Part 1 of Student Writing Checklists

Looking at, and Learning from, Student Writing

An introduction to the Vermont Writing Collaborative's Writing Checklists

Teachers have known from time immemorial that it makes sense to look at student writing. Basically, the questions we ask ourselves are:

  • What have my kids learned?
  • What have they not yet learned?
  • What do I need to do to help?

It sounds like common sense to do this “teacher work,” and it is – but finding a way to look at student writing, to learn from it, and to take sensible action on that learning is sometimes easier said than done.

Enter the Instructional Analysis Checklists.

Based on the Common Core State Standards, years of practice (and both mistakes and successes), the Vermont Writing Collaborative has created a set of checklists to help teachers look at and analyze student writing. How do they work?

A Teacher Snapshot

Meet Theresa.

Theresa is a middle school humanities teacher who works with 7th and 8th graders in both ELA and social studies. She has just completed a unit of about six weeks with her students centered around World War One. World War One led to the century’s first large-scale effort to build some sort of structure for international cooperation to prevent war like this horrific experience from happening again. That structure, back in 1919, was the League of Nations.

Needless to say, this was a controversial and complicated undertaking – no simple solutions here!

With this “big idea” in mind, Theresa “backward planned” her six weeks of teaching from a piece of argument writing. Students would write that piece (from the perspective of a senator in 1919) to respond to the Focusing Question, “Should the United States join the League of Nations?” This question, she reasoned, would serve the content well: students would need to grapple with the actual issue at the time – how best to prevent another world war – as well as the various perspectives that people brought to that challenge.

Once the students had completed their essays, Theresa was eager to see what her students had done. How well did they understand the complexities of this important historical question? How well had they used the tools of argument writing to make their thinking clear?

In addition to her own deep knowledge of this curricular unit on World War One, Theresa used two key resources in this investigation: a benchmark and an Instructional Analysis checklist.

A benchmark is a piece of writing that clearly demonstrates what “proficient” looks like for this type of writing, at this grade level. It might be an exemplar from In Common; it might be a teacher-written exemplar for this task. In Theresa’s case, the benchmark was one she had identified from the student work as a reasonable example of “proficient” for this particular essay.

So now, here she was – with a cup of coffee, a freshly sharpened pencil, the 32 student essays, a solid benchmark to compare her students’ writing to, and an Instructional Analysis checklist for 8th grade argument writing. Theresa was about to learn from her students.

As she pored over their argument essays, using the checklist and the benchmark, Theresa considered:

  • The content knowledge: what did their writing show about their overall understanding of the pros and cons of the League of Nations, and why those mattered?
  • The validity of the claim: specifically, what did the writing show about the students’ ability to make a reasonable claim about whether or not the country should join the League of Nations, and then back up that claim with accurate, significant, precise reasons and evidence?
  • Thinking and reasoning: what did the students’ reasoning look like as they worked with those reasons and evidence to support and develop their thinking?
  • The Counterclaim: how well did students handle the complexity of this issue, its “non black-and-whiteness,” as they thoughtfully addressed the nuances of a counterclaim?
  • Organization and structure: how well had her students organized their thinking, built their essay, and connected their ideas so that any reader could follow their thinking?
  • Language: what about their use of academic language – what did the range look like in this class of 8th graders?
  • Conventions: what did students’ spelling, use of punctuation, and grammar look like?

In any event, Theresa was ready to learn from her students’ essays. Taking her first sip of coffee, she dug in!

A Closer Look at the Instructional Analysis Checklists

What are they?

The checklists are a set of straightforward tools that allow teachers to look closely at student writing at any grade level and analyze it in terms of strengths and weaknesses. The format for recording observations on the checklists makes it easy to see patterns of needs – in a full class, in a small group, or in an individual. Paired with a solid benchmark, the Instructional Analysis Checklists are tools that help teachers make sense of what they are seeing in their students’ work.

 What might an Instructional Analysis checklist look like?

Below is a sample of the checklist that Theresa was using with her 8th grade argument essays. (Go here for the full collection of grade-level checklists.)

How are the Instructional Analysis Checklists related to the Common Core writing standards?

There is a checklist for each type of writing – opinion/argument, informative, and narrative – at each grade level, K-12. The descriptors on the checklist reflect the descriptors of each standard.

What about the Common Core “Shifts”? How are they reflected on these Instructional Analysis Checklists?

The Common Core “Shifts” emphasize three basic ideas: students need to successfully navigate complex text; they need to prioritize evidence when building and showing understanding, and they need to build important content knowledge as they build literacy skills and habits of mind.

For that reason, these Instructional Analysis checklists name “solid content knowledge and understanding” as the first descriptor on each checklist. All of the other descriptors (right from the writing standards) are in service of that content knowledge and understanding.

Why is there no place for a score on the Instructional Analysis Checklists?

The purpose of the checklists is NOT to score writing. Rather, the purpose of the checklists is to LEARN from the writing – to allow a teacher to analyze what aspects of writing are in place for her students, and which aspects are giving them trouble.

How does a teacher actually use the Instructional Analysis Checklists?

Aha – that’s coming up!

In Part Two, we will return to Theresa and the work she actually does with this Instructional Analysis Checklist in analyzing her students’ League of Nations essays. We’ll watch her using the checklist as she gathers information from her students’ writing. Most importantly, we’ll watch Theresa make sense of what she sees about her students’ strengths and weaknesses as she works with this tool as well as what patterns seem to be emerging–and then how she grapples with the implications for herself as a teacher: What are her next steps to help these kids?

Stay tuned!

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About the Author: A longtime middle school teacher in a Vermont public school, Joey has been deeply involved with content-based writing instruction at both the state and national level. At the Vermont Department of Education, she worked with the development of the Vermont GE’s in writing, grades K-12, and the writing portion of the New England Common Assessment Program. Joey is now working with the Common Core Standards at the state and national level and presents nationally about Common Core writing instruction. She is a co-founder of the Vermont Writing Collaborative and the lead author of Writing for Understanding: Using Backward Design to Help All Students Write Effectively.