assessment · challenges · narrative · observations · writing workshop

Making the Most of Pre-Assessments

 We spend a week or so sharing stories, and building excitement for writing stories. We hand out notebooks with fanfare, and writers happily personalize them. They brainstorm ideas for stories they could write.

And then we stand in front of the class and explain that today is the day we want each of them to write a true story, from their own lives, like the ones we’ve been sharing. We ask them to think of everything they remember about writing true stories, and together we brainstorm a list of tips and reminders. We create a chart, and then we hand out paper and pens and say, “Off you go.”


We grab our materials for recording observations, and begin quietly circulating in the classroom.

I like to use a grid like this to record observations about writers.

Fifteen minutes pass and we circle back to three students we’d been watching closely.

We see this:


A piece where the writer hasn’t written much, but we see a seed.  And that seed has us wanting to ask all kinds of questions- questions that might tease out the story that this writer is having difficulty putting on paper. We notice two other pieces that also contain just a few words, and all kinds of possibility. 

And we also see this:


A bed to bed story, or in this case a Friday to Monday story. A piece full of small moments, each of which could be stretched out to become stand-alone stories. We see several of those.

What do we do next?  We approach one, or all three of the writers whose pages are mostly empty and say,

“_________, it looks like you’re having a hard time writing your story.”

And depending on what the child says in response, we quickly make a plan and help that child regroup.

We might

  • begin with questions and probe to see if we can unearth a story.
  • as the story unfolds, record it on your phone or an iPad and send the child back to his/her seat with the recording (and headphones) and ask him to write what he/she recorded.
  • pull another student who is writing their story and ask that writer to confer with the one who is struggling. The power of peers should never be underestimated.
  • suggest the child sketch the story first.

Above all, we notice what they have done, and acknowledge that writing is hard sometimes. We quickly share a story of a time when we were stuck, and reassure the writer that he/she isn’t alone.

And we aren’t afraid to make a shift in our plan. We recognize that keeping this pre-assessment moment standard and being completely hands-off may deflate these young writers. We want these struggling writers to leave this moment feeling more hope than frustration.

As for the bed to bed story, we plan to look more closely at that one and the others like it, later- to begin planning both whole group and small group  minilessons that will move our writers forward. We may not get the pre-assessment writing we hope for, and we may have to deviate from our plan, but we get valuable data. Data about writers’ behaviors like stamina, planning techniques, and responsiveness to table compliments we’ve carefully delivered in deliberate spots and at strategic moments. Data we’ve recorded on a grid like the one above above, or a chart like the one below.

I like to use a form like this as I look at pre-assessments to figure out whole group and small group work.

And we realize we’ve got reason to celebrate, not despair. We’ve got data that is going to inform our instruction, help us plan our first few minilessons, and form small groups for targeted instruction. We and our writers have work to do and stories to write.


8 thoughts on “Making the Most of Pre-Assessments

  1. I must echo the thanks of those before me who value your reminder to use these assessments in a formative way to get a glimpse of who our writers are and to be flexible enough to meet them where they are at.


  2. Thank you Lisa for the ways we can “assist” the writer, but still keep our hands out of their writing. This post will be so helpful for our primary teachers as they give the narrative on-demand this next week.


  3. This is a very timely post… Except I wish I read it a couple of days ago! Gave my on-demand assessment yesterday and was very hands-off. It didn’t feel good to see some students really struggling to put words to the paper but thought my responsibility was to see what students can write independently to start the year. You’ve given me food for thought here!


  4. Hi Lisa! Thank you for articulating the many purposes in pre-assessing writing, and for providing a wonderful resource to track progress, inform instruction and guide conferences. In the world of high risk evaluations, where teachers must demonstrate specific % growth, there is a tendency to assess based on a summative perspective rather than with a formative sense. In other words they may only look at the final numbers (summative) on the rubric instead of the parts that create the whole. Regardless of the results, they often jump into the unit teaching prescribed mini-lessons rather than differentiating for what the students in front of them need. This results in repetitive teaching year after year instead lifting the level of instruction. So, thanks again for this great post. I can’t wait to share it with our teachers.


  5. Thanks, Lisa. We are in this very phase right now, so this post is very timely for us. This quote is worth repeating:

    We recognize that keeping this pre-assessment moment standard and being completely hands-off may deflate these young writers. We want these struggling writers to leave this moment feeling more hope than frustration.


  6. This is perfect and just what I was thinking about for my classrooms next week! Love how you share the various examples and possible suggestions that could occur based on how much the student wrote! Thank you 🙂


  7. Thank you so much for this post. I have been working on this all week for my staff because we are meeting next week to look at pre-assessments


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