A common concern among parents who home school is whether or not their children are performing at grade level. But what does that mean, especially for writing?
There are tools on a computer which will calculate the grade level readability of a text. But, is this what we want for our aspiring writers? Is it as simple as running the text through a calculator?
Parents can reference the state education grade level expectations, but these are different from state to state. What if as a parent you want to prepare your child to attend an out of state college? Will your child be ready to compete with students from that state?
Luckily, the government is publishing national standards, expectations that all students are held accountable for. The challenge with these are that they are descriptive and can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
The other challenge is to keep our perspective when evaluating writing.
A common practice for public school teachers is to grade each other’s student papers as a way of staying objective. I am guilty of seeing Vanessa’s name on the top of a paper, thinking about how hard she is working and how much her writing has improved, then grading the paper with those biases in mind. Now, think of the bias we might carry for our child’s writing.
Add to these challenges the complexity of different writing assignments, the nuances each requires to be effective. Language must be used much differently when a child is writing a narrative or story compared to writing a persuasive essay or a research paper. The specific needs for each type of writing must also be accounted for when deciding if a child is writing at grade level.
With all these considerations, there are three steps to making sure your child is meeting grade level expectations for writing assignments.
1. Look at sample writing for grade level expectations. The Reading and Writing Project has sample student writing for all grade levels. The California High School Exit Exam provides student samples and scoring with a clear explanation of why each paper received the score. Reviewing other student writing and how these samples were scored can help a parent to provide valuable feedback on his or her child’s writing.
2. Begin the writing assignment with clear expectations. Reviewing samples of writing can be helpful for writers as it gives them a target to aim for. Be warned though, it can also act as hurdle for some writers who will feel overwhelmed with trying to compete with the example. To solve this, I use professional writers as samples, not other students. If we are working on writing personal essays, I might review Joan Didion essays. By looking at these essays, there is not the pressure to write like Ms. Didion because she is a professional, but we can still use the essay to review for structure, use of language, and conventions.
3. Finally, allow for time between revisions so the writer has time to contemplate changes and improvements. Many of us believed that writing happened in one session. We showed up to class with paper and pencil, were given an essay question and turned in a completed essay an hour later. What a shock when we found out that writers spend days, weeks, months, sometimes years to write an essay. Some of the best writing advice is to put your writing in a drawer for at least two days, a week, or even more before trying to revise. This might be difficult with a school schedule, but writers can write on Monday, then work on reading other writing samples and practice with writing conventions then return to the writing piece on Thursday and Friday for revisions.
Helping writers perform at grade level is important for many reasons: to ensure they are prepared for university, to help them keep pace with their peers, and to provide them with appropriate instruction. By teaching them how to write by using examples, clear expectations, and models, all writers will be able to successful complete writing assignments.
I vividly remember looking at the B+ on the top of my essay and seeing the A on the top of my friend Kristen’s. I flipped through the five pages of the essay, searching for teacher comments.There were none, no explanation for why I had received a B+.
I promptly made an appointment with the teacher. At our meeting, he flipped through the paper and pointed out one sentence.
“I don’t like this sentence,” he said as he handed the paper back to me.
“I got a B+ because of one sentence?” I asked incredulously, expecting him to either further explain or raise my grade.
Instead, he shrugged his shoulders.
I left the meeting unsure why Kristen had earned a higher grade than I and unsure about how to improve my writing for a better grade.
As a teacher and tutor, that experience has guided my own feedback on student papers.
The best method I have found for giving clear, fair feedback is to use rubrics. Rubrics make clear which writing strategies a writer has mastered and those that need improvement.
Here is an example:
Family Legend Rubric
|Organization||Strong lead that develops readers’ interest, a developed middle that builds tension; and a satisfying ending that provides closure.||Either a strong lead, a developed middle or a satisfying ending but not all three. Maybe the middle drags on too long or the ending is a bit abrupt.||Organization is rough but workable. Story may get off topic once or twice.||Story is aimless or disorganized. It lacks direction.||
|Paragraphs||Beginnings of all paragraphs indented and capture the reader’s interest.||Beginnings of all paragraphs indented, have one topic/paragraph.||Several problems with paragraphs.||Use of incorrect paragraph format.|
|The Legend||Story gives details about one exciting, funny, sad or unusual historical event and uses hyperbole to create the legend quality.||Tell about one specific historical event in detail but not much exaggeration for legend quality.||Focus on more than one historical event, none of which have enough detail to give the story a clear focus.||Story has no focus and is probably confusing to a reader.|
|The narrative arc||Narrative includes a hook, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.||Narrative includes at least hook, rising action, climax, and resolution.||Narrative includes some elements of the narrative arc.||Narrative is missing the elements of a narrative arc.|
|Conventions||Use of first person form, and correct sentence structure, grammar, punctuation and spelling.||Mechanics are good. Errors may be from taking risks, trying to say things in new or unusual ways.||Frequent errors which are distracting but do not interfere with meaning are made.||Numerous problems with grammar, spelling, etc. make the story hard to read.|
The above rubric gives descriptions for a writing project that has exemplified the expectations of the assignment, and descriptions for assignments that have missed some expectations. What makes this rubric effective is that it ties directly to the lessons that are part of the instruction for writing a family legend: lessons about a hook, the narrative arc, and essential elements of a legend as well as general expectations for mastery of written English conventions.
To create a grading rubric, follow these steps:
1. Decide on four or five specific writing strategies the writer should have mastered.
2. Write descriptions of the “perfect” assignment for each writing strategy.
3. Write descriptions for assignments which meet some expectations but not all.
4. Share with writer so he/she is aware of the expectations.
It is easy to find grading rubrics on-line, but it is best to create one which ties directly to the assignment and the focus of the instructional content leading up to the final draft of the writing project.
In a perfect world, a student or learner will be able to continue to work on a project until it is perfect. I am currently revising, again, an essay I have been working on for 18 months. It’s still not good enough so I keep improving the piece. But, sometimes a writing project needs a grade and serves as a lesson for future writing assignments.
Using grading rubrics to provide clear, specific feedback allows a learner to recognize those parts of the assignment she was successful on, and those areas needing improvement.
When teaching students how to write, clear feedback will motivate students, not leave them wondering why they received an arbitrary grade.
I can remember when my son took swimming lessons so many summers ago. It was great fun to watch him go from a floundering water baby to a proficient swimmer. Then several years later, he decided to join the swim team. Suddenly his proficient swimming skills were exposed to be basic, beginner techniques. Sure they were good enough to keep him from sinking, even to get him to win the pool game of Marco Polo, but to be a member of the swim team required that he perfect his swimming techniques, from kicking with straight legs to cupping his hands correctly.
Then this summer, watching the Olympics swimming contests, the beauty of the sport lay in the perfection of the techniques, so much so that the techniques weren’t even apparent.
If we think about the progression of learning to swim, it is very similar to the progression of learning to write, specifically how grammar, or the cupping of the hands, fits.
To learn how to swim, children must be in the water. Likewise, to learn how to write, learners must be in a text-rich environment. Surrounding learners with text they are interested in and honoring their writing is the first step in teaching children to write. Practice worksheets with corrections to make is like having children sit by the pool and practice the dog paddle, explaining they will get to swim once they can show on the dry land that they know how to do the proper strokes.
Once children begin to write on their own, focusing on grammar lessons which are relevant to their writing will make the lessons meaningful and memorable. The basics, capital letters to begin sentences and end punctuation, is the beginning of managing grammar in writing. From there the rules and techniques grow more and more complex in direct correlation to the complexity of the writing.
The level of instruction needed to teach grammar within a writing curriculum will be based on the level of complexity of a child’s writing. It may be enough to rely on peer editing, parental feedback and tools found within word processing programs.
Ultimately, though, just like my son had a swimming instructor when he was on the swim team, learners will need an expert in writing to be able to explain the nuances and requirements of grammar.
And yes, there is a place for worksheets to practice grammar. When a student is struggling in his writing with correctly punctuating dialog, I provide a worksheet for him to practice these skills. Once he has practiced enough, the rules and techniques will become automatic. Remember, the worksheet is practice that is relevant to the student writing.
Grammar is important. Can you imagine driving without following driving laws with other drivers who are making up their own rules? Now, can you imagine reading this post without relying on grammar and punctuation to guide your reading?
Proficient writers will want to have a mastery of grammar and punctuation rules. Mastery begins with beginning, then slowly adding techniques toward mastery.
Points to remember:
1. Effective grammar lessons are relevant to a learner’s writing.
2. Effective grammar lessons become more complex as a learner’s writing becomes more complex.
3. Effective grammar lessons are best taught by an expert in the field.
4. Practice is an important part of effective grammar lessons when the practice is relevant to authentic writing.
For some great grammar products, go to the “Help for Parents” page.
Most parents choose to home school to avoid the measuring stick used to prod children along in the public schools. To be fair, with 35 students in a class, it is imperative to have a system of measuring progress and ensuring preparation for the next grade level, to keep the conveyor belt of grade level accomplishment moving. But, home schooling is a jumping off of the conveyor belt of preparing 35 children for the next teacher and is an embrace of a unique’s child’s unique gifts and development.
So, can common core standards help home school parents?
As a tutor, I know that looking at grade level expectations, currently in the form of state standards, helps my students and I keep on track with what we aim to accomplish.
For instance, the expectations for writing builds from one grade level to the next. Once students are proficient at writing narratives and summaries, they are then asked to write biographical narratives and literary analysis. Students must be able to write less complex compositions before they are asked to write more difficult ones.
The other useful component of the writing standards is the grade level “writing conventions” included (grammar, spelling and punctuation). Of course, these also grow more and more complex as students move through the grade levels, but there was also an attempt to match conventions with age appropriate intellectual development. As all parents know, rarely do our children match the development charts and maps. Many children seem to absorb proper writing conventions through osmosis, or from extensive reading, and other children must be taught these conventions explicitly with lots of detached practice until they have internalized the rules for writing conventions. Still, a guide for which conventions to tackle when is helpful. It may be best to ignore mistakes in dangling modifiers before learners understand parts of speech.
In both cases, the common core standards can be a useful guide for parents, though should not be taken as a dictum for a synchronized march toward graduation. Even classroom teachers, myself included, understand that standards for learning are signposts and points on a map. The joy is always in the journey, and no journey is completed in lockstep march steps.
To be against the common core standards as a defense to being forced to join the conveyor belt of education makes sense. To embrace they as a map for possible destinations also makes sense.