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What is good writing? More specifically, what qualities of writing cause readers to be entertained, persuaded, enlightened, or informed?
Excellent rubrics answer these questions by capturing the essence of a reader’s expectations. Rubrics clearly articulate these expectations and provide a scale to measure the extent to which they are accomplished in a piece of writing. The best rubrics speak clearly from reader to writer, almost as if to say, “Here’s exactly what I’m looking for in your writing.” In fact, the words of a well-crafted and familiar rubric may almost sound to a writer like advice from a trusted friend.
Since authors write to a variety of audiences and for a variety of purposes, the most common rubrics are specific to either a writing mode (Narrative, Descriptive, Informative/Explanatory, Opinion or Argument), or to a writing genre (like a cause-and-effect essay or a book report). In either case, the greatest value of the instrument lies in its formative properties i.e., its ability to drive effective revision and editing within the writing process. Rubrics may also be used in a summative manner when the writing process is completed. When objective scores and defensible grades are required (as they are in most classrooms), excellent rubrics render scores that are trustworthy.
To be effective, a rubric must have a sufficient number of levels (or “points”) to be sensitive to incremental improvements in the writing. Six-point rubrics are perhaps the most common among formative rubrics. Thoughtfully crafted four- and-five-point rubrics may also be used effectively where fewer score points are desired. For very young writers in kindergarten and first grade, it may be appropriate to further reduce the number of levels to three.
The usefulness of a rubric is based upon the characteristics of writing it seeks to assess. So what exactly should rubrics seek to measure? There are essentially six characteristics, or “traits”, evident in all writing: Ideas, Organization, Voice, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, and Conventions. Presentation is an outgrowth of the trait Conventions, but is often identified separately to emphasize the importance of neatness and appearance. Taken together, these traits constitute the observable, assessable, and revisable features of all writing, so they make an ideal foundation for the development of quality rubrics.
The benefits of using trait-specific rubrics are many. To begin with, these rubrics provide a common writing language that helps define clear composition goals. This keeps us focused and honest, challenging our preconceived notions of proficiency and keeping us “balanced” in our analysis of writing. It’s important to understand that the goal of rubrics is not to remove all subjectivity from assessment, but to hold us accountable to defensible criteria that reflect the overall quality of the written message (rather than more arbitrary criteria, such as length, ink color, or neatness).
Trait-specific rubrics also clarify, simplify, and accelerate scoring. Like interchangeable lenses, these instruments allow teachers to assess any number of traits within a given composition. By scoring multiple traits, teachers are able to identify comparative strengths and weaknesses in students’ writing and deliver targeted feedback and instruction. Through explicit instruction and consistent modeling of trait-based assessment, teachers accomplish perhaps the most important goal, which is to transfer assessment proficiency to the students themselves. While all six traits should be explicitly instructed and assessed repeatedly throughout the year, rarely is it necessary or recommended to assess all six at once. Over time, as teachers and students use a common set of trait-specific rubrics, a kind of automaticity develops, leading to faster assessment and more consistent and meaningful scores.
To summarize, quality, trait-specific rubrics help students and teachers to go far beyond simply evaluating the “correctness” (Conventions) of text. These indispensible tools enable writers to focus on the most impactful elements of composition as they prewrite, draft, revise, edit, and publish excellent writing. Trait-specific rubrics also support rapid, precise scoring, making formative and summative assessment easier and more meaningful. For these reasons and many more, Strategies for Writers incorporates exemplary trait-based, mode-and genre-specific rubrics to support the development and assessment of student writing in every lesson.