The first time my students took a writing assessment in my classroom I cringed. It looked like all of the instruction that had taken place had flown right out the window! Every one of them read the directions and either turned the page and began writing or sat staring into space. UGH! Hadn’t we just spent time discussing how to plan for a piece of writing? Didn’t we go over all of the strategies that a good writer uses?
What I failed to realize at the time was that although we’d spent time discussing the importance of planning and practicing the discrete skills of writing, what we hadn’t done was discuss how to analyze and interpret an assignment or question. What I was witnessing was the inability of my students to fully grasp what the question or prompt was asking them to do – what decisions they had to make as the author in regard to the task.
When that assessment was over I began to approach all assignments in my classroom in a very different manner. Looking closely at a question or assignment was the first step in being able to answer with confidence. Initially, my students needed to identify the genre and purpose that was being called for, and select the appropriate organizational structure. Regardless of whether it was a science, social studies, or language arts writing task, students also needed to determine the audience, and respond in a formal or informal tone depending on whom they were writing to.
We continued by determining the “givens and variables” inherent in the assignment. In other words, was the topic a given, and if so, what were the variables – the decisions the author was free to make in regard to that topic. Some prompts are more open-ended, leaving the author to plan the main ideas. Others are more specific, requiring that the author address a number of given main ideas.
Ex. Think about everything you’ve learned about Westward Expansion in the 19th century. Write an essay explaining at least two reasons why people moved west.
In that assignment the given is that the author must write about the topic: Reasons for Westward Expansion. But, the variables are left up to the individual author. Students must be able to determine this quickly, and begin to come up with an appropriate prewriting plan.
Ex. TOPIC: Reasons for Westward Expansion (the whole class would share this topic as a given)
But, the two main ideas would be the variables, determined by the individual. These might include any of the following:
Main Idea #1: population growth in the east
Main Idea #2: government incentives to buy western land
Main Idea #3: manifest destiny
Main Idea #4: California gold rush
Main Idea #5: transcontinental railroad
In terms of strategy, we’d discuss how to select the two main ideas that would be most effective. This consideration might be based on how much background knowledge the author has, how the selected main ideas might relate to one another, and which would provide the most interest for the reader. This strategic thinking is often what separates a successful response from a weaker one, right out of the starting gate. In order to accomplish this strategic know-how, we often never actually followed through by writing to the assignment – our objective was to simply determine what the written response needed to include. We became strategic planning detectives!
It can be a little more challenging when students are asked to address an expository task with source material to draw from:
Ex. Read the attached articles about hurricanes and complete the following writing task. Hurricanes cause massive destruction in countries all over the world. Using evidence from the texts, write an essay to explain new ways the National Hurricane Center is learning about hurricanes and the information they hope to gather.
So, prior to my instruction on analyzing the assignment, my students, no doubt, would have begun to write a piece about hurricanes. These would have been a general regurgitation of information about the topic. But, what is this question really asking them to do? Good detectives look for the clues!
Here’s the first clue: EXPLAIN – that word signifies an expository structure. My students know to use the expository pillar for this genre.
The second clue: NEW WAYS – this is not a general essay on hurricanes and the kinds of destruction they leave behind, but it should be focused on NEW WAYS that the National Hurricane Center is learning about hurricanes.
Clue #3: USE EVIDENCE – what evidence will make a strong case for the NEW WAYS? Evidence that identifies new tools, websites, tracking systems, etc. will be most important for this essay.
Time to plan! With the expository pillar in mind, my students now know they need to identify the topic and several main ideas from their reading to support the main ideas. A possible plan might look like this:
Topic: New ways of learning about hurricanes.
Main Idea #1: Drones
Main Idea #2: Other High-Tech tools
With this step accomplished they can now go back to the articles and read with an eye for the evidence to support each paragraph. This gives their writing focus and allows them to find the source evidence to match the task, not just general facts. A much more confident approach to writing!
For those tasks that do not require source material or prior content area knowledge, the same approach can be applied. Read this task:
THINK about all the different places you could visit or things you could do in the future. WRITE about something that you look forward to doing. Tell what you want to do and explain why you want to do it.
This task also has some clue words: EXPLAIN – an expository structure comes to mind. WHAT you want to do in the future – this is a given – the variables left up to the writer would be the specific personal choices they want to elaborate on. Another variable would be the WHY you want to do it – the writer will need to explain the reasons why this event will be important.
A plan for this writing assignment might look like this:
TOPIC: Win an Olympic gold medal for swimming
Main Idea #1: Training hard
Main Idea #2: Competition Day
A simple change in philosophy and a whole lot of detective work made the approach to any task, assignment, or assessment second nature in my classroom. Now, I no longer cringe when I gaze at my students during assessment time. They’re busy planning and writing with confidence and very rarely do they stare into space – unless one is a budding astronaut!