choice · process · reflective practice

Individualize Writing Process + Standardized Tests

Sometimes when I write in this forum it is about topics I have thought through and know exactly where I stand and what I think. Other times I write here in order to figure out what I think. These are the thoughts which make me most nervous to post. However, if I never post my raw, ever-changing, in-the-midst of developing thinking, then I won’t grow as an educator. When I post the thoughts tumbling in my head, I face issues  head on. Albeit a little scary, this is the way I grow.

So today’s post is snippets of thoughts tripping over each other in my head. They probably won’t be eloquently stated; my hope is they won’t be ridiculous.

  • As the pressure is increased to perform well on standardized tests, teachers are reverting to teaching a lock-step writing process. I believe the secret for students to do well on standardized tests is to teach them to personalize the writing process for their unique needs. By teaching students to become most efficient when composing a draft, we prepare them for standardized tests.
  • There are specific phases of the writing process which every writer goes through. The way each writer works through these phases varies. Some writers percolate on an idea for a long time before ever writing it; others play with a topic in their notebook, sketching, webbing, quick writing, and collecting ideas for a while. Still others consider an idea and draft as soon as possible, then go back and consider their project. The phase of getting ideas has a million different approaches; so do the others.
  • As far as the phases, I believe all writers: gather ideas; plan; draft; revise; edit; and publish. I also believe some of these stages happen in the heads of some writers. Although, I think the more proficient the writer, the more likely these phases can be done in one’s head as opposed to on paper. For this reason, I typically insist the writers in our classrooms put their thinking out on the page. Since they have less experience it is important to practice the craft of writing on paper. It also allows me to see their train of thought and help them refine it.
  • Do all writers publish? I think if they are truly writing, then there is an inner-drive to publish. I’m using the word publish very liberally. When we write, we want people to read our writing. Whenever we share our writing with someone we are publishing.
  • It’s difficult to teach students to personalize their writing process unless we are teachers who write. As writers, we learn ways to be most efficient. When something works for us, the process “clicks.” We train ourselves to get into a groove as writers. We must know the “click” if we want to teach our students to feel the same way.
  • Unless we study how others write, then it’s difficult to realize there are many ways to be an efficient writer. Once we understand how it feels to personalize the writing process, then we can recognize it in others. Our goal as teachers is to provide many opportunities for students to find their own unique process.
  • This sometimes conflicts with our need to “prepare” students for standardized tests. Because we want students to do well, we teach them a lock-step approach to writing for the tests. I’m beginning to realize the approach taught is the approach which works best for the teacher. This isn’t necessarily what works best for kids.
  • So the bottom line is to give students looooooooooooooooooooooooooooots of time and flexibility to find their own writing process and then a little bit of time to practice their process in standardized testing situations. Then repeat this process throughout the entire school year. This makes Writing Workshop even more crucial when preparing students for standardized tests. They must have plenty of practice time to find themselves as writers, then time to put this into practice on a standardized test. By giving a standardized writing prompt at the end of a unit of study, this allows the necessary time for students to refine their process, as well as the needed practice on a writing prompt.
  • Finally the purpose of writing is not to score well on a test. The purpose of writing is to make sense of the world and to help others do the same. The purpose of writing is to make this crazy world a little better. When we write for real, we are happier. Let’s not take this joy away from students because a standardized test scares us into teaching a lock-step writing process.

I’d love to know your thoughts as you weigh-in on these issues.

6 thoughts on “Individualize Writing Process + Standardized Tests

  1. Ruth,
    I have just started following your blog and I am truly inspired whenever I read what you have put together here! I especially appreciate your willingness to share your “unthought-out” thoughts. How often are we given the space to do that? As teachers, we are expected to know the right answer, and in this messy business of education, there simply isn’t one, especially in teaching writing.
    I was nodding my head throughout your entire post. As far as standardized testing, I sort of went through a denial phase that it was really that big of a deal. I thought other teachers were overreacting to the perceived pressures put on them for their students to perform well. But, this year I got pulled into my department head’s office and was informed that since my student’s had the lowest scores in the building on our practice for the state writing assessment, I had to submit lesson plans indicating how I was going to raise their scores!
    After having sat down with their portfolios only months prior (this was second semester) I emphatically told my department head, “those scores tell you nothing about my kids’ ability to write!” And reluctantly turned in a plan for improving their scores. I am now, proud (is that the word I want to use? I don’t know that I am proud of this…) to report that only two of my 100+ juniors didn’t pass the state writing exam. I am more proud to say that their portfolios at the end of the year showed incredible growth, reflection and challenging work throughout that they rose to the challenge of.
    So, keep sharing your thoughts and helping us all deal with the same thoughts we have in our heads and aren’t taking the time to share!


  2. Thank you, Ruth, for this post.

    More and more, as I write and publish daily for the first time, I understand the necessity for play and exploration with writing. It’s this comfort with process, coming to understand our own quirks and needs, that helps us grow and take big risks. This comfort only comes from the loooooooooooots of time that you mentioned. Children need the wide open spaces of writing workshop to graze and grow. We all do.

    I think your idea of offering standardized writing prompts at the end of units is wise, almost like running long runs and then running short sprints. Both are good for runners, and both require different, yet complementary skills. I plan to incorporate this into my work next year and would love to continue this discussion with anyone who is interested.

    Frequent publishing (my friend Karen Caine and I have been talking about this!) is also important. Again, I see with my daily poems how much it helps me to go through the process quickly. The more times we go through it, the more comfortable we become.

    Talking together and writing about process helps too, for as we write…it helps to make sense of “our own way” and to learn from the “way” of other writer friends.

    Thank you for getting the wheels going!



  3. I waited after reading this because for me the journey of literacy workshop has been a wonderful change in my room. The struggle to trust the writing process was not difficult for me, but I have to say I did have some anxiety when I received my test results after using the method.

    I don’t want it to seem like I didn’t prepare for the test. That would be setting my kids up for failure. Embracing the philosophy of writing using notebooks and genre study really helped my students develop as writers. I used the Breathing Life into Essays as my guide and then two weeks before the test I introduced how to write to a prompt.

    For me, it was trusting the process. Teaching my students to be writers was the key. If they see themselves as a writer then they can conquer the task.

    As our state changes the focus of teacher assessment to the success of her students on standardized test scores, I fear that more and more of the best practices I have seen occur will slowly go away for fear of losing one’s job which none of us want to happen in the economy.


  4. I read your blog for two reasons: validation and inspiration. This is one of those posts that provides both. Reading your thoughts reminds me that other people think the way I think. However, I don’t stop there. Your thoughts on teaching writing versus teaching to standardized writing tests also remind me to explore my own practices further this summer.

    This past school year at the end of our narrative genre study, my 8th grade language arts students each created their own personal graphic organizer for narrative writing. We listed all of the lessons they had collected throughout our genre study. Then we looked at graphic organizers for narrative writing I have collected over the years. We listed the non-negotiable components and they designed their own using the computer. We printed these out and I made copies. Each student used the graphic organizer when we practiced for the state assessment. Eventually, I weaned them off of the copies and they had to recreate the organizer given a blank sheet of paper. This way, they were truly prepared when faced with the state test, where they are given the prompt, a blank piece of paper and the lined testing booklet.

    I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t thought of this before because it is so simple. It was the perfect culminating activity for our genre study and it really got the students to transfer what they had learned into a standardized-test-ready tool. The tool was a natural product of our study of real world narrative writing.

    I want to explore this idea more and see if I can make it work for persuasive writing,which is also on our state assessment.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You will never know just how many sparks you have ignited!


  5. Thanks for posting even though it was a topic that made you nervous. I appreciate the dialogue as I am always thinking about how to get the best fit between workshop and test prep.

    I agree with students finding their own writing process. This year I guided students through different types of ways to gather ideas in their writer’s notebook, but once they were familiar with all of them, I would tell them to gather ideas in whichever way was most effective for them. When I was teaching prompt writing as a genre right before our state writing assessments/work sample (depending on the grade level), I told students that they would not be using their writer’s notebooks since they would not be able to use them on the assessment. I told them that they would have regular paper, but they would be transferring what they have learned about what works for them to gather ideas in their notebook to regular paper. When they did complete the actual assessment I was able to look at the ways they gathered ideas before shredding them. I was pleased that students drew on a variety of methods to generate ideas. Most of all, it was a great feeling to see my students writing away instead of looking like they had “writer’s block”, and I know that the workshop setting was key for this.

    Your post validated what I did this year, and also made me reflect on ways that I can communicate the concept of writers having their own processes more than I did this year.

    I also would love to hear more about your comment of having students write to a prompt at the end of each unit. It sounds like it could be a nice balance, and would consider it but would like to hear more about your thoughts on how it would look.

    Thanks again for a great post.


  6. My work is at the other end of the process – teaching children to love words and stories and to think and ask questions so that when they are ready to write, the foundation will be laid. My concern is that parents are already looking at what kids need to do on those tests (even though they are a number of years away) and they want to rush the process. And I struggle with having young children who are learning to form letters before they understand words. I love that kids want to write and support that. But I want writing to be more than just gettting the right lines and shapes in the right places on the paper. You may laugh, but I absolutely believe that the testing culture of education has impacted our youngest students by taking away that precious time of discovery learning.
    And I am with you Ruth. Often I want to respond to you posts but my ideas are not clear in my head. Writing them out here does help me to see the places where I want to dig deeper.


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