • Strong voice

  • Sentence sense/variety

  • Word power (mature vocabulary/use of metaphorical language/show-don’t tell)

  • Strong verbs

  • Paragraphing for effect

  • Effective introductions /conclusions

  • Clear thesis

  • Flow (sequence/coherence)

  • Development/ complexity of ideas

  • Effective transitions

  • Special narrative strategies (e.g flashback, time shifts)

  • Strong dialogue

  • Sentence boundaries

  • Run-on sentences

  • Fragments

  • Comma errors

  • Subject/verb agreement

  • Quotation marks

  • Pronoun agreement

  • Pronoun vagueness

  • Capitalization

  • Apostrophes

  • Semi-colons

  • Colons

  • Italics

  • Numbers

  • Parenthesis

  • Word choice

  • Spelling

Strategies for Teaching CRAFT

Help students move beyond a “one and done” mentality with their writing with the following Peer Response Techniques:

  • Question Flood: flood the partner’s paper with questions.

  • I like” talks. Use the overhead or give everybody a copy of a paper. “Tell me what you like.”

  • Teach Summary and Commentary (think Sunday night football with Al Michaels and John Madden)

Ten Tenets to Teaching Editing

  • Tenet #1: Determine Editing Needs and Address Them

  • Tenet #2: Teach Less to the Whole Class; Teach More in Conferences

  • Tenet #3: Instead of Using Grammar Books, Make Them

  • Tenet #4: Keep the Focus Narrow

  • Tenet #5: Teach the Big Eight

  • Tenet #6: Don’t Drown the Paper in Essay Corrections

  • Tenet #7: Whole-Class Peer Editing is an Ineffective Strategy

  • Tenet #8: Make Students Track Their Spelling Demons

  • Tenet #9: I Can Effect More Improvement in a Student’s Writing Via a Two-Minute Discussion Than I Can By Taking Five Minutes to Write Comments on the Paper

  • Tenet #10: Repeat After Me: “I am not Superman. I am not Superman. I am not…”

Teach the Big Eight:

    1. Identifying the difference between a fragment and a complete sentence.

    2. Because we have been working on subjects, verbs, and little words, punctuation comes next. This includes comma splices, semi-colons, and colons.

    3. Understanding subject and verb with no intervening phrases.

    4. Understanding subject and verb with intervening phrases.

    5. Using pronoun case correctly, which again ties to subjects (and objects) of sentences.

    6. Using commas inside the independent clause.

    7. Understanding irregular verbs.

    8. Correctly applying the pronoun with its antecedent.



Period _____
Scoring Guide For _______________________

Scoring Criteria

Exceeds Expectations for the Standard

Meets the Standard

Does Not Yet Meet the Standard

Kelly shows students two sample papers to discuss—one that meets the standard and one that doesn’t. He doesn’t tell them which paper is which before they discuss them.

Based on the discussion, Kelly and the class develop the first three scoring criteria together as a group.

Based on the discussion, Kelly and the class develop the first three scoring criteria together as a group.

Teacher Notes:

As Kelly reads a class of papers, he uses a “T” chart to make notes on CRAFT and EDITING.

In addition to a short comment in the appropriate square above, Kelly puts two bullet points here and identifies what the paper would earn at this point:





An Example

Scoring Criteria

Exceeds expectations for the standard

Meets the expectation for the standard

Does not yet meet the expectation of the standard

Effective Introductions

The essay has TAG.

The thesis statement is clear (direct or implied).

The intro is original (it doesn’t sound like everyone else’s).

The essay has TAG.
The thesis statement is clear. (usually direct).

TAG is incomplete, missing, or confusing.
Thesis statement is incomplete, missing, or confusing.

Level of analysis

The paper mostly analyzes, creating new thinking and understanding. The analysis does not sound like everyone else’s papers.

The paper mostly analyzes instead of summarizes.

The paper summarizes instead of analyzes.

Sentence branching

The essay exhibits sophisticated use of sentence branching

The essay exhibits competent use of sentence branching.

The paper is written in mostly simple sentences.


(Added by Nancy after reading the comment in her paper)

Run-on sentences

(Added by Nancy after reading the comment in her paper)

Rules for Writing Conferences

  1. The goal is to complete each conference in less than three minutes. Sometimes I use an egg timer to keep me on track.

  1. Students must come to the conference with a purpose. They cannot simply hand me their papers and say, “I need help,” or “Will you check my paper?” They must have a focus in mind when they approach. For example, a student might say, “I am not sure about my verb tenses in this paragraph,” or “Is my thesis statement clear?”

  1. If I am busy conferencing with another student, students write their names on the board and I will call them in the order when I am ready. If there is a list, students are told to return to their seats and to work on other facet of their papers until I can get to them.

Exceeds expectations for the standard

Meets expectations for the standard

Does not yet meet expectations for the standard







at the end of the paper

Reading the papers mid-streams affords the teacher the opportunity to tailor instruction while the students are still working on the paper, thus increasing their chances of revising meaningfully.

Reading the papers at the end of the process tailors instruction after the students haven completed the paper, thus decreasing their chances of revising meaningfully. This type of assessment “sucker punches” students.

Identifying the problems earlier helps both teacher and students to create the scoring rubric, thus generating buy-in.

The rubric, often incomprehensible, is handed down from “above,” thus reducing buy-in.

The rubric not only addresses whole class writing problems, but is also tailored to target the needs of individual students.

The rubric only addresses whole class issues; no individualization. Because it is “one-size-fits-all,” students see it as “just another rubric.”

This is a different strategy for accomplishing what I describe in “Independent Repatterning.” Kelly knows that if students don’t DO something with the comments on returned papers, nothing improves and the “one and done” mentality continues.

f a student can’t find the mechanical problem, they are to ask three other students for help. If NONE of them can find it, they arrange an editing conference (“Bring your posse.”). Students don’t earn points for correcting their errors because they need to take ownership of their writing. However, they earn one grade lower if they don’t do the corrections or if they do them incorrectly.

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