Work Smarter Not Harder Blog Series

Work Smarter: Using Qualities of Writing to Streamline Assessment and Plan Instruction

Work Smarter Not Harder

What my students’ writing looked like when I handed it back

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.

Social Studies Essay Draft
Social Studies Essay Draft

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.


8 thoughts on “Work Smarter: Using Qualities of Writing to Streamline Assessment and Plan Instruction

  1. I like your post on writing. I agree with you that it is important to use organization and elaboration in writing. Taking EDM310 this semester I have to remember to organize my blogs with enough information to support my topic.


  2. I love this! I have been on the home end of my sixth grader working on a new, comprehensive book report this year that involves combining expository, descriptive and persuasive writing all in one piece. He wants to do well, but was very discouraged and confused about what he really needed to do and I could see some of the comments were all over the place. I read things over and over the course of a couple nights first directed with targeted organization and elaboration points and he was able to settle down and get it done. I could see the point of some of the comments, but my main focus was to be sure that he included the pieces that are required this time around. just a little elaboration to be sure it all fit together was my focus in helping him this time, because I know they will be doing more reports, they have already begun another. I guess I just want to say, I wasn’t necessarily aware I had broken my comments down into those two categories. And it worked to help a struggling 11.5 year old boy writer to focus and get it done. I love the way this post and others this week are helping teachers focus too ( even this at home teacher!)


  3. Very helpful, Anna! I will pass this along to my teachers. You did a wonderful job explaining the two major qualities, and I would imagine that suggested chart would be very, very handy in forming small writing groups! Great post.


  4. Very timely post for me! Thank you! In my work with teachers around writing we always try to look first at what the students can do….or what writing behaviors they control. Then we look at craft, conventions, writing process, and characteristics of the genre they are writing in. I am thinking about how I can include your specific ideas of organization and elaboration. Thank you for giving me something to consider for my pd on Wednesday!


  5. I loved that you posted the writing and helped us focus on it together. And…evaluating writing by focusing our attention is, to me, practicing what we are often trying to do as writers and readers and teachers of writers and readers. Focus! Thanks for making it so clear.


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