You Can Teach Writing

Use writing assessments to find writing competence.

One of several features that make teaching writing different from teaching most other academic subjects is that when we teach writing we start giving our final tests — writing assessments — almost from the first day of the course. 

We do that because expository writing is a skill, not just a body of information.

Think about any skill you're familiar with. Whether it's basketball or baking, skiing or saxophone playing, beginners are plunged into doing that skill almost from the first day

Someone teaching a skill shows learners how to improve their skill level while assessing those learners' performance:

  • on authentic tasks 
  • in authentic ways 
  • in authentic situations. 

To teach writing, we have to teach writing skills in the same way other skill instructors pass on their expertise: by using authentic tasks in authentic ways in authentic situations.

Make writing assessments authentic.

In the English Language Arts classroom, that means we perform writing assessments of students' documents in which they:

  • Respond to formal writing prompts.
  • Demonstrate the entire writing process
  • Write about authentic ELA topics.

I don't know exactly what your curriculum covers, but I am pretty sure it will include some topics related to some of these ELA areas: 

  • grammar and usage
  • the writing process
  • oral communication 
  • literature
  • media literacy
  • research skills.

Formal writing prompts that you develop in one of those facets of your curriculum can be both:

  • authentic assessment on that ELA topic, and
  • authentic writing assessments 

Authenticity beats novelty.

Educational researchers have found that having students write on topics directly related to the subjects they are studying in class is a far superior way of teaching writing than having students write on subjects unrelated to their academic work. 

Authentic assessments are good for students. 

If you're one of those English teachers whose mantra is write what you know, you'll be delighted to realize an authentic expository writing prompt is the only device that lets you tell students to write what they know on an expository writing topic and legitimately expect all of them to have something to say

Josh may have paid zero attention to your stirring presentation of the difference between simile and metaphor, but he probably knows — or can quickly find out — more on that class topic than he knows about any non-class topic you think will interest him. 

When students write on authentic subjects, they find out how much they actually understood or failed to understand about what you attempted to teach them. 

If you give students formal writing prompts dealing with class topics, they will be forced to plug the gaps in their information by doing some study or research.

A side benefit to using course-specific, authentic assessments is that students won't be able to get by with the pseudo research that pastes material copied from the Internet into a paper. They have to learn to use sources correctly. 

That will make their college instructors very happy and keep students out of plagiarism difficulties

Authentic writing assessments use your time wisely.

Forget students for a minute. 

Think about yourself. 

Having students write on topics that are outside your course curriculum is a poor use of your time.

If you can make every formal writing prompt move students a little further along toward two of your course goals, you double the value of every hour you spend:

  • preparing that prompt,
  • monitoring and giving feedback as students respond to the prompt, and 
  • evaluating and grading the writing assessments.

Unless you are a masochist, there's no earthly reason to perform your writing assessments using writing prompts that are anything other than course-specific, authentic assessments.

Assess for writing competence.

Because writing is a skill, writers are evaluated by the same standard by which the skier and the baker are evaluated: Is this person competent?

  • A person who isn't competent at baking isn't a baker.
  • A person who isn't competent at skiing isn't a skier.
  • A person who isn't competent at writing isn't a writer. 

When you perform writing assessments you, answer the question, "Does this writing sample demonstrate writing competence as defined in my course goals and objectives?" 

There are only two possible answers to that question: Yes and no. 

Until students do competent writing, which I call C-level writing, their output isn't genuine writing: It's just words on a page. Grading not-yet-competent writing would be like trying to give a grade for knitting based on balls of yarn. 

Begin assessing for grading at 3/4 point.

Nobody becomes great at a skill without first having been competent.  Competence is the gate to greatness.

Because writing competence is so important, you must work to complete all your writing instruction by the three-quarter point in a course. 

Like beginning basketball players or beginning clarinet players, beginning writers know basically what to do, but they don't know how to get their eyes, ears, muscles, and brain working together to make it happen. 

Similarly, students who aren't yet competent writers by the three-quarter point need more practice in using the writing process to produce full documents. If you don't build those practice weeks into your instructional plan, you deny students the opportunity to become competent writers.

Students who write competently by the course three-quarter point almost certainly will rise to B-level writing by the course end without any more instruction and little or no feedback from you, provided they have more practice.

The difference between C-level, competent, writing and B-level, better-than-competent, writing is just more practice

If students have some talent for writing, many of them will progress to A-level work by the end of the course without any more help from you, providing they have more writing practice.

With more practice and a topic that interests them, a larger number of students who don't have much talent will occasionally hit A-level.

Regardless of your students' talent, or lack thereof, make your writing assessments measure writing competence as demonstrated in responses to formal writing prompts on authentic class topics.

What to read next

If you've been reading through the instructional strategies in order, you're almost done. Now comes the toughest one to implement: Waiting while students develop writing skill.

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 2008-05-20 and updated 2011-12-20 by Linda Aragoni. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 


Not sure it's competent writing?

If you're not sure whether a piece of writing is competent or not, it's not. 

In writing assessments, competence stands out like the over-sized bullseye in this target.

Writing competence is obvious.