Formative Assessment in the Writing Process

by Kim Chism Jasper

Feb. 23, 2014

As a writing teacher for the past 27 years, I have always used formative assessment to inform my lessons and to focus on what my students need.

Writing can be a messy business as students learn to think and share those thoughts on paper. Writers need a place to think, a place to experiment with language, a place where they can make mistakes and not have to worry about failure or being graded. I found a long time ago that some of my good writers were afraid to become great writers. They didn’t push themselves to be better because they were afraid of failing and adversely affecting their grades. And as a high school English teacher, I understood their fears; their grade point averages affected their class rank, which in turn could affect scholarships and other awards. So how could I push those students to explore beyond their comfort zone? How could I get them to think and write deeply yet have little at stake in their grades?

The writing process gave me the answer: writer’s notebooks would provide a place for students to explore invention techniques, write numerous leads, reflect on readings and life, and collect information. Some might call these journals, but I prefer Ralph Fletcher’s idea of a writer’s notebook, a place to collect and to generate ideas for later polished writing (A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You by Ralph Fletcher, HarperTrophy, ©1996).


And what a great formative assessment tool those writer’s notebooks turned out to be. I could identify common errors (in spelling, in grammar/conventions, and in organization). I could give a completion grade for the work and not penalize for errors. I would create lessons based on what my students needed. I also would get to know my students and could offer them encouragement about what writer’s notebook entries and ideas might become good stories to tell.

In fact, the writing process itself provides formative assessment.

Let’s begin with invention techniques, which also might include journaling, freewriting, brainstorming, listing, drawing, or even discussion. Students are required to get ideas onto paper in a low-stakes way that will give the students and teacher something to discuss.  In a recent assignment, my students chose articles from the news and wrote reflective pieces in their journals in anticipation of an assignment requiring them to argue a position.

As students and I talk about a writing assignment, which ideally should have a variety of choices, even if focusing on the particular genre of argumentation, I become aware of their understanding of the assignment and what I’m asking. I can use those conversations to revise lessons.

As students begin thinking about a working thesis or what I generally call the point of the paper, I ask students to work through a testing of their position. Again, I am provided access to their thoughts through their writing, and I can see how well students understand the assignment, how they plan to write their papers, and I can clarify or reteach as needed.

The drafting process also allows me to provide individualized instruction as I respond to students’ papers, their strengths and weaknesses. Again, the stakes are low, with students getting credit for their attempts, for having items down on paper, for thinking through the process. Since most teachers, myself included, have to provide grades in grade books, these points along the writing process provide places of low-stakes grading. Students make a good faith effort to get ideas down on paper and keep up with the process. I tell students I’m a good editor who can help them polish a paper, but first they have to have something we can work with. 

Since students submit drafts digitally, I can provide individual feedback for students. Students can keep individual checklists of trouble spots, and I also can note consistent problems (in organization or conventions) and plan whole-class interventions.

Other messy parts of the writing process are when students write and share leads/introductions with the class. Or when they put together a scratch outline that provides a rough blueprint for their papers. The writer’s notebook is a perfect place to practice, and such practice helps me check student understanding.

I’ve also included roundtable discussions in the writing process, as students circle up and share their ideas and what they hope to accomplish. Other students offer input and encouragement. At the roundtable, writers can bring their concerns and ask for suggestions, and again, I can note where a whole-class lesson might help.

At the completion of writing assignments, I seek student reflections about the process. I usually ask how they would have changed the assignment(s) or what I could have done to help them more. Their answers always are helpful and enlightening as I plan the next assignment. I also have them access their own strengths and weaknesses.

I likely haven’t offered much new information for the writing teachers among you. But, I’ve found that many teachers in others disciplines and administrators sometimes don’t understand the writing process or how prewriting, drafting, revision, and reflection can provide formative assessment.

2012-2013 Year:
Welcome to Ms. J's web page and to the 2012-2013 school year. I am excited about the journey we will take together this year. I will work hard, and I expect the same from you. We will read, write, think, learn and have some fun along the way.

English Open Mic Night & Art Show
6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 1. Celebrate May Day with the Arts
Students will share their award-winning artwork and writing. Light refreshments.
High School Commons ... Come and Go

Congratulations to Courtnee' Cargill,
the winner of the statewide Robert J. Stuckey Essay Contest
sponsored by the Friends of the University of Missouri Libraries ($1,500)

Congratulations to the many LAD winners from this year's writing contest. A complete list of winners is on display in the English hallway.

The following students are LAD Scholarship winners:
Grayson Jamroch, Gleason Scholarship for prose anthology ($500).
Grayson Jamroch, McQueen Scholarhship for poetry and prose anthology ($500.)
Izaak Mohling, Collins Scholarship for poetry anthology ($500).

Congratulations to the Writers Hall of Fame Scholarship winners:
Bree Burns ($500) and Grayson Jamroch ($1,500)

Congratulations to the Writers Hall of Fame writing winners, grades 11 and 12:
Miranda Applegate
Grayson Jamroch (2 awards)
Erica Martin
Amanda Lee Zitting

Congratulations to LAD Dance-A-Poem Winners:
Lillian Huebner
Izaak Mohling
Sheri Tucker

Want to test/improve your vocabulary? Check out the Word Games/Vocabulary tab on the left. Enjoy!

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