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Dos and Don'ts of Writing Assessment

Student sharing writing with a teacher
Copyright Thoughtful Learning

Writing assessment doesn't exactly have a warm and fuzzy reputation. You probably labor for hours through stacks of essays, marking and grading and wondering if you are "doing it right." Your students meanwhile anxiously wait to see how much red ink their essays will be "bleeding."

Such feelings don’t have to define your writing classroom. You can apply a few simple dos and don'ts to develop a classroom culture that views writing assessment with a growth mindset.

DO set expectations.

Effective writing assessment begins with clear expectations. Students need to know what strong writing looks like and how their writing will be assessed. To set expectations, introduce your students to the traits of effective writing. With younger students, you can use a simplified version of the traits called the qualities of writing.

Then present students with strong and not-so-strong examples of the form of writing they will be creating. Draw from this storehouse of hundreds of free assessment models, each with completed and blank rubrics that you can download. Provide students the rubric you will use to grade their work and recommend that they refer to it throughout the writing process. (You can also find all of the rubrics for different forms gathered together for grade 2, grade 3, grades 4–5, and grades 6–8.)

DON’T over-grade.

Use these rubrics to grade only major assignments. Rigorously grading other writing that your students do is not only overwhelming but also counterproductive. Students need to freely take notes, make lists, create graphic organizers, and otherwise write to learn content without constant fear of making mistakes. You can instill such confidence in your writers by assigning frequent journal writing and freewriting. These types of assignments build fluency—the ability to rapidly produce a quantity of written words on a given topic. Rather than thoroughly assessing such writing, give credit for quantity and participation.

DO assess formatively.

Formative assessment involves giving ongoing feedback to students throughout the writing process. Informal, desk-side conferences allow you to check in with writers as they work, providing suggestions and encouragement. Scheduled one-on-one writing conferences give you a closer look, letting you track a student's progress, ask and answer questions, and provide more formal feedback.

When students are prewriting, drafting, or revising, focus your comments on the ideas, organization, and voice of the writing. Wait until the editing phase to focus on sentence and grammar errors. If you point out these surface features too soon, students will tend to overlook big-picture issues in favor of chasing down commas.

DO nurture a community of peer- and self-assessors. 

In the past, teachers did all of the writing assessment, but now we recognize that students who learn to assess writing become better writers. You can equip your students to self-assess by teaching them the traits of effective writing (or the qualities of writing) and demonstrating how to evaluate their own writing.

Give students plenty of opportunities to share their writing with peers, especially during revision. Students often get so close to their writing that they can’t always evaluate it objectively. Peer-revision sessions present an opportunity for classmates to offer encouragement, ask questions, and make suggestions about each others' writing.

Both peer- and self-assessment have the double benefit of reducing the burden on you.

DO follow a grading process.  

For major assignments, follow a consistent process for summative assessment:

  • Ask students to submit prewriting and rough drafts with their final draft.
  • Scan the final draft once, focusing on the writing as a whole.
  • Reread using the traits of effective writing to assess the final draft.
  • Make marginal notations, if necessary, as you read.
  • Scan the writing a third and final time. Note the feedback you have given.
  • Complete your rating sheet or rubric and write comments.

DON’T wear-out your red pen.

Receiving a paper splashed in red corrections is a roadblock for young writers. Start by choosing a less daunting color of pen, such as purple or green. At the top of the page, jot a quick note connecting to the student: "I like this topic!" "You include great sensory details!" By starting with something positive, you open the doors of communication so students can learn from the more difficult feedback.

Within the body of the paper, try to keep most notes in the margins rather than writing over students' work. For struggling writers, choose your battles, working on one or two bigger issues per paper rather than marking every single problem. If a student struggles with a particular issue throughout her or his paper, note it once or twice and set up a conference to discuss how to fix it. For proficient writers, give specific feedback that challenges them to turn good writing into great writing.

End your review with a thoughtful summary comment that encourages continued growth. All writers can improve, but they need to feel your support and the support of their classmates to do so.  

DON’T miss out on free assessment support and resources.

Go to our free writing assessment page, where you'll discover the following resources:

  • Assessment models for grades 2–8
  • Assessment rubrics for the major writing modes
  • Instructions for using writing portfolios
  • Tools for writing on tests and responding to prompts



Teacher Support:

Click to find out more about this resource.

Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.