Below is a guest blog post from Ruth Culham, author of Teach Writing Well.
I’ve found that one of the things teachers like least about teaching writing is the paper load. It’s true—when you teach writing well, students write often. When students write often, as they should, they produce many papers to read and respond to. When they produce many papers, sometimes teachers reduce the amount of time they give students to write to save paper. It’s a Catch-22. Students can’t get better without practice, yet the practice swamps even the most dedicated writing teacher.
So what can we do?
Here’s a thought. What if there were 25 (or more) extra pairs of eyes to help assess papers—eyes that are sharp and ready-to-go? Students can learn to weigh in on their work and the work of their classmates, eliminating the need for the teacher to be the only person in the classroom whose perspective matters. I don’t mean simple, generic checklists that students mark off quickly, without a lot of thought. I’m referring to carefully written student-friendly scoring guides that contain the trait concepts from the teacher scoring guides, but at a level that is appropriate for kids, and provide meaningful criteria for kids to apply to their work. Student-friendly scoring guides make it possible to share the paper load. To maximize learning, not all assessment belongs in the hands of the teacher.
“When teachers monitor students’ progress, writing improves. When students evaluate their own writing, writing improves. When students receive feedback about their writing, writing improves. When students are partners in writing assessment, giving and receiving peer feedback, students’ writing improves.” Informing Writing: The Benefits of Formative Assessment. Carnegie Corporation, 2011 (p. 27)
We involve students in the assessment of their own writing!
When we involve students in assessment, their writing improves. Yes! They learn to look for signs of the traits of writing (ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions) as they develop their pieces. They dig into those pieces looking for strengths and areas that need work. They can do that because the teacher models how to assess writing with them and provides them their own scoring guide to use. Students can and, in my experience, will eagerly assess the work of other writers and apply lessons learned to their own writing.
To actively engage in this practice, students need scoring guides that are customized for them. In other words, the guides must reflect the levels of understanding about writing that students develop across the years. Free from teacher jargon, student-friendly scoring guides must be clear, engaging, thoughtful, and developmentally appropriate. They must focus on what is important about each trait, deepening students’ understanding about writing from year to year.
Student-friendly scoring guides
Here is a series of student-friendly scoring guides for the ideas trait. Notice how each one addresses the needs of the writer, but the language evolves as we move up the grades.
- Kindergarten: Familiarize children with the language of the trait.
- Grades 1–2: Introduce the key qualities of the trait, but with a light touch.
- Grades 3–5: Goes into greater depth about key qualities for when the writer is producing a paragraph or more.
- Grades 6–8: Defines the key qualities with greater precision for writers who are producing full-blown pieces, in a variety of modes and formats.
Levels of understanding about writing and the traits increases over time. Which version teachers select for use with students depends, of course, on their readiness. Students may use different student-friendly scoring guides within the same classroom. That’s just fine. The important point is to engage them in assessing and commenting thoughtfully on writing, using common language and instructional targets. That understanding about how writing works, as students examine it from the inside out, will serve them well all of their writing lives.
How to get started.
I recommend teaching one key quality of a trait at a time; each trait has four, so you can spiral through them throughout the year. One week of focused instruction, practice, discussion, modeling, feedback—then you move on. (See pg. 105 Teach Writing Well for an example of a year-long teaching plan.)
Imagine that you teach third grade. Your key quality for the week might be “applying strong verbs” from the word choice trait. This is the main writing target taught and discussed in the writing classroom that week. Anyone stopping by would know what you’re working on because the conversation, anchor charts, models, read-alouds and mentor text—all focus on this word choice key quality. Next week you’d move on to a different key quality from a different trait.
If this approach feels too focused and isolated from the writing as a whole, here’s what I’ve noticed: As you teach with the traits and their key qualities, student writing skills accumulate so even though, for example, you are working on “applying strong verbs” students are thinking about the other traits and their key qualities that you’ve practiced together, too. Because they have been active learners in the process of writing, assessing, and revising in small bits, those experiences add up to larger understanding of how intertwined all the traits are to create a strong piece of writing.
Remember who the learner is.
Think about how much less time it would take to read a paper and give feedback to a student when one key quality of one of the traits is the focus of learning that week. And, imagine how much students will learn about writing as they apply the student-friendly guides in each trait to their own and others’ work. In other words, to solve the Catch-22 of writing, we must create more opportunities for writing that create a positive response from teachers and students alike so both are excited about writing more and more and more.
Remember who the learner is. The one holding the pen is doing the learning. Save your precious time to work with students as they write. Don’t waste it on “correcting” every paper. Give up expecting perfection and embrace process, transferring the learning to the student, one trait and key quality at a time.
For copies of all the traits in their student-friendly forms, please visit www.culhamwriting.com and go to the Library for free downloads. I also refer you to my new book, Teach Writing Well (Stenhouse 2018) for hands-on practice in formative assessment and creating feedback that is targeted for revision and editing. The information, activities, and examples in Teach Writing Well can help you design year-long writing curriculum that all teachers will embrace.