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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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How to Write Effective Essay Comments

Conscientious teachers know that merely completing a holistic rubric and totaling the score for a grade is not effective essay response or writing assessment. Teachers may choose to grade and/or respond with essay comments after the rough draft and/or after the final draft. Using the types of comments that match the teacher’s instructional objectives is essential. Additionally, keeping in mind the key components of written discourse can balance responses between form and content. Finally, most writing instructors include closing comments to emphasize and summarize their responses.

Writing instructors classify the types of essay comments as following: corrective, directive, and facilitative responses. Read more…

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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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Ten Tips to Teach On-Demand Writing

It’s not a perfect world. In a perfect world, there would be no direct writing assessments. Elementary and middle school students would not compose to the tune of the ticking clock. High school students would not write fearfully, knowing that the on-demand writing task on the high school exit exam could be the difference between walking the stage with grandparents, aunts, cousins, and siblings cheering or sitting at home with completion certificate in hand. College students would not spill their all-nighter, coffee-laden, infusion of knowledge into blue books under watchful grad student eyes. Prospective employees would not be forced to produce a timed writing sample in the Human Resources office as part of their interview process. Life could be better. All writing tasks could make sense, but they don’t. Students don’t care about our friendly debate regarding process vs. on-demand writing. However, until the revolution comes, teachers do a disservice to their students by not preparing them for the on-demand writing tasks of an imperfect world.

Here are ten tips to teach on-demand writing as part of a thriving writing curriculum:

1. Teachers need to assign the types of writing tasks that the on-demand writing task will be assessing. For example, seventh grade students in California are potentially assessed on these writing applications: narrative, response to literature essay, summary, and persuasive essay. Students need to write both full process papers in these domains (genres or applications) and practice on-demand writing for each of these tasks.

2. Teachers need to develop a common language of instruction for Writing Direction Words, especially writing direction terms that will appear in on-demand writing tasks. Checking out on-demand release questions, commonly referred to as the writing prompts, is a must to ensure that the language of the direct writing assessment will be familiar to your students.

3. Students need to practice composing thesis statements. Since the preponderance of on-demand writing tasks from the fourth grade through college involve informational or persuasive essays, the focus of both process papers and on-demand writing should be the essay form. The key to an effective essay is the thesis statement. Learning to dissect the writing prompt, to use the language from the writing prompt, and to formulate a specific thesis statement that concisely states the purpose or point of view of the ensuing essay is critically important.

4. Learning the structure of an informational or persuasive essay is essential. The foundational structure should be a flexible model that students can use to adjust to the form demanded by the writing prompt. For example, a response to literature essay can use the same essay structure as a persuasive essay with a few “tweaks” such as including paraphrased quotations for the former and a counterpoint argument for the latter. Here is a step-by-step method that teaches students to memorize the essay structural components in order of the overall task.

5. Practice each stage of the on-demand writing process on its own, in sequenced clusters, and as a whole: writing prompt analysis, reading an excerpt—if provided, formulating a thesis statement, completing a brief pre-write of the body paragraphs, composing the essay, revising the essay, and proofreading the essay. Teaching these components will build writing flexibility and develop writing fluency.

6. Practice on-demand writing under loosely timed (with instructional interruptions) and strictly timed (no teacher interruptions) conditions. Time management is key to success. Students need to learn how to gauge time and allot time to each component of the writing process based upon the amount of time that they will have with the direct writing assessment.

  • Gauging time is not common sense; it must be practiced. In fact, many students have a completely unrealistic sense of time. Try this exercise: Students close their eyes and raise silent hands when they believe two minutes has passed. Stop the exercise after all hands have been raised. Keep track of their times with the aid of a few open-eyed students. Repeat this practice weekly and see how students will improve their recognition of time.
  • Allotting time to each component and practicing under simulated testing conditions will give students confidence in the process. Teachers who skip this instructional practice are in for trouble on exam day. For example, all teachers tell their students (as do the writing assessment directions) to pre-write, but students know that this stage of the writing process earns them no points. So many students routinely skip this step and jump into the essay itself. Or worse yet, students will pre-write way too much and not have time for composing.

7. Tell students to write a lot. Although we like to believe that brevity and concise wording gets points, this is not the case on direct writing assessments. Teach students to focus on their audience. Graders are trained to read the thesis statement carefully, skim for main points or arguments, search for evidence to back each up, and quickly read conclusions. Tell students to use all of their allotted time and reward them for doing so.

8. Model and have students practice writing specificity. Specific descriptions (show-me diction) for narratives and evidence (a variety needed) for informational and persuasive essays get students points. Transitions are keys to writing coherence and unity. Have a transitions poster clearly displayed and frequently reference the categories and examples of transitions at the beginning, end, and within sentences. Give students practice in revising unspecific writing and writing without transitions.

9. Teach students to vary their sentence structure. The best way to do so is to teach the “50-50 Rule.” 50% of the writing should be concise subject-verb-complement sentences. The other 50% should be expanded sentences with different grammatical sentence openers. Teach the most useful grammatical sentence openers that are appropriate to the students’ grade levels.

10. Manage the stress levels and motivate your students for success. Test anxiety inhibits this success. Students know that direct writing assessments are high-stakes tests—either for the school or themselves. Keep the instructional focus positive when working with on-demand writing. Work with student attitudes toward the assessment itself. For example, teaching students that excitement and anxiety have the same physiological response, so they can choose to be excited, not anxious about the challenge. Let them know that you have high expectations, but they are capable of achieving your standards. Build their self-confidence through successive approximation. In other words, success with each component of the on-demand writing process will lead to success with the assessment. Teach students that their voices are valid ones and that they will each have a unique perspective to impart in their essay. Knowing your students helps ensure their success at all developmental levels: pre-teen, middle school, high school, and college.

See attached sample of an On-Demand Timing Guide, Reading Passage, Graphic Organizer and Writing Prompt from Pennington Publishing’s Teaching Essay Strategies.

On-Demand Timing Guide, Reading Passage, Graphic Organizer and Writing Prompt

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, 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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Process vs. On Demand Writing

Writing research has shown that one key ingredient to writing success is time. Developing writers need time to learn the writing craft, time to research/brainstorm, time to draft, and time to revise. However, ironically, time may in-it-of-itself be the greatest impediment standing in the way of writing profiency and fluency for many of our students.

Since the return of phonics-based reading instruction in the 1990s, elementary teachers have had to allocate more instructional time to direct instruction. With greater diversity in most states, more pressure to differentiate instruction in reading has compounded the problem of instructional minutes at all grade levels. Science, art, social studies, physical education, music, and writing have become the casualties of this time-theft.

The advent of timed writings on high stakes tests, such as the new SAT 1, high school exit exams, and standards-based writing assessments, has placed teachers in the difficult position of choosing among three instructional approaches to help students both learn to write and succeed on these tests with no additional time allocated for writing instruction. The three approaches are 1. process writing 2. on demand writing and 3. a mix of the two.

Advocates of the process writing approach (Six Traits, National Writing Project, Writers Workshop, etc.) argue that frequent practice in all phases of the writing process i.e., research/brainstorming, drafting, revision, editing, and publishing best helps writers develop writing fluency and proficiency. Advocates of the on demand approach argue that the above components can be streamlined into an integrated process, which teaches the writer to concurrently multi-task the drafting, revision, and editing steps with the quick bookends of planning and proofreading. Those teachers trying to please both masters have limited their process pieces and upped the amount of on demand writing tasks when the standardized writing test looms on the horizon.

Process writing proponents tend to teach grammar and mechanics (punctuation, capitalization, and spelling) incidentally throughout the writing process or via targeted mini-lessons. On demand proponents tend to teach grammar and mechanics explicitly through an established instructional scope and sequence. Those who try to combine process and on demand writing wind up relegating most grammatical and mechanics instruction to test preparation out of sheer time constraints.

A brief readers theater (tongue firmly planted in cheek) may help teachers of all writing approaches greater appreciate the challenge of teaching writing today.

Narrator: Here is a familiar scene in the teachers’ workroom. Two teachers kill time while waiting in line for the laminating machine. Their subject of discourse: an ongoing discussion of Process Writing versus On Demand Writing.

Teacher 1: I can’t believe that Mildred accidentally threw out my Writing Process charts when she rotated off-track. I’ve got to get new ones laminated and back on the wall. I’m lost without them!

Teacher 2: Are you still using those dumb charts? I thought that you must have dumped them by now. The Writing Process is “old school.” We dropped that with whole language years ago. Get with the program! It’s On Demand Writing, now. Oh by the way, I put back your Lucy McCormick Calkins book in your box; I have enough paperweights for my desk, thank you.

Teacher 1: You and your on demand writing tasks… You’re not teaching—all you are really doing is testing. Are you still passing out those grammar worksheets for homework? Remember, the research about writing says—

Teacher 2: Don’t give me that research stuff—I know what works for my kids. My language expression scores on the state test were much higher than yours. You’re lucky you’ve got tenure.

Teacher 1: Even when I didn’t, I never kissed the principal’s butt like you do. And I don’t teach to the test, like you do. My kids are learning how to think. They are writing to learn. Who cares if they know their subjects and predicates!

Teacher 2: Kids are going to have to spell, punctuate, capitalize, and use grammar correctly if they want to make it in today’s world. They’ve still got to be able to write in those blue books in college for a timed one-hour exam. They can’t just pick their own writing subject and do multiple drafts for a mid-term. You really need to get a Red Bull® and wake up to the real world.

Teacher 1: In the real world, students need to have the brains to say something. Outside of school, people have time to revise and edit. They have the time to be reflective. That’s what real authors do… They don’t have someone forcing them to write to a contrived prompt and then hovering over them with a stupid yellow timer.

Teacher 2: Now, you’re getting personal. My aunt gave me that yellow timer… Who writes your paycheck? Last I checked it was the school district. All our principal cares about is higher test scores. If you can’t show it, they don’t know it!

Teacher 1: That’s not why I got into teaching. I want to develop the whole child and nurture a love for learning. I just completed a trimester-long unit on the Haiku and its place in Japanese society…You should come in and see our published poems on the wall. We used real 24 carat gold to highlight—

Teacher 2: I bet I could find some punctuation mistakes—you with your peer editing groups. Talk about the “blind leading the blind.” I have students write one paragraph each day in indelible ink—no changes. I time them and have their desk partners count how many words the student has written in the 10 minutes. It sure saves a lot of teacher grading time. All I have to do is record the number of words in my grade book program. I can show you huge gains in words per minute.

Find essay strategy worksheets, writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in Teaching Essay Strategies.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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