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How to Grade Writing

How can we effectively assess student writing? Should we grade upon effort, completion, standards, achievement, or improvement? Is our primary task to respond or to grade?

Here’s my take. We should grade based upon how well students have met our instructional objectives. Because each writer is at a different place, we begin at that place and evaluate the degree to which the student has learned and applied that learning, in terms of effort and achievement. But, our primary task is informed response based upon effective assessment. That’s how to grade writing.

For example, here may be an effective procedure for a writing task as it winds its way through the Writing Process: Read more…

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Using Music to Develop Authentic Voice

A few years back, I sat down at my kitchen table on an early Saturday morning to begin the arduous process of grading a set of seventh-grade persuasive essays. I had postponed the task for too long and grades were due on Monday. Why did I dread the grading so much?

I knew what to expect. I would see the results of my instruction and significant improvement. I would feel self-validated and be able to give myself a well-earned pat on the back. The essays would sound like miniature versions of me. No doubt my essays would make me look good that week during our department read-around. However, I knew what would be missing in my students’ writing: Soul, Passion, Commitment, Connection. No… it was not the fault of the writing prompt. There were several to choose among, and they were intrinsically motivating for my students. There was something else.

As many teachers naturally do, I reflected back to my own successes as a writer. I drifted back to my own junior high experience. Mr. Devlin was an odd teacher with horribly worn black shoes. He was odd, even by English-language arts teacher standards. However, his writing assignment is the only one I’ve saved from my entire K-12 experience.

Mr. Devlin gave us a journal assignment with no rules. No, I’m not advocating this kind of unstructured experience, per se. After all, I’m still assigning those argumentative essays, right? In fact, it was not the assignment that was meaningful at all; it was what I did with it.

My room was my personal sanctuary. I’m dating myself at this point. My room was covered with psychedelic rock-art posters-each painted/printed in luminescent color. Yes, I had a black light. Yes, I had a strobe light. I begged my parents for black-out drapes, but olive-green was their choice. My stereo was bitchin’. I burned incense, even though I hated the smell. It was 1968.

I played the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour albums non-stop. One of the most irritating memories I have is that of my father, a professional musician, saying that the flutes sounded like cheap recorders on Paul’s “The Fool on the Hill.” He said the song was garbage.

I listened-no… I felt the music and I wrote. As I read the journals today, much of the writing is juvenile and prurient—a budding Steinbeck I was not. However, my analysis of lyrics, wanna-be girlfriends, my parents, comments and warnings to Mr. Devlin to hold true to his promise that he wouldn’t read the journals rings true to my age and experience. The journal had what my students’ persuasive essays lacked-an authentic voice. With all of the Soul, Passion, Commitment, Connection.

I graded the argumentative essays, and as I expected, most were technically very good. But, I vowed to do things much differently with their next persuasive essay. I was going to Mr. Devlin their writing by allowing my students’ cultures to create their own voices. Music would be the transformative medium. Connecting to student experience with their own music can transform the way they write essays, reports, narratives, poetry, and letters. Music was just as influential, just as pervasive, for my students as it was for me. I knew what I was getting into. I hate their hip hop, new R&B, metal, and rap. It really is garbage.

Music, and songwriting in particular, can help teachers develop a creative writing culture. Learning the lessons of musical composition can improve student writing writing. Read how teachers can develop a productive writing climate by learning a bit about how the music business operates.

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies.

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Teaching Essay Strategies

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How to Teach Essay Strategies

What first pops into your mind when I mention essay strategies? Fair to say that many of us would think of the the characteristics and/or structure of a particular genre (domain), say a persuasive essay.

What first pops into your mind when I mention football? Fair to say that many of us would think of a big game such as the Super Bowl for the pros or the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) for college.

Fine. We are all product-centered. We need to have the culminating event in mind, be it the final draft of a response to literature composition or the big football game. However, ask any football coach the question above and you are more likely to get practice as the answer. Football coaches live for the conditioning, the blocking sled, the tackle practice, and the omnipresent videotape. Perhaps we ELA teachers should take a page from our coaches’ playbooks and be a bit more process-centered. Now, I’m not talking about the writing process; I’m talking about teaching the essay strategies that will prepare students for the big game.

My first year of teaching was at a small K-8 school in Sutter Creek, California. Teaching seventh-graders in this isolated “Gold Rush” town was a wake-up call after student teaching the “best and brightest” high school juniors out of my credential program at U.C.L.A. Like most ELA teachers, I had no training nor coursework in how to teach essays. I studied Hawthorne, Shakespeare, and Hemmingway—not how to teach the fundamentals of writing. Like most ELA teachers, I reverted to and mimicked what and how I had been taught. If it worked for me, why wouldn’t it work for my students? And it did work (mostly) for those high school juniors, but it did not work for my seventh-graders.

I remember this debacle well. I began teaching my first seventh-grade class with a scintillating lecture, replete with masterful examples (including my own), on how to teach the five-paragraph essay. The structure, the components, and the unified balance of thought. “Go and do likewise,” I advised.

Of course, you probably already know the results. Most of my students did master the structure and had some sense of what the components were and where they belonged. But that unified balance of thought? I couldn’t understand why they just couldn’t fill in the rest of the blanks. Fortunately, after a few classes with U.C. Davis Area 3 writing mentors (Thank you!), I began to see the value of teaching the part-to-the-whole. I learned that my students needed more practice-more conditioning-to prepare them for their process papers. The following essay strategy tools focus on this conditioning at the sentence level.

Essay Strategies Conditioning

1. Eliminate the crutches

Sometimes removing a writer’s comfort zone is the only strategy that will force the writer to take the necessary risks to learn new tricks of the trade and improve his or her writing craft.

“To-be” Verbs: Restrict students’ usage of is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been. Nothing forces students to search for concrete nouns and expressive verbs more than this strategy. Nothing makes students alter sentence structure more than this strategy. Nothing teaches students to write in complete sentences more than this strategy. After initial banishment, allow a few of these verbs to trickle into student writing, say one per paragraph. Sometimes the best verb is a “to-be” verb. After all, “To be or not to be. That is the question.” For more, see How to Eliminate To-Be Verbs in Writing.

1st and 2nd Person Pronouns: Essays designed to inform or convince are not written as a direct conversation between the writer and the reader. Instead of using the first person point of view I, me, my, mine, myself, we, us, our, ours, or ourselves pronouns or the second person point of view you, your, yours or yourself(ves) pronouns, essays are written in the third person point of view such as in the writing model below. It’s fine to use the third person he, she, it, his, her, its, they, them, their, theirs or themselves pronouns to avoid repeating the same nouns over and over again. Nothing forces students to focus their writing on the subject more than this strategy. Nothing teaches students to rely on objective evidence more than this strategy.

2. Teach and help students practice complex sentences

Some prerequisite direct instruction is required here. Students need to know what an independent clause is. Students need to know what a phrase is. Students need to know what a dependent clause is. Teaching and memorizing the subordinate conjunctions are essentials. See How to Teach Conjunctions for a great memory trick. Students must be able to identify subordinating clauses and create them. Students need to be able to identify complex sentences and use them. Sentence models and analysis works well. I recommend using Sentence Revision, which uses sentence models and requires students to practice sentence combining and sentence manipulation at the sentence level. Using individual student whiteboards for practice and whole class formative assessment works well. You are going to have to differentiate instruction to ensure mastery learning of complex sentences.

3. Teach and help students practice grammatical sentence openers

Students have been trained to write in the subject-verb-complement pattern. Fine. Now we need to revise that writing mindset. We need to teach students that writing style and sentence variety matter. I suggest that you limit your students to composing no more than 50% of their writing in the subject-verb-complement pattern. Teach students to begin their sentences with different grammatical sentence openers. See How to Improve Your Writing Style with Grammatical Sentence Openers for a fine list with examples. Nothing forces students to write with greater sentence variety than this strategy. Nothing integrates grammar instruction into writing better than this strategy.

Look for my next article on the Pennington Publishing Blog on helping students learn how to scrimmage. Focusing on the essay writing strategies at the paragraph level, including structure, style, unity, and evidence will further help students prepare for the “big game.”

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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How to Teach Thesis Statements

The most important part of the multi-paragraph essay is a well-worded thesis statement. The thesis statement should state the author’s purpose for writing or the point to be proved. The topic sentences of each succeeding body paragraph all “talk about” the thesis statement.

  • When the essay is designed to inform the reader, the thesis statement states the author’s purpose for writing and serves as the controlling idea or topic throughout the essay.
  • When the essay is designed to convince the reader, the thesis statement states the point to be proved and serves as the argument or claim throughout the essay.

A good thesis statement will accomplish the following:

1. It will state the subject of the writing prompt.

2. It will repeat the key words of the writing prompt.

3. It will directly respond to each part of the writing prompt with a specific purpose (for informational essays) or point of view (for persuasive essays).

4. It will justify discussion and exploration; it won’t just list a topic to talk about. For example, “Elephants are really big mammals” would not justify discussion or exploration.

5. It must be arguable, if the thesis introduces a persuasive essay. For example, “Terrorism is really bad and must be stopped” is not an arguable point of view.

For short essays, a good thesis statement is characterized by the following:

1. It is one or two declarative sentences (no questions).

2. It is placed at the end of the introduction. This is not a hard and fast rule; however, the thesis statement does appear in this position in fifty percent of expository writing and the typical organization of an introductory paragraph is from general to specific.

3. It does not split the purpose or point of view of the essay into two or more points to prove. It has a single purpose or point of view that multiple topic sentences will address.

4. It may or may not include a preview of the topic sentences.

Helpful Hints

1. Spend time helping students to dissect writing prompts, showing different forms and examples.

2. Teach the key Writing Direction Words (see attached) most often used in writing prompts.

3. Teach students to “borrow” as many of the words as possible from the writing prompt and include these in the thesis statement. Doing this assures the writer and reader that the essay is directly responding to the writing prompt. Additionally, using the same words flatters the writer of the prompt. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

4. Practice thesis turn-arounds in which you provide writing prompts in the form of questions that students must convert into declarative thesis statements.

5. Teach and have students practice a variety of introduction strategies to use for both informational and persuasive essays.

6. Teach transition words and help students practice these throughout the introductory paragraph.

7. Help students re-word their thesis statements, using different grammatical sentence openers, for their thesis re-statements at the beginning of conclusion paragraphs.

8. Constantly remind students that a thesis statement is part of exposition–not the narrative form. No “hooks” or “leads” as part of thesis statements, please.

See the three attached lessons on Thesis Statement Practice at Thesis Statement Practice.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies
Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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Eight Great Tips for Teaching Writing Fluency

With the inclusion of essays on high-stakes tests such as the SAT® and ACT®, as well as many state standards tests and high-school exit exams, the need to improve writing fluency has recently surfaced as a desired goal. Which approaches to writing fluency work best?

1. Teach students to read a variety of writing prompts. Expose students to different content area and writing domain prompts. For example, using social science, literature, and science content with informational, expository, analytical, and persuasive domains. Teach students to read the writing prompt twice—the first time for understanding and the second time to circle the subject and highlight key words.

2. Give students ample practice in turning writing prompts into effective essay topic sentences. “Thesis Turn-Arounds” can be a productive “opener” to any lesson in any subject area. For example, if the prompt reads “Analyze the causes of the Civil War,” students could begin their theses with “Many causes contributed to the Civil War.”

3. Give students practice in developing quick pre-writes to organize a multi-paragraph writing response. Teach a variety of graphic organizers and review how each is appropriate to different writing prompts.

4. Give students practice in writing introductory paragraphs after pre-writing. Give students practice in writing just one timed body paragraph to address one aspect of the essay after pre-writing.

5. Provide immediate individual feedback to students with brief writers conferences.

6. Use the overhead projector to use critique real student samples. Write along with students and have them critique your writing samples.

7. Teach how to pace various allotted essay times. For example, the SAT® essay is only 25 minutes. The Smarter Balance and PAARC tests provide unlimited writing time. Brainstorm and allocate times before a full essay writing fluency for the following: analysis of the writing prompt, pre-write, draft, revisions, editing.

8. If a brief reading passage is part of the background for the writing task, teach students to annotate the passage with margin notes as they read.

Teachers may also be interested in these articles by Mark Pennington: How to Write an IntroductionHow to Write a Conclusion, and How to Use Writing Evidence.

Find 8 complete writing process essays (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory) with accompanying readings, 42 sequenced writing strategy worksheets, 64 sentence revision lessons, additional remedial worksheets, writing fluency and skill lessons, posters, and editing resources in Teaching Essay Strategies. Also get the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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