Category Archives: writing assessment

How to encourage more student writing and still have a life

If students are to improve their writing, what is the single best thing they can do?

Write  Write.  Write.

Teachers know this.  So why don’t teachers assign more writing?  To paraphrase a former President, “It’s the grading, stupid.”

Reading student writing takes a long time, but writing comments on the writing takes a life time.  A fifth grade teacher might have 28 or more student papers to grade.  A high school English teacher might have 128.

So how can a teacher, tutor, or parent encourage frequent writing without giving up her life?

Here is the solution one teacher, Jori Krulder, has found effective.

  • The teacher reads student essays without writing a word on them.
  • On separate papers, one for each student, the teacher records three things:
  • One, a score for the essay based on a rubric which the teacher and students have previously agreed upon.
  • Two, an element of writing which the student did well.
  • Three, an element of writing which the student needs to improve.
  • The teacher jots down on another paper the strengths and weaknesses of the class’s essays and adds ideas for mini-lessons to teach the whole class.
  • The teacher reports these strengths and weaknesses orally to the class.
  • The teacher returns the unmarked essays, giving each student a feedback paper to fill in. See the box.

  • While students work on their writing, the teacher meets for five minutes only with each student (taking up to three days of class time per class or section per essay). The teacher and student compare the score each gave the essay.  If the scores differ, the teacher talks to the student about the reasons for the discrepancy.  Then they talk about the rest of the information on the feedback sheet.
  • At the end of five minutes a timer rings and the conference ends. If students want to talk longer, they can visit the teacher after school.
  • Students as a group are given a resubmit date for their essays.

According to Krulder, students are able to focus on what the teacher says during the conference, take notes, and use that information to improve their essays.  The result is a noticeable improvement in the resubmitted essays.  An additional yet unexpected benefit is improvement in student-teacher relations.

For more information on Jori Krulder’s method of responding to student writing, go to


Evaluating student writing

When I work with student writers, I ask them to evaluate their own writing.  The process I use is simple and works no matter what type writing the students do.

After the student has revised a piece of writing, I draw a large “T” which creates two columns.  I label the first “Did well” and the second “Needs improvement.”  I ask the student to identify what was done well and what needs work.

We start with the “Did well” column.  If the student is stumped, I ask questions about things which the student obviously did well.  “Did you have a beginning, middle and end?”  If he says yes, I ask him to write “B-M-E” under “Did well.” “Did you spell correctly?”  He writes “spelling” under “Did well.”

I try to list at least three things the student did well, no matter how basic his writing is.  Handwriting, starting sentences with capitals, writing periods and commas that look like periods and commas—I search for positives.  The more the better.

Then we move to the “Needs improvement” column.  Usually the student will mention errors we have just corrected during revision.  He might say “run-ons” and using a word like “so” or “just” over and over.  With practice he will identify the conceptual errors, such as organization problems or not writing a topic sentence.  I  bring up one of these larger issues and go back to the paper to show an example of that problem.

I limit “Needs improvement” to three so the student doesn’t get discouraged and so he can keep those three in mind the next time he writes.

After we do this many times, the student realizes he is making the same kinds of mistakes over and over.  When this happens and a student is about to write a  new draft, I ask him what mistake he is likely to make.  He says, “run-ons” or “a hook that doesn’t hook.”  This helps him focus on how to improve his writing while he is writing, long before we evaluate it.

How to encourage primary school students to write better

If you are helping a student in kindergarten through second grade to learn how to write, you might want to check out Conferring with Young Writers  by K. Ackerman and J. McDonough.

ConferringWithYoungWritersThese primary grade teachers decided that they could have the most impact by changing the way they conference with student writers.  Here are some of their tips.

Establish trust with the student before trying anything else. How?  Let students see you writing and encountering problems.  Focus on the meaning of the child’s words and ignore sloppy spelling and punctuation.  Compliment students on their writing, focusing on particular things they do well.  Listen when the child talks about the writing process.  Get to know students as whole people first and as students and writers second.

Establish a routine for writing—a set time and place with pencils sharp, erasers in reach and plenty of paper.

Focus on one writing goal per lesson or unit. The goals should include choosing good ideas, structuring the writing appropriately, using conventions properly, sticking to one main point, writing in a natural voice, and providing details.  Teach those goals, model them, practice them and discuss with students how they can do them better.

Follow up on the points which they should have shown in their writing. The book shows several assessment tables, rubrics, and checklists which can be adapted by parents or classroom teachers.

Encourage students to choose their own writing topics and genres. Students will be more engaged and cooperative if they have choices.

Let students know it is not only okay but good if they talk to one another about the process of writing. Encourage them to read their writing aloud as they work.

Help students find good ideas to write about. Deciding on topics is one of the hardest things for some children.  Conferring with Young Writers offers several approaches to helping students identify what they might enjoy writing about.

Conferring with Young Writers offers a three page bibliography of books about teaching writing to children as well as an index.  At 144 pages, it is a quick but rich read for parents and teachers who don’t know how to begin teaching writing to primary grade students.  For more information, go to

Dysgraphia needs to be accommodated like other learning disabilities

Dysgraphia is a learning disorder in which a child does not want to write.  In other ways the child is normal, but he flat out doesn’t want to hold a pencil and write.  If he is forced to write, his letter formation, the spacing between letters and words, and the various sizes of letters indicate something’s wrong.

EPSON MFP imageAll children have times when they balk at writing—when they’re tired, for example.  But dysgraphia shows as a day-in, day-out struggle to get a child to write–and not just in a writing lesson but in math and social studies too.  You might think the child is having a temper tantrum, but actually he is balking at a way of learning which makes no sense to him.  Children with dysgraphia spend so much energy thinking about how to hold the pencil, and how to form the letters, and where the spaces go, that whatever they are supposed to learn by writing—whether it is addition facts or how fossils form—is lost.

Something is wrong, and that something is how the brain works.  (More on that in future blogs.)

So what can you, as the parent or teacher of such a child, do to end tears and tantrums?

  • As much as possible, for that student eliminate writing as a way of learning and testing. Some students are asked to write each new spelling or vocabulary word five times.  Don’t assign this kind of work to a child with dysgraphia.  Let the child use flashcards rather than worksheets to learn math facts.
  • Allow the child to do her work out loud. Let the child tell an adult what she knows.  Allow the child to speak her answers directly to you or into an audio recording machine.


  • If the child must write a story or an essay, or answer a question in a sentence or two, give the child time to organize her thoughts. Then let her dictate her response to you.  When it’s time to revise, let the child dictate the revisions.
  • Make learning the use of a keyboard a part of this student’s studies.
  • Allow the student to “write” on an iPad or other electronic device.
  • Try various kinds of writing tools. Sometimes smooth-flowing markers can seem not as bad as pencils or pens. Sometimes thicker or thinner tools can feel better.  The smooth surface of a dry erase board can entice a student.
  • If the child has sensory integration issues, schedule writing after recess or after a back rub.

You might be thinking: But at a certain point, doesn’t the child need to conform?

Maybe that’s the wrong question.  Maybe we should be asking how we can make learning math, languages, science and social studies possible without needing to write.  We do it in other fields.  Do you need to write to learn how to play a piano?  Create a collage?  Act in a play?

Writing is one way to learn, but it is not the only way.  For children with other learning problems, we make accommodations.  Do blind children read with their eyes?  Do deaf children speak with their mouths?

In this time of differentiated learning, children with dysgraphia need to be recognized as living with a brain impairment.  They need to be accommodated so that they can learn in a way which makes sense to them.

Short written responses on tests prove difficult for students

student writing test answerTest questions requiring students to write responses in paragraph form are becoming a standard part of student evaluations. Previously, most written tests, especially at the state level, were composed of multiple choice answers.

This change comes from the Common Core’s requirement for more critical thinking by students. They need to be able to cite evidence, explain their reasoning, summarize a passage, and draw conclusions. They need to use logic and write coherently in complete sentences.

It’s hard, especially for third graders new to this kind of thinking and writing. Here’s why.

  • Students make up evidence from previous reading or life experience, not realizing they must use only the evidence presented in a reading selection.
  • Students offer one piece of evidence when two or three examples are called for.
  • Students forget to include the evidence.
  • Students quote the evidence correctly but fail to connect it to the main idea.
  • Students provide irrelevant details.
  • Students misinterpret what is required of them. If the directions ask students to conclude, they might summarize. If the directions ask students to describe, they might identify.
  • Students do not stick to the point; they go off on tangents.
  • Students write using incomplete or illogical thoughts.
  • Students write around a topic without ever responding directly to the question asked.
  • Students leave out information which they take for granted the reader will know.
  • Students tire or become distracted before they are done writing a response. Their responses seem to stop in the middle of a thought.

Parents and teachers can help students overcome these problems, but it takes practice. We’ll talk about how in coming blogs.

Dictating to children can expose reading and writing problems

Dictating—speaking words aloud for another person to write down—is a great way to vary reading and writing instruction and to gain insight into a child’s spelling, punctuation and writing abilities. It can show many kinds of errors which the parent might not be aware of.

3rd grader writing an essay.

  • Spelling errors might indicate that rules such as using a silent e at the end of many long vowel words, or doubling the consonants in CVC words when adding suffixes, have not been learned yet.
  • Handwriting problems might show that the child still mixes up b and d or p and q. Or the writing might show that the child does not make ascending lines go high enough, or descending lines go low enough.
  • Capitalization and punctuation errors could mean that a child doesn’t remember to start sentences with capitals or that he is unaware of the rules for proper nouns.
  • Lack of knowledge of sentence punctuation might show that a child needs more practice using commas, quotation marks, periods, question marks and exclamation points.
  • Certain letters written incorrectly might indicate a hearing problem or confusion over which sound is associated with which letter.
  • If some letters in the same word are written with large spaces between them, and others are not, or if there are no spaces between words, the child could be confused about what a word is and how a word is demonstrated in print.
  • Homophones spelled incorrectly could mean work on the various ways to spell its and it’s, they’re, their and there, and other sound-alike pairs is needed.

The dictating parent should use only words that the child is familiar with. Sentences should be short and clear. The dictating parent should tell the child how many times the sentence will be repeated, if at all, to be sure the child pays attention.

If there are several kinds of errors in the child’s writing, I would not tell the child that. Mention one thing to work on in the future. In the back of your mind, make a mental note of other ideas to work on.

Dictating from time to time is an informal way to assess learning.