Dana’s Tuesday post about commenting on student writing resonated strongly with me. I used to be that teacher who would collect students’ work, take it home, and mark it up with each and every possible way it could be improved. (Though I used green pen to avoid the negative connotations of red, I am certain that over time, my students came to see green ink with exactly the same sense of dread with which I used to see red in my school days.) I would hand back the pieces, without much comment, and I would assign students to make revisions based on my feedback. Too often, I would receive work that had barely been changed, most of my painstaking comments seemingly ignored. I finally became so fed up I began to press. “Why didn’t you rework that paragraph as I suggested?” I asked one student. “I couldn’t read your writing,” came the reply. And worse came another, “I couldn’t understand what you wanted me to do.”
Then I learned about workshop teaching and I stopped giving overwhelming written feedback. I began conferring and guiding students through steps they could take to make their writing better. But I still often felt daunted when faced with a piece of student writing. I would feel overwhelmed with everything that I felt needed to be improved. When I began streamlining my assessment by considering Qualities of Good Writing and by identifying what really mattered for my writers at a given point in a Unit of Study (or school year), I began to feel a whole lot less overwhelmed.
For the purposes of this post, let’s study together, the following essay draft, a piece written in social studies by a fourth grader.
At first glance, there are a million things that are tempting to fix. There is the sparse introduction. The lack of description of important terms and people. The weak use of sources. That said, There are also many things that could be complimented. There is the organization of information into paragraphs. The use of transitional phrases to signal how the parts fit together. The repetition of the thesis to reiterate the big idea. So where to begin giving this student feedback? And where to begin giving feedback to an entire class, each student with their own set of strengths and weaknesses?
Here is where Qualities of Good Writing come in. When it comes to basic, bottom lines beliefs about what makes for good writing, there actually aren’t as many categories as one might think. In fact, there are two main ones that most writing teachers and researchers agree matter: organization and elaboration. Organization also goes by the name structure, and it means the way the writing is put together. Elaboration is sometimes also called development, and it means the amount and kinds of details that fill up the piece. Though there are other important Qualities of Good Writing, such as Language (which includes spelling and grammar), most of the most important feedback that teachers give fits into one of these two buckets.
So how does this all help to streamline assessment and plan instruction?
One way to use qualities of writing to assess and plan is to look at a piece and to study how the student did in each of these two big categories. Is the piece well organized? Or well enough organized? And how well did the writer elaborate? It is very likely that one of these areas is the weaker for the student. In the case of the Puritans essay above, perhaps you will agree that the writer’s structure isn’t bad. She has an introduction, two body paragraphs that each have a clear focus, and a conclusion. However, she could use some help when it comes to elaboration. Her details are sparse, not wholly convincing, and they seem arbitrarily chosen. She names a source, The Spinner’s Daughter, only to say that this source did not have any details that support her point. Not supremely convincing evidence. To plan instruction for this student, then, it would make sense to focus on helping her to elaborate.
Another way to use qualities of writing to assess and plan is to consider just one category of good writing at a time, and to study students’ work just in that category. Perhaps you are at a point in your teaching where you are especially focusing on organization, so you want to see how your students are doing in that area. In this case, pinpoint the three or four most important subcategories of organization that you have been teaching. In a fourth grade class, for example, those subcategories might be: separating sections of information into paragraphs, using some transition words to signal how parts fit together, and including an introduction and a conclusion. To assess students on just these subcategories, you can simply skim through your stack of writing with a chart in hand, perhaps one that looks something like this:
Student name | paragraphs | transition words | intro/conclusion
Check off each quality that each student is demonstrating, and in your hand will be a powerful piece of data you can use to plan your teaching. If just a few students have blanks in the paragraphs category, you could form a small group to help them shore up this skill. If nearly everyone has a blank in the transition words category, you could make a note to plan some whole-class reteaching on this topic.
For the record, the writer of the Puritans essay above would likely get a check for each of these organization subcategories, so even though there may be imperfections in her writing, at least she is demonstrating understanding of what she has been taught about organization.
So, the next time you are faced with a stack of student writing, or the next time you are scanning your class, feeling daunted at all of the conferring in front of you, pause and consider, what really, really matters for your writers, right NOW. And teach from there.
We hope to see you on Twitter next Monday evening, November 10th, when we host a Twitter Chat about working smarter, not harder. The chat will begin at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Search and tag #TWTBlog to participate.
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).