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NYC Helpline: How To: Teach Literacy

Assessing Your Students’ Writing
Allison Demas

Assessments are invaluable tools. Collecting samples of your students’ writing over the course of the year provides you with a display of each student’s progress, evidence of student work and ability, and fodder for your writing lessons. Examining and analyzing student writing is a method of formative assessment. Formative assessment guides (forms) your future instruction.


First you need to devise a method of assessment. You might use a checklist or a rubric. The creation of these depends upon the grade and purpose Each grade has different criteria. You need to know what the expectations are for your grade, which is what your students should actually be able to do when they enter the next grade. According to your school or district you may be required to collect a sample of writing for particular genres. If this is the case, then you need to create a breakdown of the components of each genre.

Create something that you can manage. You don’t want to make something so involved and cumbersome that you spend more time assessing than teaching. It needs to be real. Basically you need to know where you want your students to go, and how you plan to get them there. Authentic assessment tells you if your students are on track or if they have gone off course, and if the latter, where you need to go as a result.

I use a checklist based upon what my kindergarten students should be able to do upon entering first grade (click here for a Word version of my checklist). There is also a section for my comments and observations. I divided it into blocks for 10 months. This way all of my information can be contained on one page (front and back) for each child. It makes it easier for me to see how the child has developed (or not), explain this growth to parents, and share with teachers and administrators.


This also depends upon what is required of you by your school. Generally you collect a sample for each unit you teach. The sample you choose should be the best example of the student’s independent abilities. You may need to collect more than one sample if a student showed steady progress in a particular area. If there are drafts of a piece then these should be included in the sample with the finished product.

I collect the very first piece of writing my students do on the first day of school. This is my baseline for each student. Thereafter, I take one piece of writing each month, usually, I take the best piece of writing produced. Be advised, “best” is not synonymous with “perfect.” I consider a piece to be “best” because it is the best example of the student’s actual abilities. I may choose a piece that demonstrates the child took a risk, and made an attempt at something difficult. It may be a piece in which the student showed the most growth. I may choose a piece which is inferior to other work but was clearly an independent product. This shows that the child gained enough confidence to do the work alone, without asking assistance from me or other students.


Now we come to the real reason for all of this work. Unfortunately many teachers (and administrators) see the collection as an end unto itself. This is erroneous. You need to take your writing samples and evaluate them according to the method you devised (your checklist or rubric). You should make notations of what you see and what you don’t see. This is how you determine your next step.

What you see: If you are able to check off many of the items on your list it is an indication that the students have understood the lessons you have taught and are able to practice those skills on their own. (“They know that - great!”) This does not mean that your work is over. To the contrary, it means you have more work to do because your students have demonstrated a solid foundation and their abilities can now be expanded.

What you don’t see: If there are items you can not check off, then you need to address those items. It is not enough to note that the students have not mastered that skill, or did not complete the task. It is incumbent upon you to make sure that the students understand and master that skill. (“Uh oh, they don’t know this - I need to teach or re-teach this.”) Remember, formative assessment drives your instruction. This may apply to your entire class or just one student.

Authentic assessment requires you to be introspective. It is a reflection of both their abilities and your understanding of their abilities. An accurate assessment may mean that you change your teaching style or your approach for a particular topic. It may mean that things are going well just the way they are. In any case, it needs to develop based on what your students present and based on what you want them to be able to present. Above all else, assessment must be real. If it is just about creating a portfolio or sample collection that looks good, then it has lost its value.

Questions or comments? E-mail Allison.


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