The process of grading written compositions can raise its own slew of questions: How do I know if this paper is well written? Is there a grading standard I’m supposed to follow? How can I help my student improve?
As a homeschool parent, you have all the tools you need to assess your student’s writing at any level or grade. Let’s walk through these tools, along with some tips and tricks, that will equip you to follow a consistent grading process all the way through your student’s writing career.
Dust off the textbooks, bring out the notepad
First, for your own benefit, review the fundamentals of good writing. Run a Google search for sample essays at your student’s grade level or pick up a writing handbook from your local library or thrift store. Classic resources like The Lively Art of Writing or The Elements of Style will refresh your memory and help you identify objective standards to set before your student for the next writing assignment.
To assist in deciding what elements your student should be accountable to demonstrate at this stage of their writing journey, you might ask questions like, “what do they know about writing?” or “how much practice does my student have?” If they haven’t written much before now, start with basic concepts like paragraph structure and overarching thesis. You can add advanced concepts like style and usage over time as skills and experience increase.
Once you have determined the standard you will set, you can craft a custom rubric that will function as a grading checklist, both for you and for your student. The rubric’s content can vary by assignment, but a solid rubric typically contains four categories, each with several subpoints:
- Structure—Does every paragraph have a clear topic sentence? Does the essay have a thesis that is clearly identifiable? Is there an introductory paragraph and concluding paragraph? Is the composition set up according to the assignment guidelines? (Each of these elements can be set up as its own bullet or subpoint.)
- Content—Does the composition discuss the topic as assigned? Does it make its point clearly? Is it persuasive? (These bullets can be customized to fit each individual writing project.)
- Style—Does the writing flow smoothly? Is it easy to follow the train of thought? Do all the sentences seem identically constructed, or do they demonstrate variety?
- Mechanics—Does the writer abide by the grammar you have taught? Are there serious errors in spelling, capitalization, or punctuation? Think about what harder concepts you can start critiquing gradually (verb tense, subject-verb
agreement, word usage, etc.).
If you are keeping letter grades or number grades, you will want to assign point values to each category or each subpoint. In my English-teaching days, the approach I found most straightforward was to start with a total of 100 points and subtract points for every element that was lacking. For example, you might subtract five points for a rubric bullet that is not completed (no introduction, no variety in sentence structure, etc.) and three points for a bullet that is partially completed (some paragraphs have topic sentences, two of the three points are made clearly, etc.).
Depending on the amount of emphasis you wish to place on mechanics, you can deduct a half point or quarter point for each mechanical error you mark. It’s okay to adjust the point values as you go if they yield results that seem unfair or unreasonable. Just remember that a high grade should be earned by truly excellent work, not assigned by default.
Pull up a seat
After you have created the rubric, sit down with your student to talk through it. Reviewing assignment requirements and grading frameworks is an especially good habit to practice during earlier stages of writing development. The rubric is a wonderful teaching tool that helps you convey your expectations clearly. (As students become more confident and proficient through writing experience, less hands-on involvement of this type will be necessary.)
Depending on your student’s tendencies, be cautious about sharing the point values in this parameter-setting conversation. Framing the assignment in point values can give the impression that the grade is the most important result, thus downplaying the learning process and personal growth benefits of developing good writing skills.
Follow the rubric in your grading, filling it out as you go and writing comments for each bullet. When you do this, you will have a ready-made guide for another important discussion: walking your student through the graded paper.
Talking through your feedback will help your student understand what was done well and where there is room for improvement. You can invite your student’s engagement and buy-in by letting them do some of the talking, encouraging them to explain how each mechanical error could be fixed or how the paragraph could be better organized.
When working with older, more advanced high school writers, you can replace the detailed rubric and face-to-face discussion with a shorthand method, such as a code sheet. At this stage of the writing journey, your student should understand the fundamentals and know what is expected in a well-written composition.
Rather than spelling everything out, you can develop a list of abbreviations or codes that identify writing mistakes and apply these codes when grading compositions. Some examples might include “top” (weak/missing topic sentence), “dev” (more development needed), or “punc” (punctuation error). More mature writers can work through a graded paper on their own, referencing the code sheet and asking for clarification as needed.
Ready to get started?
Here are a few closing tips to preserve your grading sanity:
- Don’t spend longer than 30 minutes grading each composition. This is ample time to identify what truly needs improvement. Set a timer to rein yourself in if you tend to go overboard!
- Balance praise and critique. Your student needs to see what is done well just as much (if not more!) as what is lacking. A little encouragement goes a long way!
- Don’t get hung up marking every grammatical or mechanical mistake. Most students learn better if you point out a trend and expect them to identify and correct the specific errors.
- If you grade by hand, I suggest using a pen with a happier color than red. Every little psychological boost can make your teen’s learning process more pleasant and positive.
With these tips and tricks, you can confidently grade written compositions at any level and set your student on the path to writing success. For additional resources and opportunities to practice high school writing in community with others, check out our online course offerings here.