Making the Grade: Process, Product, or Language Proficiency in Evaluating Writing?

Making the Grade: Process, Product, or Language Proficiency in Evaluating Writing?


by Susan Zimmerman-Orozco

Susan is an elementary ESL teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools and consultant with English Learner Portal. 


By now most teachers across the nation have made it through the first marking period –Sw PD and with it, the first report card. As an ESL teacher in my district, my grading and reporting obligation has usually been met by submitting WIDA proficiency scores for the four skill areas on content we have studied and assessed throughout the marking period. USUALLY, that is, until this year when I became a co-teacher and BFF with the Lucy Calkins writing program.

rubricFor the first time in many years I feel like a content teacher, and I want my students to feel evaluated – by me –  not only on their English language proficiency, but also on their growing proficiency as writers. Ah, but whose criteria of their writing ability should I use? For example, the Lucy Calkins program provides checklists of skills students are acquiring throughout each unit.  These skills provide valuable information to English learners and their teachers, about what they are demonstrating, or still need to demonstrate, to be good writers.

The Common Core curriculum also provides standards-based criteria and indicators ccssfor measuring content mastery in writing. These give teachers the benchmarks for measuring mastery of student progress in grade-level writing ability.

Last but not least, our district provides five grading indicators on the report card, one for each writing focus topics (informative, narration, and opinion), one for process, and one for use of language, including spelling, cklistpunctuation, and sentence mechanics. This presumably lets parents and their children know if they are making acceptable progress in their studies.

If you could see my face right now, you would see something like this avatar.  And full dunnodisclosure, I truly did not even consider the implications of grading until it was already too late for this marking period. I had assumed that, per usual, I could rely on my WIDA proficiency levels to “grade” my English learners, and on my mainstream teachers for classroom grades in writing.

Since I am also bilingual in Spanish, I am also called upon to interpret for my classroom teachers for our end-of-first-marking-period parent-teacher IMG_0850conferences. Therefore, as I sat through one conference after another hearing some of my favorite teachers offer vague and somewhat superficial explanations for how our students were progressing and being graded in writing, I realized, “We have TOTALLY failed these students.” Not only have we not given them clear and quantitative criteria for measuring their progress towards mastering the content area, we have not formulated a clear and purposeful plan for building on what they already know and are able to do now in order to improve their writing in the future.

Now, I’m not saying their grades were bad.  In fact, they were lovely. But when a bright and fully-engaged native speaker and an ESOL WIDA proficiency level 2 student get exactly the same grade on their report cards, and you as the teacher are fully aware of the difference in their final product, we as educators have to ask ourselves, (a) what are we really communicating in terms of standards-based performance indicators and criteria for success to our students, and (b) how do we plan for future instruction, putting into place interventions, scaffolds, supports, and strategies that will actually support our English learners to make these grades anything more than a feel-good kinda-sorta representation of their effort?

In larger terms the question is, as we move into the next marking period: How will we clarify for ourselves as a school, a grade-level team, or as a co-teachers, the indicators questionand criteria for success that will not only inform students of our shared expectations for writing but which also will serve to better inform the rationale behind their report card grades.

And no, right now, I really do not have an answer to that dilemma. But I think it’s an important one to solve, because upon our response hinges the most important question of all: how do we as ESL teachers work with our classroom teachers to plan and instruct for student success in writing. Stay tuned, and as always please please please, let us know via the comments section below or email how you and your school are managing these issues.  

I hope you will travel with us as we puzzle out the best way to use Lucy to help our English learners – and all of our students.   But even more importantly, I hope you will share your own challenges, your successes, and your suggestions and recommendations for using Lucy to show these, our most fragile, learners that not only can they succeed as writers but also excel!


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Switching Gears: What To Do When Nothing Works

by Susan Zimmerman-Orozco

susanSusan is an elementary ESL teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools and consultant with English Learner Portal. 

The school year is rolling along as the temperatures drop and the hurricanes move out to sea. Back in the classroom, students of Lucy Calkins have stepped away from narrative writing and moved on to non-fiction or persuasive writing. Except, as it turns out, they haven’t. After two weeks of intense instruction and support, pre-writing planning conversations still went like this, “One day, my dad and I were in the car. Then we saw a dog.”  Not non-fiction, not an opinion…a story.

It all started off so promising. Two weeks ago in grade 1 and 2, we wrapped up our narratives with a publishing gallery and tea party. We celebrated!

Then Monday arrived. In Grade 1, with our Content and Language Objectives duly formulated, we prepared children for their adventures in non-fiction, Writing Teaching Books with Independence, with a read-aloud Sharks!  Then, we had them think of themselves “teaching” about a topic, and imagining things they were experts at.

octopusHowever,  tasking 6 year-olds to come up with something they know and could teach someone about proved to be challenging for some students and their first efforts tended to be whatever topic their teacher had chosen for the lesson objective. Or, for reasons still not understood, octopuses.

So, the next day we scaffolded strategies for coming up with many things first graders IMG_1224can be experts on. For example, even Mrs. Zimmerman’s grandson EJ, can be an expert!

Once we had topics, we practiced using our fingers to tell what we know.  Then we used our fingers to tell our partners all about it!

In Second grade we began our journey into non-fiction and opinion writing by reading The Great Kapock Tree by Lynn Cherry. We learned how good writers use reasons to persuade their readers. Then we explored our own opinions by tasting and choosing our favorite cookies.

We came up with reasons to persuade our partners why our favorite cookie was the best. We practiced talking about it! We even used graphic organizers to help us remember our reasons.


Finally, we chose topics to write about and planned across our fingers.  Using our sentence frames and our fingers, we shared with our partners again!

At last, having anticipated our students’ misunderstandings, having formulated both Content and Language Objectives, and having scaffolded their intended language production, we were ready to write. And this is what we heard…

“My dad and I were in the car.  We saw a dog…”

And this is what we read…

“My mom said, “ We’re going to the store…”

So, now what?

IMG_9927We picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and started all over again with a mini-review. And then…we LISTENED!  We hunkered down with each of our students (something a lot easier to do in a co-teaching situation) and listened to what students were saying and what they thought they were writing. We pointed out confusions, prompted for opinions, gave thumbs up, and moved on to the next child.

Maybe the most challenging aspect of the Lucy Calkins program is that we tend to forgetIMG_9924 how important student conferencing is.  Those of us in highly diverse schools are so caught up in the minutia of scaffolding what good writing should look and sound like that we forget the point of it… “[We] are teaching the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by ‘what might help this writer’ rather than ‘what might help this writing’” (Lucy Calkins, 1994)

IMG_9922Student conferencing – working one on one with students – is too often a catch-as-catch-can occurrence, when in fact it is one of the most important tools in the LC writer’s toolbox. It needs to be carried out regularly in an an intentional and purposeful  way. Good writers make connections with their readers – whether they are telling a story or writing an opinion. Good teachers make connections with their students. As you travel through the changing focus of your writing program throughout the school year, please don’t forget the reason we are teaching writing in the first place: to connect and build relationships with our most important audience, our students.


If you aren’t already part of our mailing list, please sign up HERE to receive freebies, announcements, and just to get to know us!  Looking for new ideas and graduate credits? Visit our Online Professional Development School!  Please visit the ELP website to meet the team and learn more about our services.