How to assess writing (if all other systems seem to fail)

FToday I have finished reading a great book “Genre, Text, Grammar: Technologies for Teaching and Assessing Writing” written by Megan Watkins and Peter Knapp (2005).

It suggests a very elegant way of teaching and assessing any kinds of texts from the genre position. As each genre has its specific features of texts, it can be a good starting point for teaching learners of any age. Actually, this point of view is widely known and used both in English-speaking countries in regular classes and in ESL/EFL classes to provide learners with needed skills for writing. The book authors take another step forward and suggest looking not only at specific structures or vocabulary, but at grammar features which are commonly found in any given genre. Have you heard something like that before? Well, if you happened to study the lexical approach, you should have come across this idea. Or, another way to reach this notion could be through the English language corpus which provides more statistical data. Anyway, this or that way the book clearly explains the advantages of such systematic approach to writing.

Writing may be not as challenging itself as assessing that same writing and providing a meaningful feedback. Teachers have to create their own criteria which can be appropriate in one situation and be a total failure when it comes to another kind of writing. I’d like to share a very elegant, clear and easy to follow system from Watkins and Knapp’s book. All the further lines are direct quotations from pages 93-95 so they can be used in assignments without any worries about plagiarism:



The ‘genre and grammar’ approach proposed here offers an objective approach to assessment based on the particular generic, structural and grammatical features of genres. For example, the features of writing using the genre of describing will be significantly different to those of arguing or narrating. In the following chapters we will identify the salient features of each of the genres and apply these to a systematic methodology to assessing student writing in each of the genres. P. 93

  • Genre Criteria in this group consider whether the writing successfully uses the appropriate genre for the task.
  • Theme This criterion considers whether the writing has addressed the task or the degree to which the writing stays on task, or the inventiveness of weaving the task to produce particular effects.
  • Structure Different genres have different structural features.
  • Rhetorical and language features Different genres use different rhetorical strategies or figurative devices to enhance the effectiveness of the writing. In general, these types of criteria are useful indicators of a student’s control of their writing or effective discriminators for identifying competent and/or advanced writers.
  • Vocabulary Different genres use different types of vocabulary, depending on determining categories such as topic, purpose and audience. Pp. 93-94
  • Connectives Connective is a functional term for words like conjuncts and conjunctions that join linguistic units such as sentences, clauses, phrases a
    nd words in logical relationships of time, cause and effect, comparison or addition.
  • Reference Reference refers to the way in which information is introduced, maintained and expanded in a text. The use of pronouns (pronominal reference) is the most common way of maintaining reference without the clumsiness of continual naming.
  • Tense The use of tense changes from genre to genre.
  • Sentence structure This criterion is a powerful indicator of development in student writing. Writers move from simple and compound, speech-like sentence structures to more complex, hierarchical structures using non-finite and embedded clauses. Pp. 94-95


Criteria in this group of categories deal with writer’s competence in control of the syntax of English sentences. It is important to assess student writing against these criteria as they indicate many of the basic competencies of writing that must be addressed. Criteria here would deal with issues such as:

clause pattern Does every statement have a subject and finite verb?

agreement Do the auxiliaries and verb forms agree with their subjects?

verb form Is the correct past participle of the verb used?

prepositions Are prepositions used appropriately and correctly?

articles Are the correct articles used?

plurals Are plurals used correctly?

punctuation Are sentences marked with appropriate punctuation?  P. 95


Spelling needs to be assessed systematically and diagnostically. In other words it is not sufficient to mark spelling for incorrectly spelt words. Spelling should be also assessed on the level of difficulty of the words attempted. It is best to assess ‘spelling in writing’ at levels of difficulty. P. 95

In total you will have four categories (generic features, textual language, syntactical language and spelling) which may or may not be subdivided. They include all main areas which are assessed and allows to save time and keep the record clear for students.

It’s a good idea to choose one or two categories each time to concentrate specifically on the most challenging areas. If you share your expectations and criteria in advance it will allow students to achieve the task better as they will know what to look for and be aware of. Remember to add comments which can include examples of mistakes and, more rewardingly, examples of successful language usage.

The next step, after students got acquainted with your system, is to suggest them to take part in this process and give them a check list with descriptions and a place to tick or cross in one column next to the column for the teacher’s ticks and crosses and another column for any comments or examples. That “tracking list” can be a useful tool for developing learner’s independence and for tracking the improvement (or a lack of it) as the criteria remain same from one situation to another.

If you have read to the very end of the article, here is a little surprise for you: a ready-made writing tracker you’ve just read about! You can download a draft version of such tracker which can be simplified or adapted according to your needs: writing assessment criteria

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