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Writing Skills

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

A couple of times during the course of the year, I ask my students to do a review of their writing. Sometimes it's an informal activity using a checklist; at key points in the year it's more thorough, involving a written response of some kind in which they lay a framework for their own self-improvement.

The end of the year is a natural place to perform this kind of self-reflective activity. Even if they don't have any more time this year to apply their observations to upcoming work, they can keep their reflections for the following year, using them as a starting point (and a point of reference for next year's teacher).

If, like me, you have students keep an ongoing folder or portfolio of all their writing—both practice and evaluated work—you can dedicate some time to have them sift through it chronologically or by type and review the feedback you've provided and the progress they've made.

When I have students do a full written self-assessment, I ask them to use questions like the ones below as guidance for what to focus on. They do not have to address each question, just those that most apply to their own observations about their work and their goals for the future. Here is a sample set of instructions that I've used successfully with Grade 12 students mid-year:

You will write a 1–1.5 page (typed, 1.5-spaced), carefully composed self-analysis examining in specific detail at least three of the most relevant of the following:

  • specific strengths and weaknesses you knew you had based on feedback offered in Grade 11, with reference to tasks or assignments that impacted you
  • specific strengths and weaknesses you got feedback on earlier in this year, with reference to comments on tasks or assignments you have reviewed since getting them back
  • steps you have taken and resources you have used to improve weaknesses: how effective those steps and resources have been and why
  • specific weaknesses that persist, possible reasons why you have difficulty overcoming them and steps you are considering to address that difficulty
  • specific improvements you have made to your writing and strategies that were effective in bringing about that improvement
  • insights about what you have come to realize about yourself as a writer: under what conditions you work best, what type of writing you enjoy most, ways in which you have surprised yourself with newly discovered abilities or techniques
  • specific passages from your writing that you are most proud of and explanations as to why they were enjoyable to read or write
  • skills you have developed in other classes that have helped you become a better writer overall or ways in which you have reinforced skills learned in English by using them elsewhere

Select points that reflect a range of considerations (e.g. past/present/future; strengths/weaknesses). Discuss significant traits of writing such as idea development and support, organization, fluency, clarity, voice, and mechanics/conventions and/or stages of the writing process such as planning, composing and revising.

You must make specific reference to at least two major pieces of writing undertaken this year (recommended: include one earlier piece and one later piece)

One very concrete thing that many students like to focus on is the feedback I provide on their language correctness. We use Diana Hacker's Pocket Style Manual as our style guide across all grades 9-12, which allows for a common language when referring to stylistic errors and language mechanics. In particular, I photocopy the editing notations from the back of the manual onto the back of my rubrics. As I mark a paper, I can tick off which errors are the most common, and the index refers the student to the appropriate section in the manual for review. The explanations in the guide are excellent and the online exercises that accompany them help put the concepts into practice and reinforce them. If the student still does not understand the concept, she has something specific to come work on with me. Many students cite the focused nature of this feedback and the specific actions they can take to improve their skills in language correctness in their self-assessments.

I won't pretend that every student is incredibly insightful in her self-analysis (though the style guide-specific comments above are usually the most precise) or that each student diligently follows through on the goals she sets (though they now know that I know that they know what they have to do!). Still, taking the time to browse through their work and actively reflect on it sometimes shows them how far they have actually come since the start of the year -- often further than they realized -- and also allows them to take a bit more ownership of the process of improving all the more.