Teaching writing skills can sometimes feel more like an art than a science. We know good writing when we read it, but trying to explain why we like it is like trying to explain why we like a particular flavor of ice cream. Good writing engages the reader and makes him or her want to keep reading. It covers the subject well and uses proper mechanics (spelling, grammar, and punctuation). Good writing informs, inspires, and sometimes challenges the reader. Above all, good writing says something of significance.
Because defining good writing is difficult, giving a grade to a writing assignment can be somewhat subjective. What is the difference, for example, between an A paper and a B paper? One student might write the best that he or she can, and it still might not be as good as what another student writes with less effort. What grade should you assign to that first student’s work? In addition, how can the grades you give reflect a student’s improvement over the course of a year? After all, we hope that the student will be writing better at the end of the year than at the beginning.
A grade for a writing assignment usually has two elements: one is mechanics, and the other is coverage of the subject matter. Noting errors in spelling and punctuation is relatively easy. Misused words and awkward sentences might be more difficult to detect. The most difficult part of grading is determining whether or not the paper is organized well and covers the topic adequately.
Beginning with the highest possible grade of 100, you might want to take a point off for every misspelled word, punctuation error, or grammatical error. An awkward sentence might count two or three points off. A paragraph that does not flow well or have a clear purpose might cost five to eight points. You can also consider whether the paper is well-expressed but has mechanical errors as opposed to its being poorly expressed but mechanically good. We suggest not giving a grade on the writing assignment until the student submits the final version of the assignment.
Use the rough draft as a teaching opportunity. It is fair to have higher expectations later in the course. Also, if a student has numerous mechanical or grammatical errors in a paper, covering the paper with red ink might do more harm than good. Instead, focus on what appear to be the three most serious or common mistakes and don’t worry about the rest at that point. When the student has corrected these problems, move on to other problems to correct in later papers.
The website of the College Board, which administers the SAT and CLEP examinations, has an Essay Scoring Guide that its graders use. On their website, you can read this guide and also read sample essays and see why those essays received the scores they did. In addition, the National Assessment of Educational Progress program of the U.S. Department of Education has information available online about its writing assessment.
You will probably find it helpful to have someone outside your family read one or more of your student’s essays and give constructive feedback at some point during the school year.
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