You Can Teach Writing

Grading writing within ELA 

The most important point to remember about grading writing is that what you grade ought to be worth grading.

By that I don't mean just that Josh and Caitlin don't turn in second semester college English papers that read like the work of none-too-bright third graders, although that's important.

I'm more concerned that you, a fellow writing teacher, have given students writing assignments that students recognize as being important work, not just make-work.

Good writing prompts make students think about topics that are worth thinking about. Your formal writing prompts should also be on topics that students will regard as worth thinking about.  You'll shortchange yourself if you miss one or the other.

If you want students to take writing seriously, the formal writing assessments on which you assign grades should require students to respond to authentic English language arts writing prompts.

If you are teaching writing within an English or composition class, any topic that you are teaching—from research skills to public speaking—can be the topic for a formal writing prompt.

Nine best practices grading writing

Below are nine practices I find helpful when grading writing assignments in English classes.

1. Avoid high-stakes writing assessments.

Don't make a student's grade dependent on a single writing assignment. That makes one paper too important.

If the paper is very bad, it could damage an otherwise acceptable record. If the paper is exceptionally good, it may be a fluke: The student may have a particular interest in and knowledge of the topic, or more sinister forces may have been at work.

I typically require students to earn a certain minimum grade on two or three formal writing assignments in a row before I consider students to have earned that grade for a course.

A string of Ds may suddenly be disrupted by a C and three Bs in a row. I've seen that happen many times as things click into place for a student.

2. Let your objectives guide assessment.

Your course goals are big, broad, and probably a bit fuzzy around the edges. Instead of using them to guide your assessment, use your objectives.

Your objectives should put your big goal into the context of your course, complete with descriptions of the final test. You can refresh your memory about objectives here. LINK

Try to plan your formal writing prompts so that a tough writing assignment is paired with a fairly easy "other content" and vice versa. Novice writers have difficulty coping when both the writing and non-writing ideas are complex.

Asking novice writers to work with two tough topics simultaneously is unlikely to yield a fair picture of either their writing skills or their literary knowledge.

Be especially wary when assigning literature-based writing. Until students are competent or nearly competent writers, I suggest you avoid giving formal writing prompts on literary topics that require students to dig deeply into long fictional works such as novels and plays,

You're better off using topics that require little fiction reading but require thinking seriously about literature and using literary terms correctly. 

For example, you could ask students to explain why The Little Engine That Could became a book nearly everyone knows about even if they never read it.

Or you might give students a list of terms used in discussions of literature and ask students to discuss three of them using examples from a Dr. Seuss book.

If your objective is to have students recognize common literary devices, you'll find grading their writing about Dr. Seuss is just as valuable as grading their writing about T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland.

3. Use a grading guide keyed to objectives.

Your course objectives should enable you to prepare a grading guide that spells out for you, your students, and any observers, how a grade on a formal paper is calculated

(I find a grading guide that focuses on what students did or did not do competently beats a rubric that attempts to describe grades from F to A. The rubric is more work for me and students never read them. By the time students reach competence in writing, they can tell B writing from C writing as readily as I can.)

Indicate on your grading guide the percentage of total points for each writing component.

At the beginning of your course, explain to students that what's shown on the grading guide is what you'll teach and what they must learn.

Reinforce that idea by having students write their name, the assignment date, and their individual mastery plan items on a copy of your grading guide and submitting it with their formal assignments. (This procedure is also a time-saver when you're grading writing.)

4. Keep a sense of proportion.

If you've decided that the content of a paper will be worth 70% of a student's grade on that paper, then you should spend 70% of your writing assessment time on the paper's content and only 30% on the student's writing skill.

5. Read the work twice.

During a first reading, concentrate on assessing the student's knowledge of course content. Do a second reading to see how well the student is progressing in developing writing skill.

Apportion the time you spend on the first and the second reading and the comments you make as feedback in light of  point 4.

Restrain your impulse to start grading writing before you finish reading the paper twice. You'll save time in the long run.

Students who miss some important concept in the course content need different feedback than students who haven't mastered the art of organizing their papers. Reading twice keeps you from assuming some important point is missing when it's merely misplaced.

6. Don't correct or edit surface errors.

For digital submissions, use your grammar checker and spelling checker to identify surface errors in a student's work. Use a screen capture program to show the student how using their own computer's tools could help them — and where they can't depend on the computer for help.

Flag errors with a simple code. Stop flagging errors when you hit your count's off limit. It's no help to you or your student if you mark 37 comma splices when two is the most you'll accept and still give the writer a grade higher than C.

Give students a copy of the code with notes/links to specific places they can look for explanations of the error. If you do the writers' work, they won't learn to do it for themselves.

7. Give a suggestion for future assignments.

Give every student no more than two suggestions:

  • one that will result in a better grade on the next assignment

  • one that will improve their writing grade over a longer term.

If you don't have one thing to suggest that will improve the next paper, you lose all credibility with students. They won't trust you if all your advice is for their lives in 2040.

8. Find something good to say.

If you can't find something positive to say about the student's content knowledge or their writing skill, look for something such as the work was submitted on time or the student followed the directions for completing the grading guide.

9. Don't use red ink.

Red screams, "Mistake!"

Use a color that doesn't humiliate students when their writing assessments are returned. Blue is a good choice.

One final word: Grading writing is a necessary part of teaching writing, but it's no substitute for having a life. 

What to read next

If you detoured to this page after reading about instructional strategy 11, assess for competence, your next click should be to the twelfth and final instructional strategy: patience.

If you reached this page via a search engine, you may wish to start from the beginning to see what you missed. Here are your choices:  HOME page. Instructional strategies. IS1 Teach required writing. IS2 Aim for competence. IS3 Align objectives to goal. IS4 Plan 3/4 point finish. IS5 Teach 1 writing pattern. IS6 Teach 1 writing process. IS7 Individualize remediation. IS8. Do daily writing practice. IS9 Give fast feedback often. IS10 Require full documents. IS11 Assess for competence. IS12 Wait for writing skill.

Content on this page was first posted at you-can-teach-writing.com on 2009-07-06  and updated 2011-12-14 by Linda Aragoni. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 

Website visitor seeks help grading writing.

Your site is wonderful and very helpful. I would like more help with ... grading my students work. This is the area that I feel the most insecure. ~ Adele