Grading Student Writing All Weekend? If so, You are Doing it Wrong!

Using Writing As Formative Assessment


A few days ago, I spoke to a first year teacher who was frustrated with the amount of instructional time that it took her to to assess her students each week.  My response to her was, “If it’s taking too much time, then you’re not doing it right.”  After further conversation, I realized that, while understanding that ongoing formative assessment is important to inform her teaching practices and to give feedback to students, she assumed that all of her assessment had to be given formally as a test.  She didn’t realize that formative assessment could and should be integrated into the lesson as a daily part of instruction.  

In this month’s newsletter, we will explore different ways to use writing informally as formative assessment across grade levels and content areas.  

If you use any of these ideas in your classroom, we’d love to hear back from you and find out how they worked and how you tweaked them to fit with your grade level and students.

Good luck and let’s get those students writing!  

Writing Strategies to Check for Understanding

According to Fisher and Frey in their book

Checking for Understanding (2007), 

writing “offers an excellent pathway for brainstorming, clarifying, and questioning” (p. 58) and is one of the most important skills that young people should acquire during their lifetime.  They offer four ways to use writing as a tool to check for understanding.

Interactive Writing
Interactive writing is a strategy that may be done with individual students, whole group, or small group.  The purpose of interactive writing is to get the entire class involved in the writing process and the procedures are fairly simple.
  1. Teacher and students discuss a topic and then agree on a format for the message such as a letter, an email, or a paragraph.
  2. Students come up and write a section of the message.
  3. As each writer finishes, the whole group reads the message out loud.
  4. While each student is writing, the teacher gives related instruction to the rest of the class.

During the minilesson, the teacher is is able to take note of student errors and misunderstandings, and identify next steps for learning.


In Read-Write-Pair-Share partners are encouraged to discuss content and make meaningful connections. It helps students focus on print-based literacy skills, but also gives them an opportunity to dialogue with others.

  1. Students read (or view) the material.
  2. Each student writes in response to the information.
  3. Students then engage in a partner conversation about what they’ve read and written.
  4. Students share their ideas with the entire class.

Teachers are able to check for understanding by reading written responses or listening in on partner conversations.

Summary Writing

Summary writing is an important tool for teachers in checking for understanding because it allows teachers to see how their students recapitulate and condense information.  Students are encouraged to write a short piece that “contains the major ideas or concepts of a topic” (p. 66) while focusing on brevity and word choice.  


RAFT is a writing-to-learn strategy that gives students an opportunity to clarify their thinking while allowing the teacher to check for understanding. In a RAFT assignment, students respond to writing prompts which have them take on different perspectives.  

Role:  What is the role of the writer.  Who are you?  The President?

Audience:  To whom is the writer writing?  A senator?

Format:  What is the format of the writing?  A diary entry?  A letter?

Topic:  What is the focus of the writing?

RAFT prompts may be based on all types of content, from readings, to lectures, to labs.  A third grade teacher, wanting to know if her students understood the life cycle of an insect might use the following prompt:

R:  Butterfly

A:  Scientist

F:  Journal entry

T:  My experience with complete metamorphosis

More information about these strategies or other ways to use formative assessment can be found in:


Checking for Understanding


  Links to Information on Formative Assessment


Click here to read an excellent article on using formative assessment as a classroom tool.

 Examples of Formative Assessment

                                      So What Do They Really Know?

So What Do They Really Know? explores the complex issue of monitoring, assessing, and grading students’ thinking and performance with fairness and fidelity.

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