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Writing: from Teaching to Assessment (Part One)

Writing: from Teaching to Assessment (Part One)

23 Dec 2014 Masoud Yadi
Writing is the most difficult part of most exams to be tackled by students. Or is it? Let’s see how we can help our students write better.

What should we expect in writing sections?

As the leader of a writing course you need to know the exam thoroughly. Exams are different in some details but there are characteristics in common in almost all writing sections.

  • The number of the words candidates are supposed to write is always specified and the test taker has to stick to these limits.
  • The writing section is never marked by a computer or any other electronic device. An experienced, well trained examiner is the one who marks the writing section of the exam.
  • There is a paper provided for students to write their writing on. In some exams today, the student is required to type the writing on a computer though.
  • Writing tasks can vary based on their type (content and procedural knowledge based tasks, open-ended tasks, and input-based tasks) and their genre (articles, reports, reviews, competition entries, leaflets and information sheets, contributions to brochures, applications, letters, personal notes and messages, essays, and compositions).

What is measured in a writing test?

Exam committees have different names for the items they measure in the writing of a test taker, but the ones listed below, more or less, cover them all.

  • Task achievement: that is using language appropriate to the relationship between reader and writer, including material on each of the points in the task rubric, and staying within the word count limit.  
  • Coverage of required points: should there be any annotation, graph, survey result or similar input in the task, the candidate is expected to incorporate it in his/her answer.
  • Originality of the output: candidates are not supposed to repeat the input of the task in exactly the same words. They should paraphrase those sentences and restate them in their own words.
  • Range of structure and vocabulary: as these words suggest, the test taker is supposed to demonstrate that he/she knows a range of vocabulary and a variety of grammatical structure.
  • Cohesion and organization: that is to have a topic sentence for each paragraph to which the rest of the sentences in that paragraph are related. it also includes use of linking phrases, pronouns, synonyms, antonyms and so on. 
  • Appropriate presentation and register: the candidate needs to know how to present the text in accordance with its genre. They have to know the relationship between writer and reader and use the appropriate register for it.
  • Topic development: in some exams the candidate is expected to do more than simply provide an answer to a question. In these more advanced exams the candidate is required to support opinions by references to the knowledge he/she has of the world.

How should teachers assess the written work?

In a writing class, students write several sample answers to practice tests. Usually these writing practices are done as homework, for teachers like to make better use of their time in class. However, it does not mean that the work done at home by students should not be assessed and marked in class. In fact, this is the most important part of a writing course, where students get to know their weaknesses and learn how to deal with them.

The criteria to be used to assess written work

Earlier in this lesson I mentioned some of the common criteria examiners usually consider in marking writings. Some exam boards provide teachers and candidates with clear information on these criteria, and this information is to be the reference of all assessments during the course.

It is sometimes a good idea to involve students in the assessment process. A checklist prepared by the teacher based on the criteria used in the exam is a helpful tool here. This self-assessment encourages critical thinking and is a very useful practice, especially in the weeks immediately before the exam.

Providing feedback

While numerical feedback gives both the teacher and students a quick idea about how they have done in the writing test, it is also important for students to know exactly where their strengths and weaknesses lie. Therefore, detailed feedback on students’ writing should be handed to them.

However, as reading a note on all the weaknesses and problems in the writing can be discouraging and demotivating for students, it is always a good idea to start the feedback with positive comments, and then move on to “things to consider”.

Such feedback can also be filed and used to see how the student has progressed over time.