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The Joys, Wonders, and Challenges of On-Demand Writing: Assessment Strengthens Writers Blog Series

November 2016 #TWTBlog Series

Many classrooms have recently ended their first unit of study and lots of teachers are thinking about on-demand assessments.

What are on-demand assessments, you wonder?

At the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project several years ago,  I was part of  a study group working to develop potential district and state level writing assessments. We were finding that processed, published pieces alone frequently presented a skewed view of student progress. We needed a way to really see what students could do on their own. After some amount of trial and error, and lots and lots of experimentation and field testing and various iterations for different purposes, the TCRWP on-demand writing assessments were born.

In Writing Pathways, the assessment tool that is part of the Units of Study for Teaching Opinion, Informational, and Narrative Writing, K-8 Series we conceptualized on-demand writing as an opportunity for teachers to observe kids working completely independently, without conferring or partner work.

The Basics of Administering an On-Demand Writing Assessment 

  1. Distribute paper and/or booklets that are the same as the paper students will be using during writing workshop. There may be a variety of paper choices for students to use.
  1. Read an open-ended prompt (see example below) to the students clearly and expressively. Be sure that every student heard the prompt. Display the prompt in the room where students can see it easily, and provide visual support as needed.
  1. During the assessment time, circulate among the students and take notes on their work habits and behaviors.
  1. Students may reread, use as much paper as they wish, make changes at any point, but they may not talk with each other during this time. You might find it necessary to change your usual seating arrangement if students are used to talking with their writing partner during writing workshop.
  1. Students may use charts, word walls, and other tools that have been previously introduced. Observe them using these tools and make note of it.
  1. You may need to remind students that every word does not need to be spelled perfectly and to give challenging words their best try and move on. Classrooms with lots of experience with writing workshop usually do not need this reminder, but occasionally the change to On-Demand causes some students to fear that a misspelled word might count against them.
  1. Do not coach or confer in any way during the assessment time. This will allow you to find out what each student does on his/her own, without your support.
  1. If a student is “stuck,” give them ample time to think it through on their own. After five to ten minutes of no writing, you may give the student a more specific prompt so that you can assess how they do when given a prompt. Make a note that you prompted the student and they could not come up with a topic on their own. Plan to focus some future instruction for that student on gathering ideas on their own.
  1. If after several minutes of writing it is clear that a student completely misunderstood the prompt, redirect the student by rereading the prompt one-one with the student and allowing him/her to start over. (For example, the student is writing in the wrong genre completely.)
  1. If all or some student’s handwriting is not legible, take a dictation of the illegible portions of student work on a separate sheet of paper or Post-it note and attach it to the student work after the assessment time is over.

(More information on how to administer the on-demand assessment can also be found in the Writing Pathways book, included in the Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing, Grades K-8 Series by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues.)



I’ll be honest. I actually love on-demand writing assessments. I love the peacefulness of a full period of uninterrupted, sustained, independent writing. Kids write all by themselves for extended amounts of time – it reminds me of writing workshop was back in the days before Units of Study existed. On an on-demand day, it always feels to me like pressing the “reset” button on writing workshop.

I love having the luxury of time to observe each student carefully as they work, unencumbered by pressures to confer or coach. I just watch, read over their shoulders, and take notes, getting to know each one of them closely. I carry a little checklist around with me, reminding me of a few key things I hope to see in action: pencil grip and letter formation habits, using resources around the room, crossing out, making changes, rereading from time to time. I add to the list when I notice something that surprises me, or if I become curious about something I observe among a few kids.

I am always impressed with kids’ stamina and volume during an on-demand assessment day. Kids often write much more than they do on a typical writing workshop day. At the end of the assessment period, kids often exclaim “Whew! I wrote a lot!” It isn’t unusual for students to ask if we can do it again the next day. It’s exhilarating for kids, to set out to write something and then sit down and just do it. Like climbing a mountain and reaching the summit. Or finishing an entire pepperoni pizza in one sitting.


I’m fascinated by students who write at a much higher level during an on-demand assessment than what their processed, published pieces display. I’m equally as curious about the kids who struggle with the on-demand writing, despite having achieved high levels of success in their processed, published pieces. Are we scaffolding too much during writing workshop? Did it just take until now for all the strategies to come together in one piece of writing? Are kids too distracted during a typical day? Are partners helping each other too much on regular writing days? Too little?

I also wonder about the students who get anxious despite the incredibly laid back prompts that I like to give. I’m fortunate enough to work in environments where I’m able to adapt the prompts, to field test different options. A typical on-demand prompt (in my world) goes like this:

“Today we will have a special writing workshop. Today you will be working all by yourself to write a narrative, or story you can write. You might write a true story from your own life, a small moment, or fiction. You will have this whole period, to plan, draft, revise, and edit your entire story. If you finish one story, you may start another. Write in a way that shows all that you know about narrative writing.”

That’s it. I never use the word test when it comes to this work. I never hint that this is at all different from a usual day of writing workshop – aside from a request not to talk to partners. I don’t set a time limit. If kids really need more time, I give it to them.

Yet I occasionally come across students who become incredibly anxious despite my best efforts, and I continue to be puzzled about how to address this. Some students have experienced on-demand writing in the past as a high pressure test with a time limit, rather than an observation of their regular writing habits – and that explains the anxiety. How much of this is kids’ healthy desire to do their best work? How much is undo stress?


After the kids have poured their hearts out onto the page for 45-60 minutes straight, the biggest challenge for many of us is… (drumroll please…)….

You guessed it…. Scoring!

It’s a BIG challenge to analyze each child’s writing, and then deliver that feedback to the child in a kid-friendly and timely manner. The struggle is REAL.

While rubrics are hugely helpful, they will inevitably be open to some amount of interpretation – it’s a challenge that comes with the territory of teaching writing.

A great way to deal with this challenge is by scoring together with others as often as possible. In my work at the Reading and Writing Project, we scored dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of pieces of student writing at all ages and stages together in study groups and leaderships groups. Working together to analyze writing is a powerful way to develop your sense of what to expect from your students, and how to name strengths and next steps.

Once a pile of writing has been scored, the next challenge is to use that information to help students set goals for their writing that will move them to new stages on a progression of learning. Conferring and small group work are a great way to do this. A round of conferring where the rubrics are shared and discussed with students can get students started working toward their goals. Kids with similar goals can be partnered together so that they can give each other reminders, coach each other, and cheer each other on.

In school, as in life, most things are simply better together.


To celebrate this series, we will be giving away a copy of Conferring with Young Writers: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do.


  • This giveaway is for one copy of Conferring with Young Writers: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do by Kristin Ackerman and Jennifer McDonough ( Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers ( for donating a copy of this book.
  • For a chance to win one copy of Ackerman and McDonough’s Conferring with Young Writers: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do (, please leave a reaction to any post in the blog series, including this one, by Sunday, November 6th at 11:59 p.m. ET. Dana Murphy will use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names she will announce in our blog series’ IN CASE YOU MISSED IT POST on Monday, November 7th.
  • You may leave one comment on every post in our Assessment Strengthens Writers blog series.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Dana can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Dana will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – CONFERRING WITH YOUNG WRITERS. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

34 thoughts on “The Joys, Wonders, and Challenges of On-Demand Writing: Assessment Strengthens Writers Blog Series

  1. I also love the on demands. It’s just an opportunity for writers to spread their wings and WRITE! It’s also one more opportunity for students to show off their learning . . . maybe they do forget some things, but I love that it’s their work. Sometimes, independent work is a sign of growth!


  2. Great post! Analysing writing samples with colleagues is a great way to really focus your assessments and learn how to set high expectations and identify goals for students.


  3. You have given me a lot to think about. Your tips on what to do with that student who can’t seem to start or goes off on a tangent are so helpful. I like how specific you were about the process, the results, and the benefits of this kind of assessment.


  4. Thank you for this insightful piece! My students also love on demand writing because they love to write since my district adopted the Units of Study a few years ago. It provides me a chance to really assess their understanding before and after instruction. It is also rewarding to see the transfer across content areas.


  5. Love your prompt. (Except I agree that “write in a way that shows all you know about writing” might seem a daunting request to a strong writer.) We use Google Classroom in my district, and I find that helps them focus – and helps me read their writing more quickly!
    I am interested in getting my sixth grade students to practice reading and assessing narratives themselves – not necessarily scoring, but using a checklist that’s similar to our scoring rubric. I’m curious to see whether their own writing improves as they learn to read narratives written by former students of mine.


  6. I appreciated reading the part of actually enjoying this quiet time in a classroom community in which everyone is partaking in various steps of the writing process. Too often this kind of time is used for high-stakes testing, but I like the idea of reclaiming it for the act of writing. Thank you.


  7. As a brand new literacy coach, I would love to have this resource to use with my teachers who are uncomfortable with writing conferences (at least 90% of my school).


  8. This is a great post! My PLC was meeting just this morning, and we were talking about the value of pre-assessment before beginning a new writing unit. We are following the new recommendations for first grade, and are starting the “How-To” unit from kindergarten before delving into nonfiction.
    So excited to come upon this post this morning to compliment our decisions.


  9. Thank you for sharing this reflection on the purpose of on-demand writing. So often I see it takes on characteristics of a high-stakes assessment for teachers, which then raises the anxiety level of students. When viewed as on opportunity to observe and wonder at the writing skills students have ownership of, it can be a powerful learning opportunity for both teacher and student.


  10. Perfect timing – we are writing an on-demand in class today! This is our first year of doing this and I’d love to learn more about it.


    1. I so totally agree. In some schools, middles school teachers/high school teachers are moving to holistic scoring instead of analytic scoring. We can use the analytic rubric as a guide to come up with a holistic score – then break down the scores only for the pieces that are not meeting the grade level benchmark – it’s worth talking about with your colleagues and building leaders. There is research to suggest that holistic scoring tends to come out about the same as analytic.


  11. Thank you for this clear explanation of why and how we give on-demands. The scoring struggle is real, and is especially challenging at secondary where we have 150 on demands to score along with 150 final products for the unit to grade all at the same time, and it’s right when we are starting the next unit and have 150 pre-assessments for the new unit to review. Any tips you have on ways to be more efficient with all of this assessment are welcome! Thanks.


    1. I understand Karen’s angst! At my elementary, one teacher instructs all the writing for 6th grade, which means 67 post on-demands followed by 67 pre on- demands. I found her in tears last Friday!
      This is our first year implementing writing workshop, and as the building literacy coach, I want to support her, but not sure the best way to do it.
      I really need this book!


    1. Thank you for your comment, Elsie! I would love to find an alternative phrase for this – I find that without some sort of “remember to use everything” part of the prompt, kids have a tendency to apply mostly the last minilesson or two instead of thinking back across the whole unit. Suggestions welcome!


  12. i’m wondering if the words “Write in a way that shows all that you know about narrative writing” may be the cause of anxiety. As a student I might worry that I didn’t include all I know or I might feel like I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to know.
    Just getting the time to observe is priceless and so informative. Great information today!


  13. Thank you for such positive comments! As a PLC it is a struggle to score student writing! I like the idea of moving tables for kids ability to focus on writing.


  14. It is so helpful to know that other schools are struggling with on-demand writing too. We scaffold so much that some students refuse to write without help. I’m wondering how to prevent this with 1st and 2nd grade students. I need this book!


    1. Thanks Amy! Have you tried swapping papers with a colleague? It takes no more time than scoring your own students – even if you only swap some of your students it helps you calibrate your scoring a bit.


  15. Very interesting post!! I love to hear your “wonders” and that you encourage collaborative scoring (norming). I wish we had more time for this — we can learn so much by reading students’ writing!


  16. What a great conversation. I particularly love the reworded prompt. I have sometimes struggled a bit with the verbiage in our on demands because it just seemed so a bit cold especially since – in my school we give a pre writing on demand sooo early in the year – quite literally within the first 10 days? I cant wait to read the conferring book and will be sharing the title with our grade and principal so maybe we can each have a copy and brainstorm together


  17. This is such a great post! Timing is everything. Our district is just beginning their on demand writing benchmarks (special writing workshop). I am a literacy coach and plan on sharing this with my teachers.


  18. What a great piece, Beth. We’ve just completed our end of narrative unit assessments. I only wish I’d read your post two weeks ago! Wonderful reminders about the purpose, the shared learning opportunities and the joy of this important work! Thank you for the great tips and reminders.


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