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Assess, Plan, Teach! Part 1 — Looking at Student Work

By Danielle Mahoney on November 2, 2010

Looking at student work can help you discover the needs of your writers and plan for specific mini-lessons. Even if you have a scripted writing curriculum to follow or a planned set of mini-lessons to teach, put on the brakes and check in with students to see how they are doing in their independent writing. Think about how you can make this possible in your classroom as you assess your students' writing abilities and take a closer look at student work.


On-Demand Writing

Before you get too deep into a writing unit, it is important to know what your students are really good at and where they need help. One way to do this is to assign an on-demand writing piece. Ask your students to produce a draft of a piece of writing (in a specific genre) without teaching anything about it.

Two weeks into a narrative writing unit, I sat with Ms. Kim Kissag, an amazing 1st grade teacher with a class full of English language learners, to plan out future writing mini-lessons based on the needs of her students. Before our meeting, Ms. Kissag asked her students for an on-demand writing piece. She was sure to resist teaching and coaching her writers during this time. She wanted to get a clear picture of the strategies they had internalized and were using in their independent writing. She simply asked the students to take a three-page booklet and write a "small moment," doing all of the things that good writers do. She knew that they began writing small moments in kindergarten and wanted to assess the writing strategies they were using now in their 1st grade classroom.

When you request an on-demand piece from your students, you will naturally have in mind some strategies that you feel they should already know. For these 1st graders we had the following questions in mind before we met to analyze the on-demand writing pieces: 

  • Do students know how to plan?
  • Are they sketching the story (beginning, middle and end) across three pages? 
  • Are sight words being spelled correctly?
  • Is there proper spacing between words? 
  • Are they writing on a variety of topics?

While you will have some expectations in mind, be open to finding some surprise successes and unexpected weaknesses in your students' work. 

Assess! Looking at Student Work

If you have a literacy coach in your school or a buddy teacher in your grade, partner up to gain deeper insight into the abilities of your students. Sometimes two heads are better than one!

Ms. Kissag and I spent some time together taking a closer look at the on-demand pieces. We sat and discussed the strategies the students were using and sorted the pieces into piles based on the trends we saw in the writing.

Remember, when analyzing student work, it is important to recognize the great work your students are doing.

We celebrated what was going well. Most of the students had proper spacing between words and were taking risks when spelling out words that can be a bit difficult for 1st graders — especially English language learners. There was evidence that the students were using strategies to write about different topics. We even found that a few students were experimenting with dialogue in their writing.

Next, take a closer look at the writing to uncover areas in which students may need extra support.

As we sat with the writing pieces spread out before us, Ms. Kissag was concerned that her students weren't writing as much as she wanted them to. For the most part, the first pages of the booklets were written on, while the following pages were blank. We noticed that many students showed little evidence of planning, as the sketches that help students tell their story did not span the three pages.

Example #1:


Example #2:



We also noticed that many students were erasing much of their work. This was evident in both the sketches and in the writing. I found myself thinking, Aha! This may be taking up too much of their writing time! I remember cutting the erasers off of the pencils we used for Writer's Workshop in my classroom to avoid this problem. =) That was before I taught my students how to use PENS!!! (More on this in a bit. . . . )

Example #1:

Example #2:

After examining your students' writing, it's time to think about the areas of need shared by all students. These are the strategies that would be appropriate for whole class instruction. In addition, you may need to target small groups of students on specific strategies or even plan for individualized instruction. When analyzing on-demand writing samples, it is important to think about which strategies you may want to target during conferences as well.

Time to Start Collecting On-Demand Writing!

As we enter a new month, you may be publishing the final pieces from your last writing unit and looking forward to an upcoming unit. This is a great time to check in your with students using an on-demand writing piece. It is vital to look at student work. Whether your next unit is a narrative writing or a nonfiction writing unit, begin by gathering information to find out what your kids know and are able to do in their independent writing.

Next week I'll follow up on this topic, showing how Ms. Kissag and I planned for instruction based on what we learned about her students from their on-demand writing pieces. In the meantime, I hope you'll collect some writing and begin to assess your own writers! Gaining insight this way will help streamline your planning and raise the level of writing in your classroom. Give it a try, and let me know what you find!

A little reminder . . .  I'm looking forward to receiving and delivering your Thanksgiving cards for homebound seniors! Please refer back to last week's post for details on how to become a part of Project Give!


Comments (5)

Hi Josh! It sounds like you are really making an effort to look at student work to plan for instruction. I think commenting in their writing notebooks and providing them with feedback is really important. In addition to reinforcing the use of strategies in their independent writing, your comments will motivate them to write more, as they look forward to reading your responses. Complimenting them on a specific strategy they’ve tried out in their writing and balancing that with advice for their next steps, may keep the momentum going. If you have a list of strategies you plan on teaching in a specific unit, you can refer back to it and use it as a reference for other strategies to suggest your writers try out the next time they write. As far as editing their work - teachers have different opinions on this. In my experience, I feel that peer editing is a great way to get students involved with making the proper changes in their own writing. They identify mistakes that others make and become more aware of these errors in their own work. If you see the need to edit their work, maybe you can suggest that they try out some editing strategies you've already taught them in the comments you write to them. For example, you could write, “Reread the first paragraph and check your spelling.” This will be more powerful than crossing out their mistakes and making the corrections for them. You may want to do some work using an editing checklist as well. Great questions! I hope my answers help! =) Danielle


Great thoughts! This year I am making more of a concentrated effort to let student needs drive my instruction. This may be a little off topic, but I've started periodically collecting my students' writing notebooks and writing in them. To start, I have been commenting on their great ideas, but I'm wondering how to keep the momentum going. Should I share teaching points in their notebooks? Should I edit any of their work?

Please and thanks in advance!!


Yes, Melissa! Sometimes I think kids have a better perspective on things than we do!!

=) Danielle

I like this idea. It will allow for good peer conferences as well.

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