The 7 Stages of Writing Assessment (and a coffee, please!)

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Author Bio: A 10-year NY State Secondary English Education Teacher, Kimberly Nellist-Ortiz is writing for her own blog, www.ateacherintherye.com, and is active in many Twitter chats (@ateachintherye).  Most known for her unique theories on student-lead education, such as “I don’t give answers, and I don’t give questions, either,” Nellist-Ortiz encourages other teachers to change the way learning happens in the classroom. Follow her on social media!

In my first student-teaching experience I was given a week to score 60 8th-grade essays.  I procrastinated for 3 days as I struggled to figure out what to do with them.  That makes me giggle because now I know all too well what goes into assessing writing, but I still procrastinate.

Today’s post is a guest blog for www.mytowntutors.com, and in looking over the services they offer, I want to be sure my blog speaks to all readers in all areas of teaching, especially tutoring. I’ll share with my new tutor-readers one particular tutoring job from my first year of teaching that had me a little nervous each time I went to the student’s home.  A good kid inside that full body cast; a scary place to call work.  We managed to read
through his 6th grade social studies book with the 11 raggedy cats in our way.  This high school English teacher learned a lot about Aztecs that year, not to worry.

So my 10+ years of experience subbing, tutoring, and teaching grades 6-12 English (and 1 stint of Religious Ed.–again, I learned so much) has taught me that there are 7 stages to reviewing and assessing a student’s writing.  In some situations you may be reading a stack of papers at your desk.  In other circumstances you may be looking over a written response before the student turns it in.  The assignment may be short; it may be long.
In any case, these are the stages to assessing the work in its entirety.  Let’s get started, shall we?

Stage 1: Return to the question and guidelines. Start with re-reading the directions and knowing the whole of the assignment.  If there’s a rubric, this is the time to be familiar with the criteria and levels for scoring.  Get a vision of what the end product should be.  If you wrote the question, you should already know what you’re looking for; but it is worth it to take that time again, and visualize the answer.  Don’t misunderstand me and assume I mean there’s one way to outline the response.  As a writing teacher, I have to remind myself that there are several ways a final written response could execute the answer.  But having an idea about the content and potential organization ahead of time will help you look for it when assessing.

Stage 2: Spend a significant amount of time reading and re-reading the focus established at the beginning. If it’s an essay, that would be the introduction and claim sentences at the end of the intro that help to narrow the focus of the essay.  In the case of a short response, it would be the first few sentences.  I actually have my students do this during the revision stage.  What are the specific words used?  Are they clear and precise? My students have learned to write these by considering the topic from the question, and adding the message they want to send about the topic.  Simply highlight those focus sentences and continue reading to return to them after the first established supporting detail.

Stage 3: Checking for examples and supporting details. In the case of an essay, check the topic sentence of each body paragraph or example.  There should be word choice that directly connects to the introduction’s claim or focus highlighted from stage 2.  But I should also find specifics for each supporting detail in each topic sentence to set the examples apart from each other. Continue through the sentences of the detail, looking for
a development of ideas that clarifies the concept.

Stage 4: Assess grammatical issues. Even at the Senior level, I have to stop and remind myself that marking every single grammatical issue is actually backwards progress.  You should really give this blog a read: Drop That Angry Pen and Step Away From Your Desk. Likely your students will only understand 1 or 2 serious grammatical issues per essay.  So decide ahead of time, even on the individual student-level, what is worth
marking.  If you’re going to mark it, you must teach it.  I can’t say I spend time writing all of the instructions out on the students’ papers, but I do make note and build on grammatical lessons as we go.  Otherwise, if I don’t teach it at some point, it was a moot point to mark it, as most students won’t learn to correct it on their own, anyway.

Stage 5:  Stop assessing grammatical issues. True story: I stop reading–and I mean actually reading for meaning and content–when I worry about grammatical issues.  A wise retired mentor of mine dropped by my classroom to remind me to stop trying to grade everything.  He used to say that a teacher can refrain from marking an essay after page 1.  He’s right.  Grammatical issues marked on page 1 will be the same issues
marked on page 2 and on–or in the case of a shorter assignment, from sentence-to-sentence.  My students know this now.  They know I am not out to get them on every issue. I want to read what they have to say, because to me their ideas are more valuable than a subject-verb disagreement or adding a space between “a lot.”

Stage 6: Review the ending. There should be a return to the introduction’s claim here.  I always tell my students that the end must sound like an ending.  We hate “fortune cookie”-style endings in Secondary Ed., but some students have to start there.  I try to be sure their conclusion draws the best resolution of their previously mentioned ideas.  For a paragraph assignment, I tell my students it should be the wrap-up sentence, pulling from
the beginning to develop a feeling of completion at the end.  Nothing should dangle.

Stage 7:  The conclusive remark from the teacher. Give students real suggestions for improvement they can execute on their own.  It must be something they can actually do, which may require writing out an example or teaching face-to-face.  But, I always have to remind myself that the ideas in the writing are more important to the person as an individual.  It is important to reward students for their thinking by commenting on the thoughts they shared.  A sincere conversation at the end of the paper, either written or verbal, draws effective attention to their valuable ideas.  If the ideas weren’t fleshed out well, there’s usually enough to agree or disagree in a productive and supportive way. Typically what is discussed here between student and teacher will be the
changes or additions made to their writing.

I’d love to conclude with a stage 8 where I take a 10 minute break before assessing the next paper.  In the case of a thick stack of 2-page essays, this turns assessment into a week-long process.  Now you can see why I procrastinate; the task seems endless.  Then there’s always this: Balancing Grading Papers and Having a Home Life.

As I conclude, I should admit to not always doing a thorough inspection of every writing assignment using all 7 stages every time.  There are times when I have to avoid stage 4, which propels me to stage 6.  Sometimes my stage 7 isn’t as thorough as I’d like.  There are also times when I only do stages 2-3.  Nevertheless, I find myself always reverting back to all 7 stages (8, if you include my trip to a colleague’s Keurig machine) when my
intention is on the growth and success of my students’ writing.

Thanks for reading today!  I’d like to encourage you to follow me at www.ateacherintherye.com.  You can also find me, A Teacher in the Rye, on Facebook, Pinterest, and Teachers Pay Teachers, or on Twitter, @ateachintherye.  Sometimes I share after hours toddler teaching ideas on www.amommyintherye.com, also on
social media.  Happy tutoring!

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