Getting to Know You Write Now!

28 Mar

So, for the last few days I’ve been talking about ways to get to know your students’ individual strengths and weaknesses. In previous posts I talked about how to reach students on a personal level through individual student conferences in reading and writing. I also talked about how to gain a deeper understanding of students’ reading needs through a variety of formal and informal assessments.

Now, we’ll turn our attention to how to do this for writing. In the same way that you have to listen to students read in order to assess their reading strengths, you’ll have to see a student writing in order to assess their writing strengths. You can collect a random sample of student writing, ask a child to write toward a prompt,  or let a child write and choose their own topic. After taking a few minutes to look over the student writing, ask the student to tell you about it. Ask them to tell you what they think is the best part of the writing and what part they think they might be able to improve. Have them explain why they identify a section as the best or worst. Ask them to tell you about what steps they go through to compose a piece of writing. Ask them to tell you what is their favorite and least favorite modes of writing. As the student talks to you, jot down a few notes to help you remember what was discussed. After the student leaves, you’ll want to take a close look at the writing. As you look at the writing determine what the child is already doing well. What can you praise? Even if the writing seems very weak, you’ll want to find at least one thing you can point out to the child as a “praise point”. Most of us learn from our strengths and identifying (and helping a child identify) strengths is an important beginning in building confidence as a writer. Next, make a list of needs. Before zooming in on grammar and spelling look at the overall structure of the piece. Here a few questions to ask as you look at the writing:

  • Is the writing organized?
  • How is it organized?
  • Does the child have an awareness of audience?
  • Does the writing pull you in, making you want to read more?
  • Does the child use clear and vivid vocabulary words and descriptions?
  • Does the child use any “techniques” such as figurative language?
  • Does the child have an awareness of literary structures?
  • Does the piece have a good beginning or ending?
  • Does the child use transitions?
  • Does the child vary word choice?
  • Does the child use an active versus passive voice?
  • Can you hear the personality of the writer in the writing style?

After you’ve begun to make a few notes about the overall content of the piece, you’ll also want to look for understandings and misunderstandings in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Once a child understands how mechanical errors impact meaning, they’ll be more motivated to correct them.

You’ll also want to think about the child’s individual interests (that you learned about from your reading assessments). If a child is very interested in horses, dinosaurs, or rockets, chances are good that those are topics the child will be more interested in writing about. You’ll need to determine a child’s efferent stance toward writing as well. Does the child hate writing? Why? What parts of writing are frustrating for the child? Is there an issue with the act of handwriting itself or is the problem in composition? Knowing what a child struggles with, will allow you to tailor your conferences, whole group and small group instruction to meet a child’s needs.

Just like plants need water to survive, writers need readers to survive. You will be amazed at how your students’ engagement and interest in writing will improve when they know they have an authentic audience reading their writing, ready to give them feedback. Good assessment is the heart of good teaching! If you’d like to learn more about assessment and/or conferencing in writing I would highly recommend Crafting Writers by Elizabeth Hale. Her writing style is focused, easy to follow and full of practical suggestions.

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