The #1 mistake you might be making with your writing rubrics

Pop quiz! What is a rubric?

  • A. a teacher tool to assess student writing
  • B. a way to provide meaningful feedback to students
  • C. a stressful grid of boxes that translate into a grade
  • D. something students throw away

Are you looking for an “All of the above” option? If so, I know how you feel. There’s nothing worse than a rubric that stresses you out, ineffectively measures student work, fails to provide meaningful feedback, or ends up in the trash can. While an “All of the above” option might feel like the most realistic answer to you right now, there is hope for you to reach the sweet spot of A & B:  Using rubrics to assess student writing AND provide valuable feedback.

I have some pretty painful memories of trying to grade student work with cringeworthy rubrics. As stressful as those old rubrics were, I learned something from each failure. Over the years, I’ve drafted, revised, and examined my rubrics, working hard to make sure they fulfill their purpose. While my rubrics still aren’t perfect (and never will be), I am much more confident about creating rubrics that provide meaningful feedback and effectively assess student writing.

I have big plans to write more about what I’ve learned about rubrics: how to create them, how to improve them, and how to use them, but today, I want to talk about the #1 mistake you might be making with your writing rubrics. Luckily, this mistake is something you can fix today before passing out your rubrics tomorrow. I promise you: the small changes you make will add up to a big difference for the writers in your classroom!

The #1 Mistake You Might Be Making With Your Writing Rubrics
And how to fix it! 🙂

PUT YOUR RUBRICS TO THE TEST

Before you start evaluating your students’ writing, let’s evaluate your writing, shall we? But I’m not talking about evaluating your emails, Instagram captions, or blog posts. I’m talking about evaluating the language you use in your writing rubrics. Let’s assess your writing rubrics to see if they contain the little mistake I made for years!

Here’s the test. Look at one of your writing rubrics. Specifically, look at your rubric descriptors (the language in the boxes) and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many of them start with “The essay,” “The thesis,” or some other element of the writing? 
  • How many of them emphasize the product, rather than the process? 
  • How many of them value the writing, but not the writer? 
  • How many of them emphasize what the student didn’t do, instead of what the student attempted or accomplished?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, your rubric probably has some room for improvement. I don’t mean this in a “you suck at writing rubrics” condescending way because I’ll be the first to admit that all of my writing rubrics are works-in-progress. Rather, I want to show you how a simple tweak to your writing rubric language can empower the growing writers in your classroom. One small change can make a big difference!

WORD CHOICE MATTERS

Words matter. As English teachers, we know this. We teach our students about the impact of word choice, tone, connotation…the list goes on. We know a single word or comment can make all the difference in a student’s day. A particular tone can make or break a student’s attitude. A positive or negative comment can affect how a student sees themselves. We are conscious users and consumers of language because we recognize and respect its power. 

I know I’m preaching to the choir. Y’all love language. After all, you’re still here, READING A BLOG POST ABOUT RUBRICS IN YOUR SPARE TIME. Riveting stuff, right!?

But hear me out, my lovely rubric readers: Words have power, but sometimes we forget it. And by sometimes, I mean when we are writing our rubrics.*

*When we have 150 papers to grade, 17 unread emails, 1 week’s worth of lessons to plan, and a rubric to create before a new writing unit that starts…tomorrow.

I’ve been there. I get it. While I don’t have a solution that will solve the unrealistic demands of the teaching profession for you, I do have a simple way to make your rubrics infinitely better. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a starting point to use your rubrics purposefully and provide better quality feedback to your writers.

MY SOLUTION: “WRITER-FIRST” LANGUAGE

My rubric transformation strategy is using what I call “writer-first language.” Inspired by “people-first language,” it’s my very deliberate attempt to value the human beings who are writing, learning, and growing in my classroom…not the numbers or the grades on their papers. Writer-first language is an effort to recognize the writer first and the writing second. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is! Most of us already do this in our writing instruction. We encourage our writers and seek to empower them through literacy. Validating our writers for the hard work they do is not a revolutionary concept. It’s called being a good teacher. So we know this.

But as much as we naturally practice this, do we show it in our rubrics? Do we recognize that those words in the rubric boxes have power, for better or for worse?

Unfortunately, in my experience, we often inadvertently use language that emphasizes the writing product, rather than the writer and the process. Our rubrics mention that the “Hook is engaging and appropriate” instead of celebrating that the writer crafted a hook that engages the reader and supports their purpose in writing. We circle a box that reads “Evidence is strong and relevant,” rather than validating that the writer carefully selected relevant evidence that proves the claim for the reader.

Writer-first language simply means being mindful so that our words tell our writers they are seen, heard, and valued.

When I use writer-first language, this is what I am communicating:

I value my students more than their scores. I value my writers more than their writing. I value the process more than the product. I value growth more than grades. I value what my students can do, not what they can’t.

-My writer-first language manifesto.

When you think about it, writer-first language is really just an extension of my student-centered teaching philosophy. After all, words matter, and what better way to teach my students than through the very language I use in my writing instruction and assessment tools?

WHAT DOES WRITER-FIRST LANGUAGE LOOK LIKE?

Take a look at this example:

  • A traditional writing rubric might state the following: A clear thesis statement expresses an opinion.
  • My writer-first rubric would frame it this way: The writer crafts a clear thesis statement that expresses an opinion and provides structure for the reader.

See the difference? Notice how the traditional example focuses on the writing (the thesis) and not the writer. The writer-first example does two pretty powerful things:

  1.  It values the writer and validates their hard work during the writing process. This one emphasizes the writer’s craft and choices, rather than the final writing product.
  2. It purposefully illustrates the writer’s impact on the reader. In other words, it reminds writers that thesis statements aren’t just things that ELA teachers use to torture students. They serve a purpose and provide structure for readers, and that’s why writers need them.

As you can see, switching to writer-first language does not mean you have to throw out your rubrics and start from scratch. It’s simply a matter of being more deliberate with your word choice and the message it sends to your writers.

Traditional rubric vs. writer-first rubric language
Traditional rubric vs. writer-first rubric language

HOW TO REVISE YOUR RUBRICS

Thankfully, it only takes a little revision and editing to give your rubrics a writer-first makeover. There’s no one right way to do it, but here are my best tips:

  1. I start every rubric descriptor with “The writer + verb” so that my language is valuing the writer and expressing their actions. You don’t have to start every descriptor like this, but I’ve found that it forces me into writer-first language. 
  2. In each descriptor, I find a way to illustrate the importance of the action the writer is taking and how it impacts the reader. I check to make sure every box in my rubric includes the words “writer” and “reader.” Once again, this forces me to illustrate the connection between the writer’s choices and the reader’s experience.
  3. I double-check my language it is emphasizing what the writer can do, instead of what they cannot do. I use the phrase “The writer attempts to…” often. The only time I might mention something the writer doesn’t do is in the “incomplete” column (the lowest score). For example, if a student does not cite textual evidence, they just don’t have it. Even then, I watch my language and try to phrase the descriptor in the best way possible.

My best advice is simply to experiment with your word choice and consider the implicit messages it may send to your students. Does your language validate your student’s work and empower them as writers? Does your language help students see what they can do and how they can progress on the continuum of learning?

When you make the choice to value your writers with your language, achieving these goals will happen naturally. When you focus on the writer, their writing will inevitably improve. Good things happen when you value your writers. It’s that simple.

LET’S DO THIS!

So, what do you think of writer-first language? How do you foresee this working in your ELA classroom? What questions do you have? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll make sure I address your questions in future blog posts.

If you’re just as excited about writer-first language as I am and you want to get your hands on some editable writer-first rubrics, you’re in luck! Check out my literary analysis rubrics HERE, my journalism article rubrics HERE, and my argument writing claim rubric HERE. And if you’re looking for a specific type of rubric but don’t see it, let me know, and I can work on it for you!




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