Monthly Archives: October 2016

A simple rubric for on-demand writing

6.1 Designing Student Assessments around Criteria and Standards: Assessment criteria and standards are clear.

Ensuring that assessment criteria and standards are clear requires teachers to know exactly which skills and levels of understanding they expect students to master, and to communicate those expectations plainly to students. Rubrics can help with both tasks. Shermis and Di Vesta (2011) outline three key steps to formulate good rubrics:

  • identify a critical dimension of behavior at a particular developmental level
  • articulate the rubric to a point that different evaluators can obtain consistency
  • communicate with learners what is expected of them (paraphrase, p. 137).

On-demand writing about literature requires particularly succinct and quickly comprehensible rubrics, since students have a limited amount of time in which to develop their ideas about the text and form them into an organized, focused, and convincing essay. At the end of our Voice and Protest unit, I wanted to assess whether our 10th-grade honors students were able to synthesize multiple vignettes from our anchor text, Fountain and Tomb, in order to support an interpretive claim about the implications of the book’s structure. Students knew there would be a final in-class essay about the book, but were not given the prompts ahead of time. When they arrived, they were given the following, on a half-sheet of paper:


For each question I included brief directions on how to create a focused, supported answer: “Choose one (reason or influence/effect or theme) to focus on and use specific textual evidence from three different vignettes.” These directions reminded the students of two critical dimensions of strong writing that we had focused on throughout the unit (focused claims/theses and citing specific textual evidence, either in the form of concrete details or exact quotations); they also prompted students to see this as a synthesis task, one that required combining evidence from multiple stories to infer a big idea about the text’s format and purpose. In this sense, the prompts themselves are part of the rubric, because they identify the writing standards and imply the critical reading task for the assessment. Since I provided three high-level prompts to choose among, students had some power to shape their own assessment experience according to individual interest or preference.

The half sheet next articulates those standards further by delineating the three components on which I will base my evaluation. I have included quantitative expectations (one claim, at least three pieces of evidence from three different vignettes) as well as descriptive ones (claim is focused, evidence is clearly related, adequate analysis follows). In the preceding unit we worked on how to choose strong evidence in support of an argument, and how to analyze evidence by picking it apart and paying close attention to the exact language of quotations, the context surrounding details and quotations, and the implications of word choice and syntax. Consequently, students were familiar with those (bold-type) descriptors.

Because I wanted my students to use their time thinking deeply about the prompts and developing their written responses, I planned an assignment format that would take less than five minutes to read, comprehend, and question for clarification. I chose to present grading criteria as bullet-point descriptions of what a successful in-class essay would include, and to limit the criteria to three, with equal point value. When I asked for clarifying questions, I received three: one question about how many paragraphs I wanted students to write; one question about whether they only needed one piece of evidence from each vignette; and one about whether they could use three pieces of evidence from one or two vignettes instead of dealing with three vignettes total. These questions indicated to me that students understood my descriptive criteria (i.e., what it meant to have clearly related evidence and adequate analysis) and the purpose of the assignment (i.e., level of thinking required by the prompts) but not what the final product should look like. Consequently, one change I would make to this assignment in the future would be to spend some class time beforehand discussing the differences between common types of on-demand writing (for example, a claim paragraph used as a reading quiz, versus an in-class essay at the end of a unit) and presenting a few “real-life” student work examples of each.


Shermis, M. and Di Vesta, F. (2011). Classroom Assessment in Action. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Double duty: vocabulary tools that both teach and assess

6. Assessment: The teacher uses multiple data elements (both formative and summative) to plan, inform and adjust instruction and evaluate student learning.

As an ELL tutor, I particularly need effective methods for evaluating  my students’ vocabulary acquisition and use. I must gather information about which words my students know, which words they need to learn in order to read and understand the texts they will encounter in their high school classrooms, which words they are familiar with but do not fully comprehend the meaning of, and which words they understand but do not use according to the rules of standard English.

Much of this information gathering constitutes formative assessment, assessment for (future) learning. It enables me to target key words for direct vocabulary instruction. It helps me modify my own vocabulary and define unfamiliar words so my students understand me. And it informs future decisions about which texts will be “just right” for my students and which grammar conventions will require further explanation and practice. Much formative vocabulary assessment occurs informally, as I note students’ ability to use words correctly during discussion, question them about the texts we’re reading, and listen carefully to see whether their fluency reflects comprehension in the form of accurate expression and phrasing while reading aloud.

But some of this information gathering around vocabulary constitutes summative assessment, assessment of (past) learning. I and my students need to know whether they are retaining learned vocabulary, whether they fully understand connotated and denotated meanings, and whether they can use new words accurately. In short, we need to know whether their increased “word banks” are truly increasing their power with the English Language.

This year I am tutoring a small group of 10th-grade English Language Learners who are very recent immigrants to the United States. Our work together centers around the theme, The Power of Reading, and one focus of our first unit is vocabulary building, in alignment with the following Common Core standard:

Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression. (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2016)

One way in which I will assess students’ vocabulary throughout the unit is through careful listening and observation. In order to make sure that what I hear and observe informs lesson planning throughout the unit, I need to keep track of what I notice. The following image records my teaching notes from the first unit lesson.


Notes from Just Juice, Day 1

I have recorded observations on students’ vocabulary knowledge (all students able to come up with the word “famous” in response to a hint). I also comment on their ownership of the vocabulary (all 3 students could apply the vocabulary to themselves, by listing qualities they were known for) and some remaining confusion around the vocabulary (unclear about the difference between being famous vs. being famous for something). Holistic vocabulary assessments should include information about students’ personal and conceptual relationship to language, as well as their ability to define and use a word. I record assessment notes on my lesson plan for the day, which allows me to correlate what I observe about student learning to a specific learning activity, and helps me revise future lesson plans in accordance with what students need to review and practice.


Notes from Just Juice, Day 2

As you can see from my second day’s teaching notes, students were able to apply the learned vocabulary (applied “famous” vocab.) in response to our warm-up activity, “share one thing that made you feel successful yesterday.” The notes at the top of the page record my observations about how well students understood the word summary, both conceptually (what summary is) and practically (what a good summary does).

Another way in which I will assess vocabulary acquisition throughout the unit is with vocabulary boxes. These boxes are a powerful instructional tool, a way to reinforce new words through repetition, application, categorization, and visual representation. Each week, my students create five “vocab boxes” according to the following instructions:


Ms. Ellen’s vocab box assignment…and assessment tool!

Because they require students to use the word in a sentence, vocabulary boxes enable me to assess students’ syntactical skill. Because the boxes require students to draw a picture of the word, I can assess how fully they understand it and whether they can visualize it for themselves. And because the boxes require students to identify the word as a verb, noun, or adjective, I am also able to assess my students’ understanding of English grammar in relation to the word. Since students work on these in class, I am able to correct early misconceptions, to evaluate whether I have chosen useful and important words, and to revise instruction or assignments accordingly. Because students turn in five vocabulary boxes each week, I have a concrete measure of their progress throughout the unit.

Students choose their words from a list of key words I have compiled while reading the text. A list for for this unit can be seen below.


Vocabulary Word List for Just Juice

I chose words that are important for understanding the story (such as “weld,” “truant,” and “diabetes”), words with broad application across disciplines because they have multiple meanings (“bitter”), words that require nuanced conceptual understanding (“might” and “pretend”), and words that provide opportunity for syntax discussion and learning because they can function in multiple roles (such as “growl” and “fiddle” which can be both nouns and verbs). At the end of the unit we will take a comprehensive vocabulary test, probably in the form of writing ten complete sentences using ten (randomly chosen) words from the list. For summative vocabulary assessments, I always require students to use (apply) the vocabulary, sometimes in the form of a sentence, sometimes in the form of a round-robin, additive “story quiz,” sometimes in the form of a graded academic discussion that incorporates new vocabulary, and sometimes in the form of a game such as pictionary or charades. When a student can use a new word correctly in a sentence (or story or discussion or game) I know that student has truly mastered it, and will be able to apply their expanded vocabulary to future learning.


Common Core State Standards Initiative (2016). College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.6). Retrieved from on October 16, 2016

Comprehensive reading quizzes

4.3 Designing Coherent Instruction in the area of Learning Activities: All of the learning activities are suitable to students or to the instructional outcomes, and most represent significant cognitive challenge, with some differentiation for different groups of students. 

As a reading teacher, significant cognitive challenge means ensuring that student responses to texts always involve critical thinking. But in order to think critically about what they are reading, students need to read it. Occasional quizzes motivate students to keep up with required reading, enabling them to participate fully in class discussions and maximize the benefits of in-class instruction and support.

But reading quizzes should require more than plot summary and character identification. As Daniels and Zemelman (2014) explain, “All these mental acrobatics remind us that readers actively build and construct meaning from a text. Meaning does not simply reside on the page” (p. 30). Textual understanding requires an ability to take apart and analyze different components of a piece of writing, then reassemble them to produce meaning for the individual reader. Our reading assessments, like our reading instruction, ought to focus on these complex (“higher order” in Bloom’s taxonomy) analysis and synthesis tasks.

This past fall, our 10th-grade Honors class included a unit on Voice and Protest. Naguib Mahfouz’s Fountain and Tomb, a collection of vignettes set in early 19th-century Cairo, served as the common class text for this unit. Many students found the genre unfamiliar, and struggled to make sense of individual stories while still identifying connections among them. We wrote the following  reading quiz to assess whether students were able to understand those thematic connections and apply them to specific vignettes. According to the reading schedule, we were about a third of the way through the book. As students entered class the following directions awaited them on the screen.



The reading quiz clearly required higher-order thinking skills, including application of the concept of theme, synthesis of at least two different stories from the collection, and analysis of literary evidence to support a claim. We had provided some direct instruction around themes in literature, including having students keep a set of notes organized by thematic category. But we had not yet differentiated between theme (a recurring “big idea” in a text) and theme statement (what a text says about that big idea). In addition, I noted that students who had honors Language Arts as ninth graders were more facile at identifying themes in our previous novel, The Kite Runner,  than students who had taken a general education 9th grade Language Arts class. So rather than asking students to identify or name a theme independently, I gave them three themes to choose from. In this sense, the task began with a “mid-level” thinking skill, application of a concept, then required students to synthesize two (or more) stories in order to explore the concept and to explain how specific aspects of the text supported their understanding of theme.

Quiz results demonstrated strong ability to find a common theme and to identify the theme “at work” in at least two separate stories, no surprise since we had outlined several pertinent themes. Most students were also able to identify textual evidence that related to the theme and supported their claim that “this theme is important in this story.” On the other hand, many students did not refine their presentation of the theme or explain what those individual stories told us about how politics or class or coming of age impacted the characters’ experiences or the author’s choice of words or narrative structure. On the basis of this assessment, we decided to devote more instructional time to close readings of individual vignettes. The following week, students worked in groups to present tableaux of assigned vignettes. Their tableaux demonstrated increased understanding both of plot and character, and of refinement of theme. For example, each group accurately chose and inflected a thematically central piece of dialogue for characters to “quote” as they acted out their tableaux.

One thing I would change on a future reading quiz for this book would be to allow students to choose their own theme, rather than providing a choice of preset themes. I circulate throughout the classroom during quizzes, and could easily provide scaffolding in the form of hints or further questions to help struggling students name a theme they felt was important in the book. This change would lead to more student ownership of the task, and require students to create their own understanding of one important idea at work in the text.

Reference: Daniels, H. and Zemelman, S. (2014). Subjects Matter: Exceeding standards through powerful content-area reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.