Teaching and Grading Writing: Parts I and II

Below are two posts prompted by separate questions on the NCTE Connected Community. Since they both are grounded in teaching writing, I think they can be read in tandem.

Part I: Writing as a Discipline and in the Disciplines

On the NCTE Connected Community a student teacher asked about teaching students to integrate quotes and evidence into their writing.

Although a direct and specific question, there is a great deal to unpack here.

First, my 18-year career as a high school English teacher as well as my current 15 years as an English educator and first-year writing professor has revealed to me that most teachers of high school ELA have much better preparation for teaching literature than for teaching writing.

Next, my first-year writing students show me the consequences of how writing is taught at the high school level, primarily as the responsibility of ELA teachers.

In order, then, to answer this question from a student teacher, we need to explore writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines.

Problem 1 embedded in this question is that direct instruction of writing remains primarily the responsibility of English/ELA teachers, who also have disciplinary responsibilities as teachers. This means ELA teachers must address literacy skills (reading and writing as well as speaking and listening) while also covering literature content.

And thus, problem 2 with the question is that it reveals how problem 1 creates muddled teaching and learning for students in high school ELA classes, a failure to distinguish between writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines.

As a first-year writing professor, I have to unteach the muddled learning that my students bring to college from high school — misconceptions student have about citation (from learning MLA instead of broad and discipline-based concepts about finding and using sources) as well as about writing essays (grounded in disproportionately having written literary analysis and being bound to templates such as the five-paragraph essay).

What, then, should high school ELA teachers do in the context of the student teacher’s question?

Start by being more explicit with students about both the broad qualities of effective writing paired with the narrow conventions of effective writing bound by form and disciplinary expectations.

At the high school and college levels, most writing instruction and assignments are grounded in non-fiction essays, and disciplinary essay writing involves making claims along with providing evidence to support those claims.

Writing assignments, then, at the high school level are far more effective for fostering students as writers and preparing them for college when those assignments are discipline-based, and not merely prompts fitted into templates.

Teaching writing in high school must include a wide range of writing opportunities (not just literary analysis) that help students learn broad concepts of effective writing (such as those in Style). But high school ELA teachers also must continue to teach their discipline — how scholars both read and write about literature.

This means that before we can teach students how to integrate quotes into their writing, we must address in what contexts quotes are appropriate types of evidence.

A writing lesson and assignment addressing disciplinary writing begins by examining the conventions of the disciplines.

When do writers use direct quotes? For students, essays that require quotes to support claims may be common in English and history, for example, when the topic of the essay includes textual analysis of both what the text expresses and how the ideas are constructed in the primary text.

A literary analysis of color imagery in a poem requires a writer to quote from the poem to show both the use of color imagery and how that technique creates some meaning for the reader.

However, in the social sciences, essays often are not about primary texts but about ideas, research findings, and students, like scholars, are tasked with showing that the claims of the essay are supported by a substantial number of sources. Quoting from a single source is not a powerful approach, but synthesizing ideas from several credible sources is.

In both situations, claims are supported by evidence, but the type of essay and the discipline within which the essay is constructed both drive how students would choose evidence and then incorporate that evidence into their original essay.

This sort of discipline-based approach to how we assign and teach writing should inform lessons on citation also; MLA or APA use is a question of discipline, not something assigned (arbitrarily) by a teacher.

Once students are aware of the conventions of essays forms and disciplines, we can then address the narrow concerns of the student teacher — the grammatical and stylistic concerns associated with integrating quotes and other forms of evidence into essays.

In the writing text I wrote and used with my high school students, I highlighted some key concerns about integrating quotes [1]:

  • When quoting or paraphrasing/synthesizing from sources, writers have an ethical obligation to represent accurately and fairly the original texts; avoid cherry picking and manipulating quotes/ideas to fit an agenda or claim.

And with this last point, we come back to how we can better address writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines.

My college students typically have a one-size-fits-all approach to writing (thinking as students but not as writers or scholars) grounded in MLA and literary analysis; therefore, when they write, for example, in an education course using APA, they struggle with announcing every source in the flow of the essay (not typical in the social sciences) and tend to plod through each source one at a time without a sense of synthesizing the key findings in a body of research.

These symptoms reflect a lack of understanding about writing in the disciplines.

Finally, let me end here with a few additional thoughts.

Preservice and inservice teachers of ELA/English deserve much better preparation and support as teachers of writing, and laying all or most of the responsibility for teaching writing at the feet of ELA/English teachers is a tremendous disservice to them and students.

We all must work to address those problems, but in the mean time, teaching writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines can be handled with much more care and nuance so that students are served well as developing writers and thinkers while also being better prepared for the expectations of college.

Part II: Rethinking Grading as Instruction: Rejecting the Error Hunt and Deficit Practices

As a first-year English teacher, I joined the department of the high school where I had graduated only five years earlier, becoming a colleague with teachers who had taught me. That introduction to the field allowed me behind the curtain, and one of those secrets was being handed a sheet that detailed every grammar and mechanics error students were likely to make in their writing and the amount of points to be deducted from their grade (writing was assigned the traditional content/grammar grade then).

One fragment, by the way, was an immediate deduction that resulted in an F in grammar.

This was department policy, and my efforts to navigate that system were akin to Sisyphus, his rock, and that damned mountain.

Since then, well over thirty years ago, I have become a non-grader, but I also have investigated and adopted concepts about grading (since we all at some point must grade) that I believe are incredibly important in the context of seeing grading (and feedback) as a part of instruction — and not something we do to students and their work after we teach.

A teacher recently asked on NCTE’s Connected Community about subtracting points for grammar in student writing, and this is an ideal entry point to rethink how grading (especially of writing) sends instructional messages to our students.

My first caution is about a serious flaw with traditional grading that is grounded in viewing assessment situations in a deficit model whereby we have students start with an unearned 100 points from which we subtract credit by identifying errors. This fosters an atmosphere of risk aversion — which is not a healthy environment for developing literacy.

Specifically when teaching writing, we must abandon the “error hunt” (see Weaver, et al., and Lois Matz Rosen).

Therefore, we can send a much healthier message about student performances of learning if we acknowledge that students begin all assessment situations with zero and then give them credit for what they accomplish, what the artifact of learning demonstrates — and not where they fail.

I learned this concept of grading through my Advanced Placement training that encourages viewing writing holistically and then reading for what students do, not conducting the “error hunt.”

Conceptually, then, we must change our language and then couch our grading in a drafting process that gives students the space to take risks while receiving ample feedback as they revise and edit their writing.

Our language about writing must stop referring to “mistakes” and “errors,” while also not asking students to “correct” their work.

Instead, we should delay addressing if our students are being conventional (grammar, mechanics, and usage) until late in the drafting process when we can agree a piece of writing is worth editing (see LaBrant). The question is not if and how much to deduct for surface features not being conventional, but when to consider those issues relevant to the drafting of the piece of writing.

Our feedback during the drafting process is our instruction, and then, most of us at some point must abandon each assignment, requiring that we assign a grade, an act that also is teaching students lessons — ones that should match our philosophy of teaching/learning as well as what we want them to embrace about writing and literacy.

Here, I recommend that we take a holistic approach (I love the upper-half, lower-half concepts of the AP 9-point scale rubric[2]), but I also believe we should help students learn that all aspects of writing contribute to that holistic response.

The two categories we should be using to grade writing, I think, are revision (if and how students demonstrate content, organization, diction, style) and editing (grammar, mechanics, and usage). When I have graded, I weighted those categories to reflect my main lessons about what makes writing effective by using a 20-point scale articulated as 10 points for content and organization, 5 points for diction and style, and 5 points for grammar, mechanics, and usage.

In all assessment, we should be seeking ways in which grading is both philosophically matched with our instruction and a seamless aspect of our instruction.

If you are teaching students writing quality is holistic and that surface features are less significant to meaning than content, organization, and diction/style, then calculating a grade based on deducting points for errors contradicts (and probably supersedes) your lessons.

Therefore, reducing the grading of writing by students to a set of points to be deducted fails as assessment and instruction.

While most teachers have no real option to de-grade the classroom, we can step back from deficit views of student work and grading in order to embrace grading and instructional practices that create positive learning environments (where risk is encouraged) and celebrate what our students accomplish in their journey as readers, writers, and thinkers.

[1] See also Using Source Material Effectively (Temple University)

[2] The process for scoring a written response to an AP Literature prompt includes thinking in terms of a range of scores 9–8, 7–6, 5, 4–3, 2–1. Above 5 is upper half, and below, lower half. As you read, you are constantly monitoring holistically if you believe the essay is upper or lower by focusing on in what ways the student is fulfilling the expectations of the prompt and remaining accurate in the analysis of the literature being discussed. Typically, that process allows the reader to return to the rubric to refine the grade after completing the essay. If you know the response is upper half but only marginally so, then returning to the 7 and 6 rubric descriptors help refine the final score.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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