by Vicki Spandel


Assessing writing is one of the most difficult things we do, mostly because it’s so personal—on both sides. It’s hard to determine what’s true or important about a given piece of writing. And it’s extremely difficult to give good writing advice that makes a difference without hurting feelings. With so much at stake, it’s critical to get it right. How on earth do we do that? Following are a few thoughts.

Remember that writing is a gift. Writers write for one main reason—to be read. No matter what assessment approach you take, remember this: Your students are waiting for your response. They’re hoping you’ll find something to like. Something. Anything. Even the struggling writers hope. And if you don’t, what’s their motivation to write more?

In my years of working with teachers, I must have been asked this question a thousand times: How do you get kids to want to write? The answer is simple, and it’s right in front of us—or more accurately, right within us. Be a good audience. Sound too easy? There’s nothing easy about it. To be a good audience you need to be open-minded, perceptive, enthusiastic, engaged, and so eager to read the next piece it’s like you’re standing with outstretched arms to receive it. This is something you cannot fake. If you look on each piece of writing as a gift, you’re already doing the most important thing any writing teacher can do. And if you’re not, almost nothing else you do will help.

Admit that “the truth” is a myth. In a classroom, unfortunately, students are usually writing for a one-person audience. They get one shot to make or break it. Sadly, students don’t always realize that no matter how well-read and experienced a teacher may be, no single response can never be representative of how a broader audience might react. This is why author and teacher Peter Elbow reminds us that the “truth” about any piece of writing is very big, and lies in the combined multiple responses of a whole community of writers.

Any subjective assessment must be taken with, as Mark Twain might have said, a few tons of salt. Let students know that although your assessment of their writing will always be as fair and honest as you can make it, other readers might respond differently.

I am from . . .

Every professional writer out there knows this well. Most have had their work rejected repeatedly before finally getting something published, then proving the critics wrong as the public devours every word. To see some hilarious rejection notes, look up “17 Famous Authors and Their Rejections” published by Mental Floss:

This is my favorite from that collection: “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

Like all writers, students need responses from more than one person. Widen the audience when you can. Have students share writing within peer groups. Partner with another class. Find pen pals. Do school-wide drama or poetry readings. And encourage students to write for community outlets, such as a school or town newspaper.

Tell students what you want. Clarity is essential. Whatever your assessment approach—points, scores, grades, comments—explain it in words students can understand. Let them know what you’re looking for, and what changes the game for you. Read aloud from your favorite authors often, daily if possible, and talk about why they move you. Do you like humor? Total honesty? Vivid imagery? Mystery? Striking verbs? Off-beat characters? Realistic dialogue? Poetic language? Unexpected details? Good research? An ending you can’t anticipate? Whatever your preferences, back them up with examples.

I’ve always loved six-trait writing because written criteria make it crystal clear what a reviewer is looking for. Without that clarity, students are guessing what you want. That’s not fair. You don’t need to use the six traits to make your wishes transparent, though; share your own criteria, whatever they may be. And just because you put them in writing, that’s no sign they’re final. You have the option—indeed, the obligation—to revise them as you learn more about what you value. Values evolve for everyone who reads because reading expands and refines our preferences. Reading is how we teach ourselves to write.

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the “I’ll know it when I see it” trap. Everyone feels that way, and this old platitude provides a convenient excuse for not examining our beliefs, never daring to make them visible. Make no mistake: Defining what makes writing work is very hard, and very personal. What moves me may not touch your soul at all. That doesn’t let either one of us off the hook. “What constitutes good writing?” is a question that has no final or “correct” answer, and that’s why we need to keep asking it forever.

Honor the sacred rule of assessment. Finally, we have to remember the number one rule of good assessment—any assessment anywhere: Is it helpful to the person being assessed? If the answer is no (which it often is), we have to find another way. Good writing assessment always, without exception, gives the writer information or strategies she can use the very next time she writes. Perhaps forever. Isn’t that a lot to ask? Not really. That’s actually the minimum we should expect.

8 Things That Make a Difference

Following are eight things I’ve learned through the years about assessing writing well at the classroom level, whether you’re putting scores or grades on papers, writing comments, holding conferences, or all of these things together.

  1. Don’t feel compelled to comment on everything.

It’s overwhelming and exhausting. You don’t want to write that much, and no one wants to read it—least of all the writer. Especially given how unlikely it is that ALL your comments will be positive.

Start by getting grounded. Read the piece once to get it in your head, no pen or pencil in hand—yet. What’s the main message? What’s the mood? What touches you? What feels unfinished? What’s most striking? What’s missing? Ask yourself what the writer needs to keep on doing or might do differently. Then go through the piece again, commenting on those stand-out parts, always focusing first on what’s working well—and then perhaps offering a suggestion for something to try. Coach a writer the way you’d coach a marathon runner at the halfway mark.

  • Focus more on the writer than on the writing.

Whether a given piece of writing winds up as perfect as you can make it is actually of no consequence whatsoever. This is hard for some of us to come to grips with. We’re so eager to show off what good proofreaders we are and how NOTHING escapes our sharp editorial eyes. We respond to writing as if we were preparing a piece for publication. Unless (and this is rare) the writer shares your enthusiasm for that effort, it’s a horrible waste of precious teacher time and energy. So—don’t get roped into being an editor for your students.

Will you see a lot of things you would do differently? Or better? Almost certainly. Should you point them all out? No. If you do, trust me, you will be writing notes to yourself. Instead, ask yourself, What is this writer, this student, this person doing that I want to encourage? What would be the one thing he or she could try that would make the biggest difference down the road?

  • Put conventions in their place.

Too often I’ve seen the stumbling block conventions can create for a teacher/reviewer who simply cannot look beyond them. Details lie flattened under misspelled words. Voice and word choice are lost in the weed patch of faulty punctuation. Fluency is choked by grammatical errors. Don’t let conventional errors distract you.

Respond to the message first. Read the piece aloud as if it were picture perfect and ask yourself what you hear, what you picture, what you learn or feel. Occasionally if possible, ask a friend to read a conventionally challenging piece aloud to you; that way, you won’t even see the conventions, and that makes it easier to concentrate on what the writer is saying and how passionately she is expressing her thoughts.

Grade conventions separately if possible—or make that factor one slice of a bigger writing pie. Is this easy to do? Not at all. But if you try, you can teach yourself to look beyond conventions to the message and voice beneath. Think what that will mean to the student who writes with stunning voice that has never, ever been heard because her spelling and punctuation are all anyone has ever noticed.

A few years ago, I came across this piece written by a student who dreaded summer vacation because it meant she would have to leave her beloved teacher and the school room where she felt safe. She wrote (in penmanship far harder to read than this clear print) “it is theend sumrisomisthir butiwrtuvrfrgit [teacher’s name]” Translation: “It is the end. Summer is almost here. But I won’t ever forget _______ .”

Eventually, you DO need to teach conventions. If you don’t, who will? The thing is, though, correcting is not teaching. It feels like teaching, but in reality it’s the opposite. It turns student thinking off. Number one, you’re being a critic. And what do you do when someone criticizes your efforts? Right. Second, by making corrections, you’re taking responsibility for tracking down all the errors—so who’s learning to edit? It’s a rare student, that once-in-a-lifetime driven student, who learns anything at all from corrected copy. The best way to learn conventions is by being an editor. Here’s one way to make that happen . . .

  • Teach conventions—every day—by making students editors.

Instead of correcting errors, teach conventions by turning students into editors. Where to begin? In the most logical place of all: with the problems they’re currently having. Lift the copy for practice editing right from students’ own work. Sometimes, more than one student is having trouble matching subjects and verbs, knowing when to use who or whom, figuring out how to set up a quotation—or whatever. Perfect. That’s the very issue you want to focus on.

Pluck a representative problem sentence from any student’s piece, and reproduce it on your white board or electronic board for everyone to edit. Here’s a dangling modifier straight from a student’s piece, but it could just as well have come from adult writing—which I love pointing out to students:

  • Driving down the road, icicles were hanging from every rooftop.

Next step: Ask everyone in the class to read the sentence carefully, think about what it literally says and what the writer means to say, then edit it. This takes only a couple minutes. Let them check with a partner to see if their editorial changes match. Ask a few volunteers to share their corrections and write them out so others can compare their own changes. Work with them, but hold off a bit on sharing your version.

After editing: Explore the problem. Conventions are often a matter of logic, though students usually don’t think of them this way. In teaching conventions, though, this is one of the most important messages you can get across: Conventions are NOT arbitrary rules designed to trip up unwary writers. Conventions make reading easier. Period. That’s their job. itse asyt oma kethis poi ntb y n otusing thm

Ask students who, in our sample sentence, is driving down the road? The way the sentence is written, it’s the icicles. That makes no sense—and certainly is not what the writer means. Notice how easy editing becomes once we employ a little logic:

  • Driving down the road, we saw icicles hanging from every rooftop.

At this point, share your editing too—and in most cases, it will match closely what your students have done. Of course, one sentence does not provide a lot of editing practice, so try to find two, three, or more you can use within one editing lesson. By the way, in my experience students love this approach to teaching editing and do not feel at all threatened by having their writing singled out for practice. On the contrary, they feel as if they’re making a contribution to improving everyone’s editing skills, which they are.

  • Be positive, be enthusiastic, and be specific!

Be positive. Start with what’s working. Can’t find anything? Read again. Look deeper. It’s important to get beyond the cliché response: Thank you for sharing. Maybe this student is tackling a new topic for the first time, writing more than ever before, finally using paragraphs, remembering to include a title, experimenting with periods or other punctuation, including at least one detail, however small, daring to try a verb other than is, are, was, were. There’s something. Find it and you give that writer something to build on instead of another reason to hate writing.

Be enthusiastic. I have often heard teachers say, “Oh, I’ve read this a thousand times. There’s nothing new here.” It’s hard to teach for years without coming to that mindset. You have seen them all, read them all, haven’t you? The special friend, the biggest surprise, the day someone will never forget. But remember: This young writer hasn’t written this a thousand times. He isn’t tired of his message. Help him to see what he’s doing well today and maybe he’ll keep at it long enough to write something you’ll truly love. Instead of being the person who’s heard it all before, maybe you can be something much harder to find: the person who listens for a new riff in that old song everybody recognizes.

Be specific. You don’t want generalities from your students. They’re just as disappointed when they get them from you. Comments like “Good job!” feel good for a second or two (especially when accompanied by a high grade), but they don’t provide the writer with any ideas about how to improve or challenge herself. A writer needs to know two things: What, specifically, was so good about that word, sentence, passage, scene, observation, description, bit of dialogue? And second, what moved, shocked, surprised, horrified, delighted, entertained, or stopped you in your tracks?

Think of a comment you’d make to a professional writer whose novel or nonfiction or poetry was hard to put down. You’d want to go beyond, “Great job!” Your students will appreciate writer-to-writer responses, too:

  • You came up with such precise words for how cats move—“slipping through the grass.” I get such a vivid picture from that.
  • Your title is perfect I kept thinking about it the whole time I was reading.
  • This is my favorite detail/image/scene/bit of dialogue in the whole piece.
  • You made me laugh out loud.
  • This conjured up memories for me. You know how to keep readers reading.
  • I can tell what an important event this was for you.
  • Your opening scene really sets the mood.
  • I enjoyed this passage so much I read it several times.
  • I love the way you play with rhythm, shifting from long sentences to short.
  • Your dialogue is truly authentic—I feel as if I know these characters.
  • You tried something interesting, focusing just on smells instead of trying to include every last sensory detail. Very effective.
  • I never knew dinosaurs could be brainy! I love the way you try to teach readers something they might not know.
  • You made me look at this issue a whole new way. Your argument is compelling.
  • Thank you for going beyond words like nice and special to describe your friend.
  • Saving this example for last was brilliant—it’s the strongest one.
  • Your transitions work beautifully—I find myself floating from paragraph to paragraph effortlessly. Reading this is a pleasure.
  • What a surprise this ending was! I loved it.
  • You managed to convey a wealth of detail without ever being repetitive. I can tell this was written by someone who knows the subject inside and out.
  • The way you weave quotations into your text is so smooth it’s as if you’re bringing these experts right into the conversation.
  • What an intriguing topic you chose, the evolution of horses. How did you come up with it?
  • This scene on the river is so vivid I feel as if I’m rafting with you, hanging on for dear life.
  • Your voice is unique—and very strong.
  • Be careful what you say.

I’ve often talked in workshops about a high school teacher who wrote on one of my essays “Your most irritating habit is your relentless misuse of the semicolon. Please revise!” It struck me then as now that he must have thought I had numerous irritating habits since this semicolon thing was the most irritating. And “relentless”? I’m not sure I was relentless about anything at that point in my life, and even now I can only get just so excited about semicolons.

My point, though, has nothing to do with that cantankerous teacher in particular. The point is, comments linger. Don’t write ANYTHING on a student’s paper that you don’t want that person thinking about decades from now. If you have something kind and encouraging to say, of course, go for it. But just so you know, it’s usually the ugly comments that are long-lived. I know this because I have asked teachers in nearly every one of my seminars to recall the most positive and negative comments they ever received on their writing. The majority could not recall a single positive comment. Not one. (“Good job” has no shelf life whatsoever.) But negative? Hands would shoot into the air, with people calling over each other to share dark memories that still brought tears to their eyes ten, twenty, even thirty years after the fact. Here are just a few arrows to the heart, excerpted from Creating Writers, 6th edition—

Keeping it positive . . .
  • I can’t believe what I see here. There is nothing of worth except that the documentation is perfect. It is only the documentation that boosts this paper to a D-.
  • I looking at this paper again, I believe it is even worse than I originally thought.
  • Reading this has depressed me more than I can say.
  • You simply don’t know how to write.
  • This is basically verbal vomit.
  • No one would read this who was not paid to read it.
  • You missed the point completely. F.
  • Do the world a favor. Don’t write.
  • I do not believe you wrote this. This is not your work.

And here’s one I feel right to the core, even though it wasn’t written on my paper:

  • Your writing reminds me of a porcupine—many points leading in meaningless directions.

Comments like these hurt. They make people hate writing and turn to math for consolation. Nothing wrong with math. But we need writers. Who knows? Maybe there’s a Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, or C.S. Lewis in your class. You could be the one to discover the “first words” of a future best-selling writer.

“Something to work on.” If we have to tread so carefully, though, can we still make suggestions for improvement? Of course. We just need to teach ourselves how to present advice in a tactful, caring, respectful way. It helps if we think of flaws/faults/problems (use any term you like) as “something to work on.” It also helps if, instead of accusing the writer of deliberately making our lives difficult (“You did this . . .” “Your writing sounds like that . . .”), we focus on the impact it’s having on us as readers:

  • I found myself confused at this point. Can you put this another way to help clarify things for me?
  • As I was reading this, I wondered how it might work if you . . .
  • Here’s something you might want to try . . .
  • I’m wondering how this story would work if you wrote from a different perspective—in another person’s voice, that is. Or you could alternate voices. I can share an example of this in a conference.
  • This ending seemed abrupt to me. I was just zooming along when I came to a sudden stop. I wonder what would happen if you hinted at what’s coming next.
  • I had a sense you felt rushed when writing this. Is that true? Would it help if you had more time?
  • My guess is if you read this aloud you may hear some points where two sentences run together/you repeat yourself/you started multiple sentences the same way/ or . . . Try that and then let’s look at it again together.
  • It always helps me to read my work aloud. If you haven’t done that yet, give it a try and see if there’s anything to add or change.
  • It feels as if you are writing on two topics—which is hard to do! I’ve done it myself so I know. Let’s go through this together and see if you can zero in on one topic or the other.
  • Your voice was so strong in the previous paragraph, but I hear it fading here. Do you agree? Why do you think that might be happening?
  • This sounds a lot like a point you made on page 1. I’m wondering if you need this paragraph as well. What do you think?
  • I’m wondering if this topic is working for you. Would you be more comfortable switching to a new topic?
  • You’re working hard to get this image just right, I can tell. Let’s brainstorm some words that describe angry dogs—sometimes having a word cache to draw from helps.
  • I see you have one source listed here and that’s great! Do you need help finding more?
  • Have you considered doing an interview as part of your research?
  • I notice you don’t have a title yet—and it’s often the last thing I write. Want to brainstorm some possibilities?
  • What if you and I perform this dialogue together? Hearing words spoken aloud can help you decide if your characters are saying just what you want them to say.
  • Semicolons can really be confusing! If it’s OK with you, I’d like to use this sample sentence so we can all work on them in our next editing session.
  • Make students partners in the assessment process.

Hold on. Students as assessors? What does this have to do with good writing assessment? Everything. Having a chance to assess someone else’s writing helps students understand how every single thing a writer does affects the reader. Writers hold the reins. Every detail, image, verb, sentence beginning, lead, ending, transition—and semicolon—has impact on the reader. But you only learn this as that most careful and attentive of readers, the golden eagle of readers: an assessor.

Say to a student “You need more detail here,” and expect your comment to wind up in the mental box marked “Things it would only bore me to think about right now.” But give a student a detail-free paper to assess and watch the lights go on. Once students understand how assessment works, and how much influence they (as writers) actually have over readers, grades and scores no longer feel as accidental and unpredictable as roulette. They feel like honest responses to a writer’s effort.

Plus, there’s a bonus. When students become skilled at spotting strengths or problems in someone else’s writing, they learn to look and listen for the very same things in their own work. Especially if they take time to read what they’ve written aloud. And just like that, you’ve built a foundation for revision. No red pen needed.

For numerous examples you can assess as a class just look up “student writing samples” online. Or check out one of my books, Creating Writers or Creating Young Writers, to see samples I’ve chosen to illustrate particular strengths or problems.

  • Keep writers’ options open.

Just because it’s time to hand it in doesn’t mean a piece is necessarily ready for assessment. Give writers an option. If you feel their writing still needs a lot of work, you might write this: “I think there’s more you can do with this piece before I assess it. If you agree, let’s come up with a new due date.”

Students won’t always take you up on this—but now the choice is theirs.


Final thoughts . . .

When most people think about assessment, they think testing, grading, or judgment. That’s their tunnel vision talking. Assessment isn’t really about judgment. It is, or should be, a helpful conversation that incorporates honest, useful, immediately applicable feedback designed to strengthen performance. If your blood sugar is high, it isn’t helpful to get a C+ in glucose management. It’s helpful to learn about the hidden appeal of kale and broccoli and the dangers of doughnuts.

Good writing assessment is easier to achieve when we keep reminding ourselves of its purpose: to give students the desire, courage, and strategies they need to handle one of life’s greatest challenges—writing.   

This blog post is lovingly dedicated to the finest teacher I ever had, Margery Stricker Durham. She taught me not only to write with care but to teach with care. She did that with one very simple strategy. Every time we turned in a piece of writing, she wrote back. Not essays, mind you, but genuine notes. More than just a word or two. She noticed small things—opening lines, endings, attention to accurate details, easy to read copy, carefully chosen words, thoughtful observations. Now and then she wrote the words I most longed to hear, better than any grade: “I really enjoyed reading this.” There is no better gift for any writer to receive. Thank you, Margery. There’s no way to repay what you gave me, but then, that’s often the way with teachers.