Writing Portfolios: Assessment Strengthens Writers

There is power in a portfolio. Artists know this. Photographers know this. Architects know this. A portfolio says look at what I can do. A portfolio is a window into the talents of the creator, a peek at his or her potential. When artists, photographers, or architects create portfolios of their work, they typically showcase their best stuff. The portfolio becomes a ‘brag book’ of sorts. However, portfolios can also be used to showcase the journey. The portfolio can say look where I started and look where I am now. In this way portfolios are ideal for writing assessment.

My former school district had worked hard to develop a district-wide, K-8 writing portfolio system. A committee met to establish guidelines for the portfolios and to answer questions such as:

  • How many writing pieces should go into the portfolio each year?
  • Should all the entries be finished pieces, or could they be drafts?
  • Should all the entries be graded?
  • How often should content area teachers contribute to the portfolio?
  • What role does the writer’s notebook play in the portfolio system?

These are questions worth exploring with colleagues if you are an administrator or school leader looking to institute a portfolio system.

Whether you are thinking about a large-scale portfolio system for an entire district or a smaller portfolio system for use in your own classroom, you will want to consider the following:

Managing the Portfolio

Since we had such a large-scale portfolio system in my former district, the actual portfolios were ordered by the district office. They were green, heavy, card stock file folders preprinted with empty spaces to fill in each student’s name and grade. Teachers generally kept their portoflios in a milk crate or file cabinet, stored alphabetically for easy filing.

I used a portfolio system in my own classroom years ago, and I created simple portfolios out of folded construction paper. I kept these in a drawer of my desk which was convenient, but filing papers was a pain since I had to dig through the stack to find a particular student’s portfolio. Also, students didn’t have access to their portfolios which was a drawback to my system.

As you think about the portfolio system you will use, consider the portfolio itself. Will you use file folders? Construction paper? A digital filing system like Google Drive or Evernote? You will want the portfolios to be easily accessible to both you and the students. You will also want the portfolios to be durable so they last the school year.

Student Reflection

Shoving a bunch of student writing into a folder and calling it a portfolio will not strengthen writers. The key to any portfolio system is reflection. I imagine an artist thumbing through her portfolio looking at drawings from two years ago, marveling at how much better her shading technique is today. I imagine an architect looking at his beginning work, proud of how complex his buildings have become. Reflection is the cornerstone of the portfolio.

One way to incorporate reflection is to have students jot a quick note at the bottom of every piece in their portfolio. Have students think about:

  • Why did you choose this piece for your portfolio?
  • What does this piece show about you as a writer?
  • What are you most proud of in this piece of writing?
  • Describe one thing you tried as a writer in this piece of writing.

The school district I worked in had students complete a Portfolio Reflection and attach it to every piece of writing in the portfolio.

Sharing the Portfolio

Photographers certainly do not let their portfolios sit in the corner gathering dust. Portfolios exist to be shared. You will want to share your students’ portfolios with their parents. You can showcase the portfolios at Parent-Teacher conferences. You can send the portfolios home once per quarter for parents to enjoy. Or you can have a Portfolio Day and invite parents to come look at their child’s writing journey.

This blog series is dedicated to assessment in writing workshop. What better way to assess writers than to look at a collection of their writing. To look, not at a single piece, but at their journey. Yes, there is power in a portfolio.

November 2016 #TWTBlog Series


  • 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.
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