Assessing Student Writing
Guiding your students on their writing journey will require lots of review, not only by you, but also by themselves and their peers. Here we provide some tried-and-true recommendations for setting the stage for writing in your classroom, assessing student writing, and fostering peer critiques. We also include additional resources for you to check out.
Click on a category or scroll down to review all our resources on assessing and critiquing student writing.
Creating a Student Mindset for Writing
The more your students read, and are read aloud to, the better writers they will be. Try and take time in your busy day to read aloud to your students. Read poetry, picture books, short stories, novel excerpts, newspaper and magazine articles, historical essays, newspaper opinion essays, humorous essays, historical letters. Share editorial cartoons, comics, and graphic novels with them. Expose them to the written word in its many forms as often as you can.
Encourage students to read for pleasure. Introduce them to both their school and local public library and make sure every student has a library card for use at their local neighborhood library. Whether you live in an urban, suburban, or rural setting, if it is feasible, take students on a planned field trip to a major city’s downtown central library. Central big city libraries are also museums filled with art, films, maps, and special collections that may be of interest to you and your students. They are often fascinating architectural structures—book palaces—of either exemplary historical or contemporary design. Encourage parents and guardians to go as well. Plan your trip with a librarian, letting the librarian know your students’ backgrounds and gifts, so the trip can be tailored specifically to their needs.
Check out our tips for a library field trip in our article “Give Your Students the World: Take Your Class to the Library.”
Students need to know that writing is all about rewriting. Let students know writing is a process of assessment and revision, and that they will be writing several drafts of a story, report, article, or essay. If that expectation is evident right from the beginning of their writing journey, rewriting will become an effective habit. It may also offer a level of comfort. If rewriting is a built-in expectation, there is an inference that writing mistakes are common, that everyone makes mistakes, learns, grows, and through rewriting, becomes a better writer.
When writing initial drafts, have students write in longhand on paper. Visuals are important. If something looks rough and a bit messy with words crossed out or erased, students are more likely to think of their written piece as a work-in-progress. When students write their first few drafts on a computer, with clean edges and designed fonts, their piece appears too polished too soon. They are more likely to see it as finished, not in need of revision because it looks good. Also, they often do not print out their separate story drafts, but continually make corrections on their first draft. Having printed copies of successive story drafts allows students to compare and contrast different versions of a story, article, or essay, to actually see and read how they have improved as writers.
Before rewriting, have students read their written drafts out loud to develop an “ear” for language, grammar, and story development. Students need to hear their writing. One option is for their work to be read aloud to them by you, a classmate, or at home by a family member. Another option is for them to read it aloud themselves. When they hear their story aloud, they will have a natural inclination to self-assess. They will notice if it doesn’t “sound right,” although they may not be able, at first, to articulate why. Your avid readers, and those students who have grown up in a word-enriched environment being read to by a family member, will initially have an advantage as that language exposure will have become a part of who they are. Their classmates who have not grown up in a language-enriched environment will eventually become aware of grammatical errors, sloppy sentences, and illogical constructions, too, if they keep listening to their stories, their classmates’ stories, and hearing and reading great writing in books.
Have them review the “Writing Elements Checklist” to know what to listen for when hearing their story read aloud.
Assessing Student Writing
There are many ways that educators assess student writing. The following recommendations are an outgrowth of thirty years of working directly with students of all ages, critiquing their work, encouraging them to take risks, encouraging them to see both fiction and nonfiction writing as a creative process. The first time you try this assessment approach, it will take time. But the more you become familiar with the process, applying it to your students’ work, the more you will gain confidence in your own critiquing abilities, and the easier it will become.
I like to recommend that teachers take three steps to assess their students’ writing:
- Take a Look.
- Read the Story.
- Discuss with the Student.
The “Take a Look” assessment section may be a “road less traveled” for many, but give it a try. I have found taking an overall look at the visual structure of a student’s written piece—looking at sentence and paragraph length, looking to see if there is dialogue interspersed between the formal paragraphs—makes many things obvious, pointing out problems. And most importantly, students, applying the “take a look” assessment to their own work, find it extremely helpful.
Step 1: Take a Look
Take the time to spread the pages of a student’s written piece out in front of you and visually assess the work. The good news is that upper elementary students and middle graders are not writing 25-page term papers!
Be aware of the positive and negative space on the page.
The positive space consists of all the written content—the title, paragraphs, all the words and sentences. The negative space is the white space on the page, the white paper surrounding all the printed content. Words need to breathe. It is the white space, the negative space, that allows room for all the words to breathe on the page.
In any written piece, look at the length of the student’s paragraphs—are they all the same length? Think of paragraph length, and sentence length, like cut flowers in a bouquet. If all the flowers are the same and cut to the same length, then it’s a pretty boring bouquet. If the different blossoms and leaves are cut at a variety of lengths, the bouquet becomes more unpredictable, less boring. If you selected and opened a book in the library and it was page after page of dense, long paragraphs, with no dialogue, and the white space surrounding the long paragraphs was exactly same space all around the page, you would be reluctant to read that book because the dense prose would make the pages visually overwhelming. Paragraphs should be a variety of lengths. The sentences within the paragraphs should be a variety of lengths. In fictional stories the inclusion of dialogue between the paragraphs changes the pace of the story making it far more interesting.
Read, identify, and circle the beginning, middle, and end of the story. The middle should be, by far, the largest part of the story.
Ensure that each section of the story is doing its proper job:
- The beginning captures the reader’s attention. It introduces the main characters. It reveals the time, place, and setting of the story. It creates an atmosphere that foreshadows, or hints at, the plot—the events and actions in the story. The beginning should trigger the reader’s interest, arousing curiosity, creating a sense of wonder.
- The middle deepens the reader’s knowledge of characters, revealing the main character’s personality, problems, and challenges. The middle expands the plot, increasing the tension, building conflict by placing internal and external obstacles in the path of the main character.
- The ending lets the reader know if the main character realizes dreams, solves problems, or obtains desires. In the ending, the main conflict, or problem is resolved. The ending answers the question: Have characters been transformed, have they changed, on their journey?
The middle is the largest part of the story because it is where all the challenges to the main character take place; it is the part of the story in which conflicts and tensions build. If the middle is short in length, that means the obstacles that stop the main character from getting what he or she wants are minimal and it will be a very boring story. It is the characters and their conflicts, tensions, the obstacles, and problems—their journey—that make a story intriguing. The middle is where that journey takes place.
Tips for Identifying Problems
- If you cannot identify and circle the beginning, middle, and ending of a student’s fiction or nonfiction story, there is a definite problem with the story because a major section is missing. The student will need to rewrite his or her story and supply the missing section.
- If you can circle the three sections, but the sections do not do the job each is supposed to do, then there is a problem. The student may need to rethink and rewrite the section of the story that is not doing its job and rework it so that it does.
Example: The beginning may introduce the main character, but it does not give the reader any idea of where and when the story takes place. The student will then have to rework the beginning to give the reader a clue or indication of the setting for the story.
- If you can circle each section of your student’s story, and each section is doing its job, but the middle section is not the biggest part of the story, then there is a problem. Your student needs more obstacles in the path of the main character that prevent him or her from getting what he or she wants. Your student needs more tension and conflict in the middle of the story.
Step 2. Read the Story
Correct spelling and grammar. Heads up! Even in upper elementary and middle school there will be students who do not know how to use a dictionary or thesaurus. I prefer students use a traditional print adult dictionary—especially one featuring those wonderful little thumbnail black and white ink illustrations—so they can serendipitously discover new words while looking for the word they seek. But if you and your students prefer an online dictionary or thesaurus—go for it! Take time to instruct your students on why they need to use a dictionary and thesaurus, as well as how to use both, so turning to them becomes a habit!
Also, as someone who has taught bright, visually gifted students from kindergarten through college at The Rhode Island School of Design, I have found that many students who are visually gifted/oriented, including some students challenged by dyslexia, have amazing visual memories, but poor rote memory skills. Spelling is often taught building on rote memory skills. Consequently, some visually gifted and dyslexic students are poor spellers. Their need to know how to use a dictionary, and how to utilize that knowledge daily, is even greater.
Think about and identify what works or doesn’t work in your student’s story. Use the “Writing Elements Checklist” below to help you identify what is working and what is not working.
Writing Elements Checklist
When assessing students’ writing, keep the following questions in mind. This checklist is also available as a 1-page student handout that you can print and share with your students.
- Does the story have a beginning, middle, and ending?
- Does the beginning grab your attention and reveal the main characters and setting of the story? Does it make you wonder and want to read more?
- Does the middle make you worry about the main characters and wonder if the characters will get what they want? Are there obstacles and conflicts in the path of the main character?
- Is the ending satisfying? Does the main character show change and growth by the end of the story? Is the story’s conflict resolved? Does the main character get what they wanted or not? The ending can be satisfying even when the main character fails to achieve his or her goals, if that character learns, or gains something in the process.
- Is there a main character, a protagonist, in the story?
- Does the story have an antagonist? An antagonist can be anything or anyone that is in direct conflict with the main character’s—the protagonist’s—goals, needs, or dreams. It can be a villain or an animal character like a witch or a wolf, or just a major character, even a friend, whose goals are in conflict with the goals of the protagonist. The antagonist can also be an inanimate force like nature (such as a storm) or the class system when someone is trying to rise socially. The protagonist can be the antagonist when the protagonist’s internal conflicts keep him or her from achieving goals or dreams.
- Are the characters believable? Are they imperfect?
- Are the characters’ actions believable?
- Does the writer use description, dialogue, action, and inner thoughts to reveal the characters’ personalities and move the story forward?
- Do you care about the characters and what happens to them?
- Can you identify what the main character wants?
- Are there internal and/or external conflicts and obstacles in the path of the main character preventing that character from getting what he or she wants?
- Does the writer use sensory language? Can you see, smell, touch, taste, and hear the story in your mind?
- Can you see the setting, the time and place, of the story in your mind?
- Does the writer use power words—strong nouns and specific, descriptive verbs?
- Does the writer “show not tell?”
“Show don’t tell” or “show not tell” is a technique that writers use to keep readers reading.
It is a way of writing that pulls readers in, allowing them to actively experience the narrative, the story, as it unfolds. It’s a technique used in both fiction and nonfiction writing. “Show don’t tell” writing engages readers, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions—their own opinions—about the characters, the action, and the atmosphere of the story.
The writing technique of showing, involving the reader in the unfolding story, is implemented by: using specific nouns and strong verbs; describing sensory details; revealing characters’ personalities and individuality with dialogue and actions; revealing time and place with sensory detail; forwarding the plot with actions and descriptive language
Assisting Advanced Writers
As mentioned, make sure students have a variety of paragraph and sentence lengths. You should also look at the structure of their sentences. Do they have many run-on or compound sentences that could be broken down into separate sentences? Do they have repetitive “subject-predicate, subject-predicate, subject-predicate, subject-predicate, subject-predicate” constructions that could use the insertion of an inverted sentence to break up the tedious pattern and add interest to their writing?
For your most advanced and intuitive writers, as they gain skill and finesse in writing, they can play with the rules. When setting a story mood, occasionally, and deliberately, a set pattern of repetitive sentence structures can be used to add tension to a scene. Much like the introductory music in the movie Jaws (Watch the music video), repeating a rhythmic sequence, whether it is words or phrases or musical notes, can heighten suspense. For additional information regarding how to teach sentence and paragraph structure to create mood and tension, check out “Sentence and Paragraph Structure Resources.”
You may also want to introduce your more advanced and intuitive writers to word play within sentences that add rhythm, nuance, and music to their language use, such as alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia. For a useful video, click here.
Step 3. Discuss with the Student
Once you have identified what works and doesn’t work in your student’s story, have a conversation with your student, discussing his or her work. Discussing what works and what doesn’t work in the story, instead of discussing thing in terms of bad and good, or success or failure, helps your student to separate from their work—allowing for some objectivity.
Always begin the discussion with all the things that work in the story. Share your enthusiasm and cite specific examples. You might share, for example:
Your story has a great beginning. It introduced the two main characters and shared details about the protagonist that made me want to root for him. It shared details of the weather and the landscape giving me a strong sense of the time and place. It made we wonder and be curious about what happens next.
Then continue to describe the other elements that work in your student’s story, sharing specific details as to why those elements work.
When you have covered all the elements that work in the student’s written piece, it is time for a conversation about what does not work in the story. I find it is best, especially when students are just beginning their writing journey, to confine that conversation to one or two items per draft, otherwise the student is overwhelmed.
Share with the student an element that is not working in the story. For example:
The main character is too perfect, and being perfect, he or she is not a believable character.
Discuss in the broadest terms how the student can improve what is not working, without putting your fingerprints on your student’s story. To continue with this example, you may want to discuss with the student how he or she can create a believably imperfect main character, asking the student for ideas on how he or she might show the imperfections of the main character. Do not give the student specific ideas on how they can create an imperfect main character by telling them to make the character selfish or pig-headed or afraid of cats. Your student can use their own writer’s tools of experience, memory, imagination, and creativity to come up with ideas, and you can certainly help him or her explore those tools.
Have your students write a new draft of their story. When they are finished, suggest that they read all the drafts of their story to be consciously aware of its development and improvement. Have your student review their copy of the “Writing Elements Checklist” either by themselves, or in a peer critique group, assessing their work in consideration of the questions raised in the checklist. You will have provided a model for them to go through the checklist, in your initial discussion with them of their story. After that assessment, as an individual or group, they can then write their final draft and share it with you and their classmates.
If you want your students to learn and participate in peer critiquing, first review “Writing Critique Group Guidelines” on the next page with your students, making sure they understand the guidelines and your expectations. This checklist is also available as a 1-page handout that you can print and share with your students.
Writing Critique Group Guidelines
Below are guidelines for creating small peer critique groups with your students. A student version of these guidelines, which you can print and share with your class, is available as a 1-page handout.
- Encourage your students to always be polite and respectful to their classmates.
- Keep each critique group small―no more than five students in a group. Each student should have a few pieces of paper or a notebook and a pencil or pen to write things down.
- Give each student a copy of the “Writing Elements Checklist.”
- Ask each student to take a turn reading their story aloud to their classmates.
- When a student is reading, the other students should be listening closely and taking notes. Students should be thinking about what works, and does not work, in the story.
- After a story is read, the critique begins. While the critique is going on, the writer of the story listens and writes down the observations made by classmates so that he, she, or they, can remember what has been shared to improve the story.
- Make sure students always begin on a positive note. They should first discuss what is working in the story. Then talk about how the story can be even better.
- They should always discuss what works or does not work in a story. For example, a student may say, “The beginning really works in your story. It captures my attention right away and makes me want to read more.” Or, a student might comment, “The middle of the story isn’t working. There should be more obstacles in your main character’s way to make it more exciting and interesting.”
- Tell students not to put their fingerprints on someone else’s story. In other words, they should refrain from solving the story writer’s problems. If something is not working in the story, the students conducting the critique should not tell the writer how they would fix the problem. The story writer will find their own way to make their story work! Everyone is different and will solve problems in their own way. Celebrate differences in writing styles!
- After the story has been critiqued, the story writer should thank classmates for their time and kind consideration.
- After all the critiques are done, writers can use the notes they took while their story was critiqued to rewrite their stories for a final draft.
Student Writing Assessment Resources
Be sure to check out these other articles on this website:
- “Set the Stage for Great Writing”
- “Create a Language-Rich Environment for Your Students”
- “Motivate Your Students to Write”
Find additional resources on the following links:
- “Why Kids’ Can’t Write” from The New York Times (includes different approaches to writing prep and assessments)
- “Implementing the Writing Process, Grades K-12” from Read, Write, Think
- “Simple Ways to Assess the Writing Skills of Students with Learning Disabilities” from Reading Rockets
- “Writing Assessment, An introduction to 6 + 1 Trait® Writing, customized rubrics, student self-assessment, and peer editing” from Reading Rockets
- “Reframing How We Assess Student Writing” from Edutopia
- “The Importance of Assessing Student Writing and Improving Writing Instruction” from the ETS (Educational Testing Service)
- “Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers” from the U.S. Department of Education
Sentence and Paragraph Structure Resources
Refer to the following articles for tips on teaching how to use sentence and paragraph structure to create mood and tension:
- “Bring on the Fun with Sentence Construction” from Two Writing Teachers
- “How to Support Students with Sentence Structure” from Learning at the Primary Pond
- “Repetition – How to Use it Effectively” from the All Write Fiction Advice Blog
- “How to Build Tension Using Sentences” from the BBC
- “Sentence Variety” from the Minnesota Libraries Publishing Project
- “Scaffolding Complex Sentences” from Edutopia
- “Show-Me Sentences Lesson Plan” from Read, Write, Think
- “Classroom Strategies: Sentence Combining” from Reading Rockets
- “Sentence Variety” from the Minnesota Libraries Publishing Project