402 | How to Evaluate Writing (and Avoid Perfectly Parsed Piffle) (Janice Campbell)
Grading papers is usually not a favorite chore, especially if the paper is what I call "perfectly parsed piffle," but did you know that writing evaluation can be a teaching tool? That is exactly what it can be! Almost every writing assignment can help a student grow as a writer, as long as it is evaluated in ways that are constructive and designed to teach. Here are some tips.
Janice Campbell, a lifelong reader and writer, loves to introduce students to great books and beautiful writing. She holds an English degree from Mary Baldwin College, and is the graduated homeschool mom of four sons. You’ll find more about reading, writing, planning, and education from a Charlotte Mason/Classical perspective at her websites, EverydayEducation.com, Excellence-in-Literature.com, and DoingWhatMatters.com.
Thank you to our sponsors!
Medi-Share: an affordable Christian alternative to traditional health insurance
Tuttle Twins: children’s books to help you teach your kids how the world really works
Have you joined us at one of the Great Homeschool Conventions? We hope to see you there!
Janice Campbell Hello and welcome to The Homeschool Solutions Show. My name is Janice Campbell and I'm one of the many hosts here on the podcast. Each week we bring you an encouraging conversation from this busy and blessed journey of educating our children at home. While the title of the show is Homeschool Solutions, we don't pretend to have all the answers to all the homeschooling questions. It is our hope that this podcast will point you to Jesus Christ that you may seek his counsel as you train your children in the way they should go. Parents, here's a riddle for you: Homeschoolers love them, enemies of freedom hate them. What are they? It's the Tuttle Twin books. With millions of copies sold, the Tuttle Twins series helps you teach your children about entrepreneurship, personal responsibility, the Golden Rule, and so much more. Get a discounted set of books with free workbooks today at TuttleTwins.com/homeschool. And now on today's show.
Janice Campbell Hi, I'm Janice Campbell and today I'd like to share some thoughts on perfectly parsed piffle, otherwise known as those grammatically correct but vacuous essays we all see from time to time. As parents and teachers, we've all had mediocre writing assignments turned in. We've probably turned in a few of our own in our student days, right? But we see things like grammatically correct reports that contain nothing original at all but to paraphrase an encyclopedia entry or something like a five paragraph essay that just adds one cliche upon another and concludes without any original thoughts at all. You may have seen a paragraph like this one: "Throughout Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte shows how the people in Jane Eyre's life affected who she was. The people in Charlotte Bronte's life also affected the story and were the basis for some of the characters in the book. Many of the things that occurred in the book were taken from what Charlotte Bronte went through as a child, and the number of things that happened after she wrote the book were also in the book, and so forth." The cause of such a frightfully lacking composition sometimes lies in a shaky reading foundation on the part of the student, but it can also lie in a poorly thought out writing assignment. And I won't talk about that today, but it's something to consider. A writing assignment has to be very specific and tight so that the student will be able to launch from that into a good essay. But we will talk about that on another day. But whatever the cause, poor writing has to be evaluated just like any other writing. So let's talk about how to do it.
Janice Campbell So for a parent, perfectly parsed piffle often poses the dilemma if the writing has few or no obvious mechanical errors, which would be spelling, punctuation, grammar or word usage, does the student's work deserve an A? How do you grade a paper for shallow content and lack of originality? And should you even do so? It's hard to give a student who's handed you a paper with no spelling or grammatical or punctuation errors, mechanical errors—it's hard to give them a C grade, but if the paper has no good content, that really is closer to what they deserve. So my suggestion is always to evaluate content first. I worked for several years as an independent writing evaluator and I saw lots and lots of papers. All the mechanics, the spelling and the grammar and so forth are the easiest and fastest things to evaluate. That's really not the evaluation of writing, that is proofreading. One of the things that I observed in all of those evaluations that I had to do were the content, what a paper says about a topic it's supposed to be covering and how it says it, is the first and most important thing to evaluate in any paper. And I base this on two fundamental principles.
Janice Campbell Number one, writing is communication, and writing is thought made visible. It's essential for students to learn to communicate clearly, but in order to communicate well, they must learn to think well. So it's the thinking behind the writing that is going to produce the content. Clear critical thinking is necessary in order to understand an assignment, conduct appropriate research, establish a logical thesis, provide strong supporting evidence, and communicate it with a style so that it will be read, and if you're writing a persuasive essay, acted upon. The thing is, teachers and parents who are teachers get what they settle for. Thinking is hard work. Thinking that produces clear communication takes time, and it takes some serious focus. And many students avoid it when it's not necessary or when it's not required. I remember my own tactic in classes that I did not find interesting when I was in school, and I'm talking K-12, not college, particularly, because things tended to be more interesting once I hit college. I would turn in a mediocre essay perfectly punctuated, of course, for the first assignment. It would fit the requirements of the assignment, but not be particularly well thought out or creative or stylistically interesting. But if the instructor fell for that perfectly passed, idea-free prose and granted me an A for that, that's the quality of essay he or she would get for the whole semester. I felt like if someone didn't know the difference between a good essay and just a halfway effort, he or she didn't deserve my best efforts. It would have been better had I given my best effort all the time, but that's kind of not real life, and I'm pretty sure it's the same way for most students. I found that I love the classes in which the instructor demanded clear thought and original work and in those classes, I always made it a point to go above and beyond the basic requirements.
Janice Campbell In retrospect, any class in which a student invests more interest and thought, even if it's not required, is going to be a more interesting and better class, probably. But that's not the point of the post. The teaching part isn't, but the point is that most students will get away with as little thought work as possible if they're allowed. So parents and teachers do have to evaluate for content, and it does help students avoid that perfectly parsed piffle because an essay or a report that's just a paraphrase of someone else's fact finding work does not indicate thinking at all, and certainly not critical thinking. If you grant a grade of A or excellent to an essay that's just a paraphrase or a very skimpy shell of an essay, it defeats the point of the whole writing instruction, but it does feel kind of wrong to give a poor grade to a mechanically perfect essay.
Janice Campbell So let's talk about the perfect solution, or at least the solution that I have found very useful. And it's a simple checklist of standards called a rubric. These are commonly used within traditional schools, and what it does is it helps you, as the teacher, evaluate any assignment by a specific set of standards. So for a writing essay, you would be evaluating the three types of standards. It would be content, style and mechanics. And those particular categories are the things that will make an essay good, and if you have clear standards within each of those categories, you will be able to easily add points and evaluate an essay—you don't have to guess at whether the student has met the standards. Plus, a rubric lets the student know in advance what you're going to be grading on, so you will be able to measure progress in content and organization, style and word use, sentence fluency and mechanics. And each area is evaluated separately. Areas of strength receive more points, areas of weakness receive fewer. It's a simple concept and it totally changes the way you evaluate.
Janice Campbell So the way I start is to do what I call evaluation triage. So when medics respond to a disaster with a large number of casualties, they triage or assign a level of urgency to each problem in order to know what to treat first. In a similar way, it makes sense to evaluate standards in order of importance. One way to think about it is to consider whether the most important part of a paper is what is said or how it's said, or whether everything is spelled correctly. My perspective is that because what the paper says is the first importance—that's the content—if the ideas are muddled and illogically organized then all the style and perfect spelling in the world doesn't really matter. Then you start with content standards and evaluate the ideas and concepts and organization. The second thing you would look at is how the ideas are communicated, which it would include the style standards of voice, sentence fluency and word choice. And once the content organization and style standards have reached an acceptable level, then you can turn to the standards of the mechanics, which include the grammar, spelling, presentation and so forth. So if a student has a lot of areas of difficulty, start by evaluating only the skills that you know that student has been specifically taught and focus on only a few of the main items in each essay so that the student doesn't become completely discouraged. This is really important if you have a student who you're just beginning to teach and you realize they have not learned a whole lot of things in the area of writing. It's really easy for students to become super discouraged because writing is not necessarily easy for a lot of them, especially if they are not readers.
Janice Campbell So one thing to do is to be sure they know how to consult a writer's handbook. I have the Handbook for Writers from Excellence in Literature, and I use that for questions of structure, style or usage. And in almost all the handbooks I've ever seen, and I have actually a whole bookshelf full of them, each topic is addressed in a numbered paragraph and so you can find answers to when it's correct to use a comma here, or how to structure a thesis statement or correct grammatical information and all of that. It's all in the handbook for writers. If you don't have one, you will love having one. But your student will love having one too once they realize it's kind of like a dictionary for how to do things correctly on their writing. I will include a link in the show notes to an article about how to use a handbook along with a rubric to provide that kind of constructive feedback that will help your student learn. But to evaluate a first draft, I suggest doing two drafts, and I'll talk a little bit later about why just two, but in your first draft, do an initial read through of the student's rough draft. Consider the first thing they hand you to be a rough draft. You get out your writers handbook and a copy of the rubric if you need to do those things. Get out the handbook. You definitely need a copy of the rubric. I evaluate all the points under the content skills, including concepts and organization. And so on those sample rubric that you'll find on my website, you'll find some specific skills to look for, some specific standards to look for.
Janice Campbell So I realize even if it will feel counterintuitive sometimes to start with the content standards, because it can be so easy to see mechanical errors or style problems in the rough draft. But think about it, until the content, the what and what it says and how it says it is finalized, there's not a whole lot of point in tweaking word choices or sentence fluency or even addressing in any serious way the spelling or grammar issues, because when you work with content at first it helps to keep attention on the first draft priorities of the ideas and the organization, and it avoids the distraction and discouragement of too much red ink all at once (or whatever color you use for offering corrections and suggestions on a paper.) After you've handed your student back the evaluated first draft and they have given you a revised draft, what you need to do is read through it quickly to gain an overall impression. Don't do a sentence by sentence thing until you've read all the way through to get that overall impression, because you can't tell whether they've developed their ideas completely or whatever by starting sentence by sentence and picking out smaller things. So check to see if the changes you discussed in the previous draft have been satisfactorily made, and then use a fresh copy of the rubric to assess each of the skill areas and provide a feedback number or symbol for each standard listed.
Janice Campbell On the rubric I provide for my Excellence in Literature curriculum, I have two different ways of evaluating: a scale of 1 to 5 for each of the standards, with 1 being inadequate and 5 being excellent, and you know, obviously 3 being about average; or a plus, minus or equals, which works really well for slightly younger students, especially, but it can work all through high school as well—equals means that the student's essay has met the expected standard for each of the specific little individual standards, they have met this, a minus means they have not and a plus means they have exceeded the standard. It's kind of obvious and kind of encouraging for students when they start seeing more pluses. You know, equals are great because that's meeting the standard, but it's kind of like your average grade. It's not outstanding. But that plus is outstanding. So that's what they can shoot for.
Janice Campbell So for each draft that student does, return the student's paper with the filled out rubric and maybe a brief note that highlights any positive and negative things you noticed about the paper. Always try to start with one positive and, you know, one positive for each negative would be ideal, but you can't get crazy and make up positives if there's not that many positives. And don't do too many negatives all at once on an emerging writer, someone who's just barely getting started with writing. Because once a student gets really discouraged with writing, it can be really hard to help them feel the confidence to get back in and try harder. So you can provide on your rubric section numbers from the handbook so the student can look up things, concepts that have escaped them. For example, if they're having trouble with subject-verb agreement, you can put the number from the handbook in the rubric, and they can go and they can see how they should do it correctly, plus some examples. And that's so helpful.
Janice Campbell But back to the question of how many drafts to require when the student is learning to write and becoming a high school writer moving toward college, two drafts is still what I recommend. For the type of essays they write for Excellence in Literature, most of their high school papers, two is enough. Writing skills improve with each of the new assignments, and letting a student move through the assignments in a timely way ensures that they don't get bogged down and end up missing one of the classics or learning to detest a topic in which they've had to spend too much time. So when your student knows that you evaluate content first, it will remind them to focus on ideas and concepts and help them avoid perfectly parsed piffle. So meanwhile, I'll put some links in the show notes that can help you learn more about how to evaluate writing effectively. I wish you joy in the journey.
Janice Campbell Thank you for joining us this week on The Homeschool Solutions Show. You can find show notes and links to all the resources mentioned at Homeschooling.mom. Don't forget to check out my friends at Medi-Share because you deserve health care you can trust. To learn more about Medi-Share and why over 400,000 Christians have made the switch, go to GreatHomeschoolConventions.com/MediShare. If you haven't already, please subscribe to the podcast and while you're there, leave us a review. Tell us what you love about the show. This will help other homeschooling parents like you get connected to our community. And finally, tag us on Instagram @HomeschoolingDotMom to let us know what you thought of today's episode. Have you joined us at one of The Great Homeschool Conventions? The Great Homeschool Conventions are the homeschooling events of the year, offering outstanding speakers, hundreds of workshops covering today's top parenting and homeschooling topics, and the largest homeschool curriculum exhibit halls in the US. Find out more at GreatHomeschoolConventions.com. I hope to see you there. Finally you can connect with me, Janice Campbell, at EverydayEducation.com where you'll find my Excellence in Literature curriculum, transcripts made easy and more, as well as at my blog DoingWhatMatters.com and my literature resource site Excellence-In-Literature.com. I wish you peace and joy in your homeschooling.
Is there anything worse than spending a lot of money on something you're unhappy with and feeling like you're stuck with it? Or spending hundreds of dollars every month on health insurance only to find out that it doesn't cover what you thought it did? Well, I do have good news for you. You've probably heard me talking about the sponsor for our podcast, Medi-Share. Members of Medi-Share save up to 50% or more per month on their health care costs. They say the typical family saves up to $500 per month. And here's the best part, you can become a member at any time, so that means it isn't too late to switch to a more affordable health care option that will save you money and help you sleep better at night. If this is the first time you are hearing about Medi-Share, it's the best alternative to health insurance. It allows Christians to share one another's medical bills, offers access to over 900,000 health care providers and has a proven almost 30 year track record. Plus, in addition to saving hundreds per month, telehealth and telebehavioral counseling are included with membership. It literally takes 2 minutes to see how much you can save. To investigate this for you and your family, visit The Great Homeschool Conventions website at GreatHomeschoolConventions.com/Medishare.