Put Some “Oooh” In Your Rubric? How to write a writing rubric.

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I have grown to love the word “rubric”.  I love the way that it forces my mouth into a pout with the first syllable and then into a salesman’s smile with the second.

“Success criteria” on the other hand makes me shudder as if cold air has blasted over one of my cavities. There is something unsportsmanlike about giving students a precise list of things to include in their work “for a grade”. Whereas a rubric has more of an aloof grandeur as if it is deigning to peruse the student’s work (“Fortnum is closed for another hour in any case.”).

Before I pontificate myself into the ether,  let’s get down to it. If you find yourself trawling the Internet for a speech rubric the night before a lesson on speeches,  you know that your planning routine is a little too just-in-time. So here’s a short,  step-by-step procedure for generating a rubric so that you don’t get caught short.

Step 1: Know your standards

I get my writing standards from our curriculum and I check the UK national levels for literacy to see a rough benchmark for age-related expectations. Once I’ve got a feel for a reasonable expectation in content, style, organisation and language, those form the midpoint of my rubric. So for example, if I know that controlled paragraphs are an expectation for my year group, “controlled paragraphs” lies across the pass mark of my rubric.

Step 2: Define your strands

As mentioned above, my four strands for all writing are: content, style, organisation and language. I settled on these after using UK National Curriculum strands, which I found far too specific and “six traits”, which were too arbitrary and prone to overlapping judgement (punishing a piece for a single error that cuts across several strands). The four strand rubric that I use is adapted from Cambridge ESL and it allows me to reflect aspects of style and language learning without getting caught up in counting mistakes.

Step 3: Avoid spoon feeding too much

Have you ever put numbers in your rubric descriptors? I used to write (in the language strand) something like: “makes more than three errors in grammar.” Not only does that make for thankless marking, it also puts students under unreasonable pressure to meet your arbitrary expectation. Again from Cambridge ESL, I have borrowed the terminology: “unimpeding error”. If an error impedes the understanding of a reader then we have a problem; a rather more serious problem than a spelling mistake that can be quickly grasped by the average reader. So the bottom end of a writing rubric might make mention of “lots of impeding errors” in its language strand.

Finally: Don’t dumb it down

Yes, it is laudable to make your expectations crystal clear to your students, but child-friendly language should not oversimplify those expectations. By writing “includes lots of wow words” you will find yourself arguing with students who have littered their prose with multisyllabic, Latinate terms that add nothing to the purpose of the text. First write your rubric for your own understanding, then refine it over time without compromising its integrity or laying yourself open to point scoring (“But I used loads of adjectives!”).

If you’ve done your job well, you have a generic writing rubric that meets the standards for your year. You are now free to adapt it for use across a range of genre; simply alter the style and organisation strands to meet the structural needs of the genre. Content may need to change as well especially if the purpose of the genre is distinct. However, if your writing rubrics share similar terminology and have the same underlying foundation of standards, you will find yourself having more fruitful conversations with students and parents. Rather than getting bogged down in the specifics of a task, you’ll have the evidence to make broader recommendations that can be applied to the next task, even if you are switching topics and genres.

There you have it: rubrics with added “oooh”!

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2 thoughts on “Put Some “Oooh” In Your Rubric? How to write a writing rubric.

    1. I can see that Derek knows the structure of a simile, so he would score well for language. Style and content are another matter entirely. You need to get him peer reviewing. Have another student respond to his work but preferably one that doesn’t know his dad or his uncle!

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