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By David Wakelyn
For the first time, many states have adopted standards that place equal emphasis on reading and writing. Most states are now deeply assessing students’ abilities to produce narrative, argumentative, and expository writing, and reading is being tested through writing across each grade.
However, a recent analysis of the strategic plans of the nation’s ten largest districts found only one—Fairfax County, Virginia—explicitly mentioning and setting goals for improving writing. Many school districts aspire to improve student literacy but are focusing too narrowly on reading and neglecting writing.
Good communication skills– speaking, listening, and writing– are vital to college and career success. Teachers who hope to develop their students’ writing to mastery levels have a remarkable asset available to support this need. The PARCC consortium and states such as Massachusetts have released writing prompts along with samples of student responses and commentary that can serve as a powerful teaching tool.
Under the standards, students are taught writing skills that help convey thoughts and opinions, describe ideas and events, and analyze information. The work samples from real students help both teachers and students explicitly see what types of writing performances are required to meet or exceed the standards. Too often, these expectations remain opaque to students. When taught alongside commentaries about why the writing does or does not meet elements of the standards, students can answer the question: “How good is good enough?”.
Let’s explore how to put this into practice. For example, take this fourth-grade informational writing prompt released by PARCC from its 2016 test. Students read several passages about Great White Sharks and then were asked:
“Using details and images in the passages from ‘Great White Shark’ and Face to Face with Sharks, write an essay that
describes the characteristics of great white sharks.
A good diagnostic lesson might involve students reviewing two or more of the released samples: one that meets the standard for informational writing expression and another that falls below it. In reviewing the first example, the teacher may provide the commentary.
Example 1 (Score Point 4 “Met Expectations”)
Source: PARCC ELA/Literacy Released Item 2016: Grade 4 Research Simulation Tasks. Retrieved from: https://parccassessment.org/content/uploads/released_materials/04/G4_ELA_ReleasedItems_ResearchSimulationTask-SampleStudentResponses_Final.pdf
The fourth-grade informative writing standards represent a big jump in what’s demanded of students. They are asked to include concrete details, “use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary” and to provide a concluding statement, elements which are not expected in third-grade writing.
By engaging students to think critically about the content and ideas presented in the writing, the performance standards begin to come alive. As students review the second example below, they can begin to provide their own commentary about what another real student has done well and what’s missing, compared to the first piece of writing. Students can see that part of what separates the two pieces of writing is how they logically order information.
Example 2. (Score Point 2 “Partially Met Expectations”)
In Embedded Formative Assessment, Dylan Wiliam recommends this comparative approach and, over time, introducing more examples of genuine student work to deepen the conversation about what high quality writing looks like. Throughout the year, teachers across a grade can then give formative assessment prompts and carry out several cycles of this type of analysis.
Every state and large school district now has college and career readiness as central to its vision of what it means to be well educated. While it is clear that writing is a key component of English language arts curriculum, good writing skills are also key to success across content areas and grades. In a world of rapidly advancing technology, high school is not the optimal end point for anyone’s learning.
Our students have great aspirations to be surgeons, architects, automotive repair technicians, journalists, and much more. Rather than expecting them to figure out the criteria for success in these fields on their own, we can explicitly create lessons around performance standards that show students “how good is good enough?”
David Wakelyn is a consultant at Union Square Learning and a founding board member of the after-school writing center, 826DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.