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Using a Writing Survey

How do you get to know the writers in your classroom at the beginning of the school year? When I still had my own classroom, I took a writing sample on the first day of school and then scored the sample using our district’s rubric. This first-day assessment gave me a good idea of which students used paragraphs or had good control of mechanics or wrote with detail. As I look back, though, I wonder if this was a sufficient way to really know my students as writers.

For example, if you were to really know me as a writer you might know:

  • I write a lot of stories about my daughters
  • I need a deadline to actually get words on paper
  • I want to write a professional book for teachers
  • I tend to write in loud-ish places like my kitchen table or my backyard
  • I haven’t used my writer’s notebook in over a year
  • I love to write and I hate to write and I love the way this dichotomy makes me feel
  • I struggle to find my voice in nonfiction
  • I have writing mentors such as Kate DiCamillo, Katie Wood Ray, and my colleagues here at Two Writing Teachers
  • I’ve encouraged many of my colleagues to become writers

You would not know any of those things about me as a writer if I simply gave you a writing sample. You would have to talk to me (preferably over coffee) to know me as a writer. I regret not taking the time to understand my students better as writers.

I think it takes many weeks of writing and conversation and sharing to begin to uncover the writing identities of students. There is no quick and easy method. However, a writing survey at the beginning of the school year is a step in the right direction and can serve as a springboard for conversations to come. Some questions you might ask:

If you had to choose a room to write in, what would it sound like? Would it be silent? Would there be a TV or radio playing in the background?

If you could only write about one thing all year long, what would that be?

Imagine yourself fifteen years from now, a famous published author. What did you write?

Is there anyone whose writing you really admire?

Do you prefer to write with pencil/pen or on a computer?

Have you ever had a bad writing experience?

Do you know any writers?

Where do you think writers get story ideas from?

What does “living like a writer” mean to you?

As I think about using a writing survey in classrooms this year, there are three caveats I will keep in mind:

  1. There is no substitute for good conversation. This survey will serve as a conversation starter, not as an assessment.
  2. There will be many students who have no identity as a writer. Many students will be unable to answer some of these questions. That is okay, too – the lack of an answer is all the answer I need.
  3. The survey could be completed using pen and paper. It could also be completed digitally on a Google Doc or Google Form. A third option would be to use the questions as ‘interview questions’ and complete the survey with each student one-on-one over the first few weeks of school.

Taking the time at the beginning of the school year to learn about students in this way will help me be a more responsive and empathetic writing teacher all year long.

(For more on getting to know your student writers, don’t miss Beth’s thoughtful post from earlier this week.)




8 thoughts on “Using a Writing Survey

  1. Love these questions; I’m a huge fan of making time for reflection/metacognitive ‘stuff’ 🙂 Curious if you’d have students glue this survey into their ntbk or whether you’d collect. Thank you!


    1. Great idea to let students keep a copy of the survey. It’d be interesting to have them revisit their answers mid-way through the school year to reflect on how they are changing as writers.


  2. I’m thinking these conversations could easily happen if the first month of school were dedicated to establishing writer’s notebooks (and routines/procedures for writing workshop). There’d be plenty of time for this kind of work so that it didn’t become yet another piece of paper kids were asked to fill out.


  3. Help! I have been searching for some information on appropriate writing assessments for kindergarten. In my district, we are required to do pre and post assessments for each of the units of study. We begin on days 5,6 and 7 and do all three (narrative, informational and opinion). We use a scripted prompt, which is the same one we use for the post-assessments. I just don’t feel in my heart that this is appropriate for brand new kindergartners, as most of them have no idea what we are talking about with all these big words. I have seen them appear disillusioned and frustrated as they attempt to please us by giving us what we are asking. I plan to make an appeal, but I am looking for some thoughts from experts.
    Thank you in advance for any insight you might give.


    1. Hi, Diane. My district does the same thing with all our units of study. Although we don’t give the prompts consecutively like that, we do use very formal language and directions. I have sympathize with your plight and agree that it can be overwhelming to the primary students. I am not sure how much leeway you have, but some things we have done to make the task more accessible to kids are:
      -providing them with a student sample prior to the assessment
      – making an anchor chart of the important things to remember after reading the directions
      – using demonstration writing to provide an example

      Also, check out some of these posts from our archives that have to do with assessment and/or primary writing:

      Please keep us posted on how it turns out!


  4. This is a great post! I love these questions for writers and plan to use it in my classroom. You are so right that the blank spaces where students cannot come up with an answer are part of the picture of the student as writer at this moment in time. It gives us a place to start.


  5. I love the idea of a conversation! Many kids may write what they think you want on a survey, but may be more open in a conversation.
    Earlier this week, there was a post about how a more experienced teacher dissuaded a new teacher from looking at last year’s work,saying something like “I like to get to know them myself”. But if you trust your colleagues, their insights into the kids they spent 180+ days with are invaluable.
    I will pass this along to my colleagues – thank you!


  6. I think your writing survey is a great idea. The students’ responses will also provide you with information listed above such as paragraphing, mechanics and detail. Used in conjunction with a piece of real writing for the writer’s own purposes, you will have a lovely snapshot of the writer.


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