Which Is The Best Way Of Writing Assessment?

My dear English-language learner, this time I do need your help! I would like you to help us, teachers, in deciding on the best form of assessing your written piece. Have your say!

What shall we do? Correct each and every single mistake you, our dearest learners,  make in the written piece, or teach you to identify the errors and correct them? I wholeheartedly go for the latest one. With no shades of grey! In today’s article, I will explain to you why.

After years of teaching and “horrifying” my students every time I was handing back their writing piece full of corrections in RED ink, I had to take a long, hard look at the traditional way of correction. It was not working at all. So much time was put into correcting each mistake, but no progress at all were my learners making. I had to take measures, to rethink and come up with a more effective way of assessing my students’ essays. 

Let me first quote this Chinese proverb:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime

What if we showed you how to identify your own mistakes and encourage self-correction? What if we taught you what the writing assessment criteria are and what each of them means? Wouldn’t you be able then to focus on what really matters while proofreading your masterpiece minutes before you hand it in when sitting the writing paper of the Cambridge examinations? 

Writing is a skill. In an exam-like situation, we cannot test the way our students have done it the same way as we do with exam tasks, like grammar or vocabulary ones. It’s much more at stake –  a life skill. For this reason, we must assess our students’ writing in a way they could still learn and improve. Only with the right way of assessment and evaluation, can our students still develop their writing skill. Believe me, it is far from a sure thing!

And I started to look into this matter and investigate more and more deeply, comparing methods and trying to foresee how each of them could help my English-language learners. I have indeed found it. 

Let me share with you the steps of the itinerary I have created towards the ultimate goal I have set myself for the best of my students – help you improve your writing skill.

  • Step ONE

Familiarize students with the Cambridge English Writing Assessment Scale, its criteria, subscales and their descriptors. The complexity varies depending on the level. So, I am trying to explain as explicitly as possible what each of the criteria means. I have created two band descriptors: one – for levels A2 Key and low B1 Preliminary (the one on the left), and another – for high B1 Preliminary up to C1 Advanced (the one on the right).

  1. Content: The question is fully answered.
  2. Organisation: There are linkers and connectors. There is a logical structure.
  3. Vocabulary Resource: TOPIC vocabulary is used. The words are written correctly.
  4. Grammar Resource: There is control of the structures learnt in class. The  grammar forms are used correctly.
  1. Content: The writing is relevant and informative.
  2. Communicative Achievement: The conventions of the task are used. The ideas are communicated unambiguously.
  3. Organisation: The writing is well-organized. There is a variety of linking words and cohesive devices.
  4. Language Resource: There is every day and less common lexis. Both simple and complex grammatical forms are used.
  • Step TWO

Evaluate my students’ written pieces using the coloured system: RED for the correction code symbols (check below), GREEN for the grammar resource (tenses, comparatives, conditionals, etc), BLACK for the paragraph  starters, linkers and connectors, and relative pronouns (that, which, where, etc), and BLUE for the TOPIC vocabulary resource. All of them are underlined using a multi-ink 4-colour ballpoint pen, my writing magic wand ;). 

  • Step THREE

Use the code below to pinpoint the mistakes. It slightly varies depending on the groups mentioned above. If the mistake is related to a topic, lexical or grammatical, we have worked in class prior to the exam day, a spelling error or a mere slip, and I know you are able to correct it on your own, I will have underlined it and written above the type of mistake. My students work individually, in class or at home, and try to correct the given mistakes. Otherwise, I will have helped you by writing a synonym if it’s about repetition, the correct grammar form if the mistake is on something more complex and hasn’t been covered in class, or a better English way to replace any part of the written text.

I will have also hung around the classroom two or three laminated copies (like a poster) of the codes below and prepare small individual (laminated) handouts for each student. 

A2 Key & low B1

SP – error in spelling

VOC – error of vocabulary

REP – repeated word

GR – error in grammar

WO – error in word order

Λ – word is missing

? – message is not clear

V – where in the text the message/questions are answered

P – error in punctuation

High B1, B2 & C1

Λ/M – missing word

WW/VOC – wrong word

GR – grammar mistake

X – extra word

R – repetition

P – punctuation

SP – spelling

WO – wrong word order

? – not clear

  • Step FOUR

Evaluate the essay. For my younger learners, A2 Key and low B1 Preliminary, I follow the following marking system: 

For higher levels, as from B1 Preliminary to C1 Advanced, I am using the Cambridge Writing Assessment subscales. I am leaving the links below in case me fellow teachers or English-language learners need to know more about them. 

  1. B1 Preliminary page 13 or an article of mine where you’ll find more writing assessment-related info.
  2. B2 First page 12
  3. C1 Advanced page 12

I will also write a short comment congratulating you on the aspects you have shown control of and encourage you to be daring by not being afraid to explore with other language structures. Besides, you will be asked to pay attention to some other aspects and to correct a certain type of mistakes, the one(s) you have made the most.

  • Step FIVE

Organise peer- or self-assessment prior to the exam day. This works a million since you look at a written work from a different angle. In case you’ve swapped your pieces, you are sharing different ways of written expression, like new words or expressions. Besides, once your essay is back to you, you can see, given your classmate’s feedback, how prepared you are for the exam and if there is anything else to take into account.

A2 Key and low B1 Preliminary:

B1 Preliminary, B2 First and C1 Advanced:

Does the picture below ring a bell with you? If so, is it helpful? I don’t know you, but in my case, my students would only look at the score they got without even looking at the mistakes I had corrected, let alone making a note. This depicts a way of writing correction that takes us nowhere, does it?

The 5-step journey is not short nor easy; however, it is effective. Everyone, learners and teachers alike, will reap the benefit. The Cambridge exam candidates will be able to easily proofread their written work in a matter of minutes, and us, teachers, will have prepared successful exam candidates. Consistency and perseverance are the key to making the above-mentioned steps work. One thing’s for sure – once we all get the hang of it, we will not want to do it differently.

I’ll conclude today with some food for thought: Shall we teach you for a day, our dearest learners, or show you the writing know-how for a lifetime? What will you go for?

Stay tuned for more words of advice and handy material!

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