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The Final Analysis: Grading Writing

The only thing harder than getting a child to write is trying to grade that writing. The task seems overwhelming: Can I be impartial, thorough, accurate, merciful, instructive, and encouraging all at once? Should I even be the one to grade this writing, not being a writer myself? How can I justify the grade? And sometimes, perhaps, it just seems easier to cut back on writing altogether—less hassle all around.

Actually, changing the focus from "what should be" to "what is" will take much of the stress out of grading. "Should be" implies the possibility, even the necessity, of perfection. "What is" points rather to the conditions existing. Instead, then, of saying "I should be impartial, thorough, accurate, merciful, instructive, and encouraging," say "I am knowledgeable, mature, and capable." Then proceed to grade the paper, having sufficient confidence that you can do a competent job.

You and your child should choose the papers that will be graded. Don't feel compelled to grade every piece of writing, because not every piece deserves that kind of scrutiny. Choosing what is to be graded allows the best work to get the most attention and help. It also takes some air out of the myth that all writing must be publishable--because it isn't nor "should" it be.

When grading, again shift the focus from what "should be" to "what is." If you read the paper or paragraph in front of you with the mindset that certain ideal standards have to be met, your tone will be negative. Rather, assume only that the writing to be graded will represent the current ability of the student. This attitude will keep you from disappointment and false expectation and will actually set you up for some happy surprises. The "grading voice" you use then will be upbeat and instructive, rather than merely corrective.

What can you look for as a grader? First, consider the paper as a whole piece. Read it for its overall effect, its fidelity to purpose. Ask yourself, "What is the audience? What is the message? What is the effect on the reader?" Writing is, after all, communication--not a set of rules about mechanics and form. Once you have determined the audience and the message, you will be better prepared to assess the way the writing was done.

Next, read the piece looking for the means that the writer has used to support his message and accommodate his audience. Comment on what was well done. Does he use an example that will particularly appeal to his audience? Tell him that his choice was well thought out. Does he open a difficult argument by conceding a point that will not harm his case? Commend his strategy. Only then should you point out any places where he has truly hindered his communication with poorer choices.

Read the piece again. This time watch the organization, the form. What are the reasons for its being the way it is? If you assume certain ideas "should" have only certain arrangements, you may miss other valid approaches to a topic. (Note: Here is the hard part about grading--meeting another mind on paper. There is no one way to say a thing, and your way may indeed be improved upon!) Think about the form before you mark it as inadequate. If it is inadequate in the final analysis, you will at least be able to say you have given it a fair chance, and you will have much better advice to offer for improvement.

Now, at last, you are ready to do what you have been wanting to do from the beginning: mark the spelling and grammar errors. Spelling and grammar are important: they contribute to or detract from written communication. But they are not writing. Writing is everything together: message, form, audience, writer, reader, tools. To put too much emphasis on the mechanics (safe as they seem, backed up by irrefutable handbooks and spelling lists) is to make a science of what is really an art. Science does play a role in art. A painter must know about pigments and light. But a painting is far more than those mechanical considerations.

When you are marking spelling and mechanics and grammar, bear three things in mind. First, remember the present abilities of the child. If a seven year old makes a stab at a hard but appropriate word, be more ready to praise his vocabulary than to correct his spelling. Hold the child accountable for what information he has, but do not assume that he "should have" more than he does. Second, consider the damage done to the whole message. It is negligible? Then go easy. Is it badly distracting to the flow of the piece and the reader's ability to follow? Then get tougher. Finally, consider whether the error is typographical or indicative of a more entrenched problem. A typo can be marked but not counted heavily; a recurring error needs sterner measures.

Having read and commented much, you will in the end have to write down a grade. If the child has worked hard and been a complete dear through the whole process, you will tend to want to reward him. This inclination is not entirely bad. You can reflect your pleasure in his performance with comments along the way. And you can give him a few points for attitude if you want, especially on the elementary level. Just don't let your affections run away with your focus. You are, remind yourself, ascertaining the quality of this piece of writing in light of existing conditions.

To keep an even keel, ask yourself what the main goal of writing is. Then ask whether the writing has achieved that goal. If it has done the job well enough, it is a C. If it has done so in a way that is surprising in either direction, give it a B or a D. If you are rocked back with wonder or shock, give it an A or an F. (I wish I could take credit for this wonderfully simple and effective formula, but I can't; I got it from Ron Horton Chairman of the Division of English Language and Literature at Bob Jones University.)

After you have determined the main worth of the paper, throw in any pre-established and understood penalties for mechanical errors. If you have allowed thorough prewriting, writing, and revising stages, these will be minimal. Now you have the cold, hard grade. Present it with a clear and thoughtful paragraph of comments. And when your child sees that you do indeed read his work with care and eagerness, he will in the next assignment be more inclined to produce his best writing.

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