Sunday, March 4, 2018

Grading Writings - it does not have to suck

I don't dread grading writing anymore.  Not since I...
  • drank a whole lot of the standards-based grades kool-aid.  
  • simplified my system and made it consistent (mostly).  
  • spent some quality time with Scott Benedict and his grading system. (Some of best hours of my life if I consider how many hours I have gotten back from investing that time.  And Scott is pretty cool too.)
HACK #1 - Plan ahead: Only grade one class per week! (and don't assign writing assessments to every class at the same time).

I attempt to plan my weeks and units so that I almost never have two classes worth of writings to grade.  This is very intentional.  My time is MUCH better spent planning great units or taking care of myself, but feedback is important, so keeping it manageable is priority.    Plus, as MagisterP points out, time spent on assessment that is not input-based is time lost.  (To do this, I try to keep those assessments at 15 minutes or less- 10 or fewer for writing, and 5 for "caretaker" stuff- passing papers, discussing or clarifying directions, etc.  I use a timer.)

Hack #2: Put the rubric on the page you pass out.

Alternate: buy yourself some stamps with your rubric categories- I have Advanced, Proficient, and Developing made up from an on-line stamp maker and I love them.

This way I know exactly what I am assessing and the kids, if they wish to read it, do too.  Most of the time, I assess using a slightly modified ACTFL scale, available in a variety of flavors from Martina Bex's Universal Screener.  This product is the most life-saving of lifesavers.

Hack #3: Be consistent: Use the same rubric, or a variation of it, for everything. 

All my writing and speaking assessments are assessed on the same rubric (adapted from the Universal screener), but modified for level.

All my reading and listening (input) quizzes use the same rubric.

The difference is that in my honors classes, the expectations are higher (intermediate mid, intermediate low, novice high, novice mid) than in my standard classes (intermediate low, novice high, novice mid), but the rubrics are based on the same information.
In my classes, proficient is 85%.  For Spanish 2 at the end of the year, that is intermediate low, and for Spanish 1, it is Novice high.

Hack #4: Don't mark errors!
I do not mark errors.  Repeat: I DO NOT MARK ERRORS! I may keep note of a persistent error and try to work that into class over the next few weeks, or I may even do a grammar pop-up the following day, but that's it. Don't mark errors.  It does not help students and it is not a good use of your time.  For a student who really wants to know why they got one grade (and not another), they are welcome to come talk to me during my office hours before or after school, and I will spend time reviewing proficiency guidelines and their work.  I have had two kids ask in four years.

Tip: If you are looking for certain words, have kids underline them.  Sometimes it is ok to skim writing assessments, especially if you are really looking for just one or two things.  Think about it like reading for just one trait, like elementary school teachers do.  *This only applies to focused freewrites.* See more about them below.

Focused Freewrites vs. Timed Freewrites 
"Focused" (targeted) freewrites can be used as summative assessments at the end of targeted units.  This may be as simple as "use the words for runs, walks, and sees in a story." (In that case, the unit was focused on those words- it is one of the first units in Martina Bex's SOMOS curriculum.)  It may be more cultural: Compare and contrast the tradition of a quinceaƱera with a tradition in your own family.  The directions depend on the unit and the objectives.  Some CI teachers do not believe in these types of assessments (with very valid arguments against doing them) but in my school community, this is appropriate and useful.

Timed freewrites are done almost every week with almost every class.  (The exception is if we are doing a focused freewrite that week.  No reason to make them write twice!)  Students are given a sheet of paper (I downloaded mine from here) and write for a certain number of minutes.  We start at 10, and when all kids can reach 100 words, we write for 9 minutes, and so on.  Sometimes I give the kids an optional prompt- a silly photo from the internet, a vignette with the stuffed animals in my class, etc. but they can write about whatever they want.  The goal is fluency- a real look at what they can do with written language under pressure and no constraints.  Kids record their word count in a graph each week.

How I grade writing:

Focused: These can be given two grades: one on content (using a rubric adapted guessed it: Scott Benedict) and the other for their overall level of proficiency. Another way to grade them is  whether they can use the target structures (with few errors, with some errors, with errors that impede meaning), and just mark their level of proficiency but not record it.=

Timed: I use the ACTFL levels, but my rubric has two extra sections inspired by and adapted from Scott Benedict's rubrics (found here).  I include:

  • One thing that impressed me:__(I write it in)_ 
  • One thing to work on for next time. This is in a checklist form and includes things like verb endings, spelling, increase vocabulary, add dialogue, verb tense, accents, longer sentences, hard to read, and other. 

These take longer, certainly, but are great windows into what has been truly acquired.  I roll a dice to decide who gets graded each week.  
The elephant: how do you actually know what is novice high?
OK, let's talk about the elephant in the room: what is novice high writing? How do you know what to mark it as?   If you are lucky enough to have done the OPI training from ACTFL, you might know the answer.  If not...I am going to save that topic for a later post.  Stay tuned!



  1. Elicia, do you have a follow up post for how to know what is Novice High, intermediate low, etc? I need to be trained in this! Also, how do you apply a proficiency level to Martina's reading and listening assessments? Help!

  2. Hi, You can email me (elicia at desklessclassroom dot com) and I can send you some ideas. I am working on that blog post is turing into a big old bear, and as I learn more, I keep going back to edit it. In the meantime, I suggest you look elsewhere: Tina Hargarden over at CI Liftoff has a LOT of resources, including the Stick Figure guide to ACTFL proficiency. I highly recommend that resource! If you go to the *new* Unit 4 download from SOMOS, there are some extensive resources on how to grade reading including a new rubric, and if you look at the assessments tag to the right I also have a post about how I grade reading and listening assessments for SOMOS.

  3. Hi, Elicia, just checking in to see if you completed your "novice high" follow-up post!! Thank you!

  4. Hi, honestly, I have not. The reason is that my thinking has changed a lot about how important it is. I still recommend the resources above, but as I have continued to learn more about language acquisition, I decided to focus my energy on what matters most- and to focus less on these proficiency descriptors which are not applicable to school contexts nor help students acquire. For more information, and a link to a presentation and video that I did this summer, check out this blog post:

  5. What are your thoughts on keeping up posters of key terms from previous units during a writing assessment?

  6. It depends...I don't remove anything from my walls as a general rule. I see it as giving students supports. The ones who need the words will use them, and the ones who don't, won't. And...I always know who is using them!

  7. You say here you use a dice to determine who gets graded…do you mean which class period or you only grade certain students within a class each week?