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In most school subjects, the learning is linear and cumulative: Students learn a concept, and then they build on it. And then we add more complexity. But when it comes to acquiring literacy skills, especially in writing, things work differently. The path is not straight; it’s more like a slanted spiral. This means that sometimes young writers will get worse on the way to getting better.
Let’s consider a young writer we’ll call Ted. Ted isn’t cognitively ready to process thoughts that require much complexity, so he uses mostly simple sentences. He has no personal frame of reference for punctuating more complex sentences. His simple ideas require simple sentences, and simple sentences require simple punctuation. But as Ted’s thinking and ideas become more sophisticated, he needs more complex sentence constructions in his syntactic repertoire. If Ted didn’t grasp those sentence-formation rules when they were presented in class—because he wasn’t developmentally ready for them—his writing is likely to have some sentence-formation problems.
Ted had no sentence-formation errors when his thinking and writing were simple, but now that he’s operating on a higher level, he ironically has sentence-formation errors. Has Ted become a worse writer? If we simply count up his errors, Ted’s tally might look like he’s getting worse when in actuality he’s getting “worse” on the way to getting better. When the complexity of Ted’s ideas syncs up with his understanding of how to correctly form more complex sentences, he’ll be a stronger writer and thinker. And then this recursive process will resume from Ted’s new level of expertise.
The same dynamic is true of young writers with a growing vocabulary. The first time Rachel uses a new word, she might use it wrong, either grammatically or in terms of its context or connotations. After she learns the new word’s contours and correct usage, she’ll probably use it correctly for the rest of her life. But if we take a measure of Rachel’s writing while her acquisition of that word is still forming, we may see a stylistic or syntactic error that is actually the result of new growth. If Rachel’s vocabulary wasn’t growing, she wouldn’t be making that error. Paradoxically, her error is a result of an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary.
All of this is a long way of saying we must be very careful with summative assessments of writing. At any given point, each student is developing new abilities; trying new words, phrasings, ideas and constructions; and experimenting with every aspect of writing. Because writing is so multi-faceted, some aspects will be farther along than others, and some may appear to be going backwards as trial-and-error takes place. While some mistakes are simply mistakes, others are missteps resulting from important experimentation that will soon result in helping the writer become more versatile and articulate.
Just as every piece of writing benefits from going through a process, every young writer is also midstream in an on-going developmental process. Learning to write is the most dynamic, recursive academic process a student is likely to experience. Let’s be sure we see “errors” as a healthy, predictable part of that process and not allow stand-alone assessments relying on static measurements to characterize any student’s ability.
Assessing a student writer’s growth with accuracy and validity requires multiple check-points across a long period of time. Any other approach carries a high risk of catching a student in the act of getting worse on the way to getting better.