Friday, June 3, 2011


For those of you joining us from another state or another country, Virginia's 8th graders take two state assessments in language arts.   We administer the writing test in early March.   Students must pass a multiple choice portion that focuses most heavily on editing, but includes other parts of the writing process.   They must also write a short paper that is evaluated in three domains: composing, written expression and usage/mechanics.   It's the essay portion that I want to talk with you about today.

A great tool that Virginia's Department of Education made available to teachers and students is the NCS Mentor Program.   It's a collection of scored student essays that were written for the writing assessment.   You are able to show students what passing and failing papers look like.   Essays have been scored in each of the three domains, so if you are giving a lesson on written expression, you can zero in on papers that illuminate those techniques well.  

My favorite part of the NCS Mentor is the color-coded overlay feature.   If you choose that option in viewing a paper, you get to see a student's essay evaluated with annotations that are linked to a color.  
  • Red = Central Idea
  • Green= Elaboration
  • Blue= Unity
  • Purple= Organization
To see this free program for yourself, visit

I wanted to translate the color coding idea into something manageable for my writing classroom.   Two of the materials that I require for class are pink and green highlighters.   I decided to equate pink with "pause" and green with "go."  

Here's what I know about 8th grade writers.   Many students don't really know when or how they got it right or wrong when it comes to writing.   Often, they don't have the right vocabulary to pinpoint what works and doesn't work in their essay.   It's like looking at a great piece of art when you don't have the language to evaluate it.   Your gut tells you it's great, but what techniques is the artist using to please your eye and move your heart?   In addition to giving students the reasons why part of a piece does not work, we need to give them the language to explain why other parts do.   For example, "You are right to organize your story chronologically, but your word choice is flat and the lack of elaboration does not let the reader visualize what is happening."   This book can help you comment on student work

Where do the highlighters come in?   When students are revising, I ask them to identify their best parts in green and the parts that need help in pink.   Sometimes when I am evaluating a paper, I use the highlighters as well.  

The highlighting task can have a smaller scope.   For instance, if you are teaching students the beauty of word choice, ask them to highlight their vivid language in green before turning their paper in to you.   If they are unable to make any highlights, they have already discovered that they do not have mastery of the skill.   They should revise before turning the paper in to you.   It's so important for writers to critique their own work.   Every now and then we do some peer editing, but that's not a realistic scenario, is it?   And peer revising is just too much to ask.   Really.   Writing is work.   Writing is craft.   Expect to sweat a little.

Highlighters, colored pencils, pens, doesn't really matter what students use.  

Also, if you administer the VA writing SOL, check the directions.   This year students were allowed one colored pencil to use for editing and revising their draft...not on the final though.   It looks like the DOE caught on to the good idea they shared with teachers through the NCS Mentor.   And guess what?   Students used those pencils.   What's better than giving students techniques that they can carry with them throughout their writing lives?

For an in-depth look at the new curriculum framework for 8th grade writing, look for pages 73-79 after you click "6-8" at

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