How to Quickly Assess Student Writing

How many times have you lugged home a stack of student writing with the goal of getting it all graded?  And how many times has that stack remained in your teacher bag all weekend long, taunting you, until finally, late Sunday evening, you drag the papers out and finally begin the long and laborious process?  The dream you had on Friday afternoon of being able to quickly assess student writing over the weekend has completely disappeared.  

I’m guessing this has happened more than once, and it hasn’t gotten better, no matter how many years you’ve been doing it.  If you’re looking for a way to reduce that pain, keep reading!


When it comes to grading student writing, think of this old adage:

“How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time!”

-Desmond Tutu

Approach assessing student writing like you’d eat an elephant–one small step at a time.  

Instead of reading the whole piece, where everything will jump out at you, think about looking at it with just one specific lens.  Maybe, for example, you’ve really been working with your students on organization.  As you look through your students’ writing, concentrate ONLY on that one aspect.  This is the key to being able to quickly assess student writing.

Admittedly, it takes practice to really be able to focus on only ONE thing, but it’s totally worth learning how.  If you’re using a rubric (I’m a fan of the single-point rubric, which I learned from Jennifer Gonzalez), just focus on one piece at a time.  The same can also be done with a checklist, another powerful scoring tool I’m a huge fan of.   On the next pass, you’ll look through a different lens…perhaps elaboration, voice, or even just grammar.  

Every aspect of writing is its own lens.  

Yes, this means you’ll likely read a piece a couple of times, but because you’re laser-focused on just one thing at one time, your mind won’t get bogged down by all the things.  Focusing on all the things at once tremendously increases how long it takes to get through a piece.  

The great news, though:  because you’ve read through a piece a couple of times, the rest of your look-fors will be easy.  Starting with a couple of heavy-hitting lenses will take care of the big things, making the smaller parts a breeze to assess. If you also keep notes on your students’ efforts, you have plenty of information to help you provide super effective feedback.  

What are some lenses you might look through? 

For almost two decades, I’ve used Teachers’ College Units of Study, which is hands-down my favorite writing curriculum.  Years ago, they published an invaluable book, Writing Pathways.  Among the many incredible resources in this book, learning progressions are provided.  These learning progressions are broken down by lens…the things you teach your students during a writing unit.  A few of the lenses you might look through are:

  • Organization
  • Transitions
  • Elaboration
  • Author’s craft
  • Spelling, grammar, and conventions

Without focusing on one lens at a time, we can all-too easily get bogged down by all the spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.  And that can lead us to provide feedback on a very narrow part of writing, which will not truly help students develop as strong writers.  Well-known researcher of effective instructional practices, John Hattie, has found that providing specific feedback to students has a tremendous impact on student learning–a .70 effect size.  An effect size of .40, according to Hattie, is average.  Breaking writing down by lens offers us the opportunity to share specific feedback with students that will propel their learning forward without getting bogged down by everything.

I have three more tips to offer you to help you quickly assess student writing:

  1. Provide feedback with a couple of very specific lenses throughout the writing process.  The feedback you offer when conferring with students or just by collecting work here and there while students are drafting and revising will only serve to improve their final product–which will make it much easier–and faster– for you later on. 
  1. Along with Tip 1, collect just a few kids’ writing at a time.  Maybe on Tuesday, you’ll collect all the writing from table 2, Wednesday from table 3, etc.  Or maybe all the boys’ writing on Tuesday and the girls’ on the next one.  Break this up, and it’ll make the process sooooo much more productive.  Be certain to take notes for yourself along the way!
  1. Think about your scoring criteria.  Most teachers use some sort of rubric or checklist (the Pathways book I mentioned has AWESOME ones).  Often, they are quite long and detailed.  Do you really need so many items? What are your main areas of focus for this unit?  Can you focus on just those and look at the other things in more informal ways?  Could you instead do two or three smaller ones instead of one very long one?  Could you use peer editors for smaller parts to save you time for the heavy lifting?  Just some food for thought.  

Assessing student writing quickly is attainable! Try making a few small shifts in the way you approach it, by taking one bite of that elephant at a time. I’d love to know how it’s going! Let me know in the comments or DM me on Instagram!

Want some help determining what your students need to grow as writers?  Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together!   And,  join my private FB group for immediate support from like-minded educators!

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Related posts:   Getting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later, Anatomy of a [Reading or Writing] Conference, One [Paper] Stone, Many Birds


  1. Michelle Bulin

    You can even assess during conferences if notice they already have something you’ll be looking for! Great article!

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