Professional learning conversations about students who struggle with writing provide an opportunity to re-frame our assessment and feedback practices. The start point to these conversations may require a total shift in how we view student writing:
Stop looking at the student’s writing and start listening to the student’s message.
Here’s our conversation about listening to a student’s writing before reading a student’s writing:
Looking at a student’s writing spotlights the use and misuse of conventions (spelling, punctuation, tidiness). This spotlight on conventions is so bright that the other elements of writing (genre, content, organization, voice, sentence fluency, word choice, etc.) may be in hidden in shadows of the errors. Listening to student writing reveals those hidden elements.
To shift to the perspective of “listening before reading” student writing, schedule time each day to listen to a few students read their own writing aloud to you. This serves two purposes. First, it provides you with access to the student’s message that is unobstructed by the visual information about spelling, spacing, and punctuation. Second, it provides the student a vehicle for self assessment – students can hear how their sentences flow, make note of powerful and weak word choice, and often note their own spelling errors.
As you listen, use a two column T Chart for Observing Student Learning to make notes about which elements of writing are “coming along well” and which elements are “not yet” in place. Think in terms of ideas, organization, sentence fluency, word choice, and voice.
Once this first set of notes complete, read the student’s writing to gather additional information about the student’s use of conventions (spelling, spacing, tidiness, etc.). Add these notes to your T-chart. Provide the student with feedback that follows this format:
I noticed that (provide information linked to the student writing about genre, topic, and selected traits of writing) is/are coming along well.
The next thing we’re going to work on is . . . (link a specific section of the student’s writing to the next instructional focus )
This feedback format is useful for all writers. The best writers deserve to know exactly what they’re well and how that serves as a foundation to improve. The students who struggle with writing deserve to know exactly what they’ve accomplished and how that serves as the foundation to improve. This feedback format also provides the teachers with a focus for the next steps of instruction.
NOTE: If you’d like to explore this process more fully, please visit Assessing Student Writing Part 2: an in-depth look at the process.
At your next professional conversation with colleagues, ask colleagues to bring samples of a wide range of student writing – drafts often provide the most information. Work in groups to listen and then look at student writing. We’ve provided some samples of student writing (below) to get the conversation started.
Expect the following questions from your colleagues:
Doesn’t this take a lot of time?
Yes – initially it takes more time, but once you’ve assessed a few pieces of student writing by listening before viewing, you’ll have a broader perspective about what it means to assess writing effectively. You’ll soon be viewing student writing through the perspective of the entire message rather spotlighting the conventions. In essence, you’ll be listening as you’re viewing the writing.
Does listening to student writing devalue the importance of spelling, punctuation and tidiness?
No – spelling, punctuation, and tidiness are important; they provide the reader with access to the intended message. But the conventions of writing are just one element. By listening to the writing before looking at the writing, you get a broader sense of how the student develops his thoughts into the words that convey the message.
Isn’t this like using an analytic rubric to assess writing?
Yes – but it ensures that all elements of writing are valued equally and teacher feedback values the message as much as the conventions.
What if the student can’t read their own writing?
This happens quite often, so be prepared. Here are some ideas:
1.Before providing feedback to the student, meet with some other teachers and work together to “decode”the student’s message. (That’s what we did when we prepared the video above.) Primary school teachers are often experts at decoding invented spelling, so search them out. Once you have a full or even partial understanding of the student’s message, meet with the student to share accomplishments and next steps.
2.Change the prompt for all students from “Please read your writing to me” to “What were you writing about today?” This serves two purposes. First, it provides an opportunity for all students to learn how to summarize their writing. The second purpose applies to students who can’t read their own writing – the teacher listens to the summary and searches the writing for approximations of key words that reflect the message of the summary. For example, after realizing that “tackdaon” was “touchdown”, the teacher said, “This section tells me about the touchdown; it must have been an exciting time. Tell me more.” As the student provides more detail, the teacher writes the word touchdown and makes note of a few of the ideas and words the student is using to describe the touchdown. The teacher uses these notes to plan a lesson that teaches the student how to elaborate on the student’s idea of the touchdown AND another lesson about how to develop more accurate spelling – perhaps the student’s correct spelling of “and” can be used to develop awareness of other words with the “and” pattern.
Here are some examples of student writing. We’ve provided transcriptions below each piece. Read the writing to your colleagues and ask them to listen before looking and then to develop a feedback conversation about the message. Then, show the student writing to your colleagues and add information about the student’s use of conventions to the feedback.
Then try listening to your own students’ writing before reading it.
For more professional conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at Beyondtheapplecontact@gmail.com
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