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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

A Common Language and Criteria to Boost Students' Writing

An analytic writing rubric helps teachers and students see what's present and possible in a piece of student writing.

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Instructional Strategies
Asked to conjure up an image of writing assessment, many of us picture a teacher sitting alone at her desk with a pile of papers, systematically judging content and mechanics and assigning grades. While this image represents a conventional vision of assessment, we've experienced the development of a scoring system that approaches evaluation of writing as a conversation with the text—one that starts with looking at the writing's strengths—followed by a literal conversation among teachers or between a teacher and student that illuminates student writing. The National Writing Project's Analytic Writing Continuum (AWC) is a valuable catalyst to this kind of collaborative assessment.
The Analytic Writing Continuum is a scoring system envisioned and developed by a team of writing assessment experts and National Writing Project-affiliated teachers who were familiar with writing assessments in multiple states. Because U.S. teachers were somewhat familiar with the 6+1 Traits system developed by Ruth Culham, the National Writing Project received permission to adapt that system in creating the AWC.
Since 2005, teachers associated with the National Writing Project have used the AWC to guide their scoring of papers from students who have had programs to improve writing implemented within their schools. These teachers bring familiarity with other writing assessment systems—such as their state or district assessments, the 6+1 Traits system, the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments, and the Advanced Placement writing test. As teachers converse together and compare various assessments, they usually focus on how the specific characteristics of the AWC system may complement other assessments. Besides being developed by writing assessment experts, the AWC is built on carefully considered beliefs and practices that permeate the written materials and teacher preparation practices. The system describes the attributes of writing and the degrees of quality among score points in such a way as to mark progress and point the way toward improvement. It also focuses on the writing itself, not on the writer (who, in an assessment situation, is unknown) or the reader. The rubric describes the characteristics of the writing, rather than some degree of task fulfillment, such as providing specific content in response to a prompt.
The AWC can also serve as a powerful resource for teacher learning:
[It] provides a common language and metric around which professional development can be structured, encouraging the growth of professional communities, supporting teachers' growth as writers and as teachers of writing, and improved student learning outcomes.
As educators deeply involved with the National Writing Project's professional development programs, we've found it exciting to watch groups of teachers draw on that common language to explore students' texts and composing skills, both with formal guidance from consultants and working with the tool on their own. For instance, Sherry recently collaborated with 15 high school English teachers in Arkansas, spending three two-day sessions investigating and planning classroom use of the tool. This included developing a local set of anchor papers to illustrate the attributes at various score points.

Tool with a Track Record

As a scoring system, the AWC focuses on the writing itself, aiming to describe what is present in a piece of writing rather than what is lacking. Though this scoring system includes a holistic measure, it's the continuum itself that teachers find most valuable for classroom use. The continuum defines and scales six attributes of writing quality: Content, Structure, Stance, Sentence Fluency, Diction, and Conventions (See ""). The language for each attribute can be applied across genres, disciplines, and grade levels to support teachers and students in improving writing. Figure 1 shows one segment of the continuum, with the score points 3 and 4 for the attribute of Content given.

Figure 1. Qualities of Content at Two Score Points on Analytic Writing Continuum

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The AWC was originally developed as part of an evaluation of the National Writing Project's programs in schools. Led by Paul LeMahieu, former director of research and evaluation for the National Writing Project, much of this evaluation involved comparative research to determine whether students' writing improved after a project site had implemented a particular writing improvement program in a school, in comparison with a similar school that hadn't yet implemented the program. Since 2005, National Writing Project teachers have been using the AWC to score student writing in numerous scoring conferences. Teacher scorers work for four days to learn the nuances of the AWC and independently score student writing from classrooms that aren't their own, but are part of a program evaluation. These teacher scorers evaluate pre and post papers from students in both program and comparison schools across the country. They learn to apply AWC standards by carefully studying the continuum and analyzing anchor papers selected to illuminate each score point on the continuum. Next, they calibrate to pre-scored papers before independently scoring papers from the "live" set.

Helping Teachers and Students Get Better

Early on, experienced writing teachers scoring writing in the National Writing Project's scoring conferences recognized the continuum's value, noting how the rubric's carefully crafted language could help them work with their own students' writing. At every conference, teachers huddle during breaks, sharing ideas about how the continuum might help their fledgling writers.
The AWC lends itself to closely examining written work and improving how we teach elements of writing, without dictating how an educator should use the system in any particular situation. It provides a good starting place for any teacher interested in linking assessment and learning. And when teachers help students use this scoring tool, it motivates young writers to write more and revise. Teachers have found that students can learn to identify where their writing falls on the continuum—and look toward the next score point for steps toward improvement.
Simply using the six scoring attributes as a framework to see more clearly what's going on in a piece of student writing is a start. Essentially, we suggest working with one attribute at a time, reading the descriptors across the score points and comparing several samples of student writing to the descriptors. Sherry's 2017 book Assessing Writing, Teaching Writers contains many analyses of student writing at various grade levels that can serve as initial guides.
Teachers we've worked with through the National Writing Project—and, just as important, students themselves—have found ways to use the AWC to strengthen writing. Debbie Dehoney, who teaches at a rural Idaho school, rewrote the AWC in "kidlish" (kid-friendly language) and taught her 2nd graders not only to evaluate their own work, but also to revise their writing using it. Debbie was concerned with her students' lack of development in writing, as judged by the first two bullets in AWC's Content attribute (at score point 6): The writing (1) is clear and consistently focused; exceptionally well-shaped and connected, and (2) reflects outstanding control of ideas and content. She rewrote these bullets in "kidlish" to read: "The author did the very best job of making the story funny, sad, or real" and "The author did the very best job at telling you everything you needed to know … so that you could see in your mind what the author was trying to say."
Debbie traced the progression of her student Andrew's first draft (a bare facts account of a skin cut) through his and Debbie's personal evaluations of the draft and to Andrew's revised piece. Seeing a need for more focus and details in writing, Debbie constructed "focus glasses" from cardboard tubes that students looked through to focus on one object and add to their descriptions. After she had Andrew imagine wearing such glasses to focus on a scene, his story became more detailed and included an exciting account of riding his bike between parked cars, falling off, and ending up with a cut that "took 10 BAND-AIDs to patch up."
Denise Mumm, an Idaho middle school teacher, decided, after participating in an AWC teacher inquiry group, to focus on sentence fluency, an area of need for her students. Denise described her teaching strategy:
One activity had students writing a quick, bland paragraph, and then exchanging papers with a partner across the room. Next, they added participle phrases to improve the sentence fluency (improving flow, using effective phrasing, varying sentences in length, showing a relationship between sentences). The kids were totally engaged, having fun adding the phrases … they were getting help from peers or their hands would fly in the air to get my assistance. They eagerly shared their writing.
The students in Texas teacher Kay Faile's alternative program, she says, "Put up their hands and say … I don't write." But Kay was determined. She realized she'd been correcting them too much: Her students had been told in so many ways that they couldn't write that they just didn't want to do it anymore. So Kay had students examine anonymous papers gleaned from the internet before assessing their own writing. She used AWC criteria to discuss what was working and not working in each piece and had students use the AWC to determine how to improve it. Kay then challenged her students to be the experts and—using the AWC—to tell her what was working in their writing, marking high-quality elements with a highlighter. Kay's gentle insistence helped her students become eager writers.
Science educator Jolene Hetherington also incorporated the AWC into her teacher-research group to help students reflect on "good writing." Jolene asked her 4th graders five times during the year, "What does good writing look like?" It was no surprise that early in the year, the kids' responses focused on the quality of penmanship. Gradually, however, as her students worked with the continuum, these young writers learned to look more deeply into their writing. At the end of the year, they named "makes sense, good solid details, good word choice, and longer stories" as desirable qualities of writing.
The common thread tying these examples together is that the students developed ownership over their writing. Through careful study of their own texts, they learned to develop writing that's richer in content and detail, as well as more technically correct.

Using the AWC for Professional Learning

Teachers can learn a lot to feed their instructional practice by spending time with this tool. In a typical AWC professional learning group, each teacher receives a large copy of the AWC, with score points from 6 to 1 defined for each attribute. Figure 1 shows how a typical group leader might label the bullets and lead teachers to underline qualifiers to illustrate differences from one score point to another on part of the Content section. Although the bullets usually remain constant, the qualifying words change from one score point to another.
Learning group leaders invite a detailed study of the AWC, with participants reading the definition of each attribute, identifying the bulleted threads that define it and marking qualifiers across score points, and finally reading the complete description of each attribute at each score point. This is not a quiet time. Leaders and teachers discuss how the AWC's language is similar to or different from the kind of evaluation language they're familiar with. Teachers sometimes ask questions like, "What if the student misspells the same word four times?" and "What if the writing follows a formula?" We talk about issues like why the AWC uses the attribute of Stance rather than Voice, why the focus is on the writing rather than the writer or the reader, why elements of correctness such as usage are found in the attribute of Conventions rather than Diction.
In exploring the continuum, it's good to first become familiar with the bulleted components of each attribute, then with the differences between score points. Looking at grade-level anchor papers further helps teachers interpret student writing in AWC terms. Teachers examine anchor papers across score points to understand, for example, the difference between writing meriting scores of 3 and 4 in Content. To practice the process, teachers gather in small groups and analyze several pieces of student writing, focusing on one attribute at a time.
If teachers consider together what attribute might best be addressed with a particular young writer, it also facilitates teacher learning. Any single instructional moment need not include every attribute. Teachers should use this tool as a support, not a directive, when making instructional decisions.
The Arkansas high school teachers who Sherry worked with used student examples from Assessing Writing, Teaching Writers and, in groups, went back and forth between these writing samples and the AWC. First they described each piece of student writing using AWC descriptors, then contemplated the attribute they thought would be most appropriate for guiding revision of that particular text. These teachers expressed particular interest in argumentation and thus turned their attention to the elements of Content most appropriate for argument (reasons, examples, evidence). At a later session, each teacher shared several students' first drafts, the effects of initial evaluations using the AWC, revisions of the drafts, and what role the AWC had played in engendering the revisions.

Follow—In Your Own Way

Are professional development sessions like these making a difference in classrooms in terms of teaching writing? We think so. As Crystal Marquez, one of the Arkansas teachers, affirmed:
The workshops made me realize … writing is a process, one in which teachers intentionally plan time for feedback based on specific attributes as well as time for revisions in which students apply that feedback. The process is integral for growth. I [now] explicitly teach the attributes of the AWC and have peer editing sessions in which students provide feedback, through Google docs, on these concepts … students are now receiving feedback based on the entire AWC.
The Analytic Writing Continuum is a tool any teacher can make his or her own. Crystal and her colleagues have begun their own journey learning to use whatever parts of the AWC help their students improve and take joy in their writing. We invite others to follow their lead.
Author's Note: For more guidance on using the AWC with student writing or colleagues, see Sherry Seale Swain's book, with Mary Ann Smith, Assessing Writing, Teaching Writers (Teachers College Press, 2017). The full rubric is available.

Scoring Attributes of the Analytic Writing Continuum

Content (Including Quality and Clarity of Ideas and Meaning)

The content attribute describes how effectively the writing establishes and maintains a focus, selects and integrates ideas related to content (i.e., information, events, emotions, opinions, and perspectives), and includes evidence, details, reasons, anecdotes, examples, descriptions, and characteristics to support, develop, and/or illustrate ideas.

Structure

The structure attribute describes how effectively the writing establishes logical arrangement, coherence, and unity within the elements of the work and throughout the work as a whole.

Stance

The stance attribute describes how effectively the writing communicates a perspective through an appropriate level of formality, elements of style, and tone appropriate for the audience and purpose.

Sentence Fluency

The sentence fluency attribute describes how effectively the sentences are crafted to serve the intent of the writing, in terms of rhetorical purpose, rhythm, and flow.

Diction (Language)

The diction attribute describes the precision and appropriateness of the words and expressions for the writing task and how effectively they create imagery, provide mental pictures, or convey feelings and ideas.

Conventions

The conventions attribute describes how effectively the writing demonstrates age-appropriate control of usage, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and paragraphing.

End Notes

1 Education Northwest. (2005). Trait definitions. Retrieved from http://educationnorthwest.org/traits/trait-definitions.

2 Swain, S. S., & LeMahieu, P. (2012). Assessment in a culture of inquiry: The story of the National Writing Project's Analytic Writing Continuum. In N. Elliot & L. Perelman (Eds.) Writing assessment in the 21st century: Essays in honor of Edward M. White (pp. 45–66). Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

3 The National Writing Project is a network of sites housed at universities across the U.S. See www.nwp.org for a map of sites and descriptions of the project's work.

Author bio coming soon.

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