How to Show Writing Improvement

Dr. Gerald Tindal, University of Oregon

Anyone who teaches writing, knows that student improvement is not only the goal, but also the most difficult accomplishment to achieve. In part, this difficulty arises because of the many genres and dimensions involved in evaluating writing. Furthermore, improvement is directly reflected in the measures we use (e.g., how we score writing.) In this blog, we propose both indirect measures (evaluations) and direct measures of writing (e.g., production).

Different genres of writing are taught over the grades in most middle and high schools because we want students to write for different purposes and audiences and these genres accomplish that goal.

Primary Writing Genres

The three main writing genres are narrative, informative, and argumentative writing. In narrative writing, the goal is to tell a story that is interesting and compelling to read. The writing is often from the first-person perspective (though other personifications are likely to also appear). With informative writing, the writer’s goal is to summarize information, often from the third person, relating information to the reader (much like a newspaper article.) Finally, with argumentative writing, the goal is to be convincing and ‘win’ an argument using claims, reasoning, and conclusions with the voice varying between the first, second, and third person to relate perspectives and endorse a position. These writing genres are not only different in their purposes and audiences (and therefore, the voice) but they also are typically evaluated (scored) using different dimensions.

For many large-scale assessments (including the National Assessment of Educational Progress), the writing genres have utilized narrative/descriptive, illustrative/explanatory, and/or persuasive/argumentative genres. In reviewing the Common Core State Standards, which were widely adopted a decade ago and now have been adapted by various states, three similar writing genres have been identified, each with their own dimensions for evaluating and scoring performance.

Common Writing Genre Scoring

  • Narrative writing is scored with five dimensions: exposition, narrative techniques and development, organization and cohesion, style and conventions, and conclusion.
  • Informative writing focuses on the following six dimensions: focus, development, audience, cohesion, language, style and conventions.
  • Argumentative writing is scored with five dimensions: claim, development, audience, cohesion, style and conventions.

Each of these dimensions uses a 6-point evaluative (judgmental) score: 1-beginning, 2-emerging, 3-developing, 4-proficient, 5-strong, and 6-exemplary.

The most important issue in considering writing genres is that they directly influence the dimensions for evaluating (scoring) student responses. All of these dimensions are indirect measures, in which the teacher makes a judgment in evaluating (scoring) the response. This type of score is inherently restricted to a few points on a scale (e.g., 3 to 6 values) that is anchored to a description. The most significant problem with these dimensions is their insensitivity: They can reflect improvement or achievement in writing only very slowly. It takes a long time (typically months) for students to show that they are writing better. And for low performing students, this improvement often takes even longer, perhaps the entire year to move from a score of 1 to 2.

Direct Measures to Score Student Writing

Direct measures of student writing can be scored to show improvement in a shorter time span. Many of these dimensions are correlates of better writing, but they are more sensitive in reflecting achievement (short term and incremental, but important nonetheless, as building blocks).

  • Number of Words Written
  • Number of Unique Words written
  • Number of Academic Words Written (e.g., concepts and vocabulary)
  • Number of Sentences written
  • Number of Words Written per Sentence
  • Number of Spelling/Syntax/Grammar Issues

Conclusion: It is difficult to show writing improvement over a short period of time. Yet, we want students to be motivated to write better, which may come about if they write more. This emphasis can then be captured in direct writing measures: how much they write, how many different (unique, as well as academic words they use and reflecting increases in vocabulary), the complexity of the sentence structures in their writing (e.g., more dependent clauses), and of course, their increasing mastery over language itself (spelling, syntax, and grammar.) These direct measures of writing should not replace the indirect measures (evaluative scoring using genre-specific dimensions), but at least they can be present so that students receive positive feedback as they write. Teacher focused software such as WriteRightNow provides many options to support streamlined classroom writing improvement.