Assessing Writing, Teaching Writers: Putting the Analytic Writing Continuum to Work in Your Classroom
reviewed by Vera Lee - June 08, 2017
Title: Assessing Writing, Teaching Writers: Putting the Analytic Writing Continuum to Work in Your Classroom
Author(s): Mary Ann Smith & Sherry Seale Swain
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758124, Pages: 128, Year: 2016
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As a former middle and high school English teacher who taught students with different backgrounds, languages, literacy abilities and needs, I understand how teaching writing can be a daunting task for both teacher and student alike. Mary Ann Smith and Sherry Seale Swain have written a book supported by the National Writing Project called Assessing Writing, Teaching Writers: Putting the Analytic Writing Continuum to Work in Your Classroom to help teachers who feel overwhelmed by this task. The National Writing Project believes that every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world (About NWP). This book supports K-16 teachers in this endeavor by presenting the Analytic Writing Continuum, or AWC, which is a scoring guide originally used for the National Writing Scoring events that has since been adopted by classroom teachers to teach students how to write (p. 2).
The first chapter begins by calling attention to several dilemmas teachers often face with grading student writing, including the enormous amount of time required to assess it and offer meaningful feedback to students. The feeling a teacher might experience at the thought of assessing student writing is encapsulated in this statement: The truth is that assessing student writing can feel completely random, not to mention stupefying (p. 1). Smith and Swain introduce the AWC as a tool to more directly support the instruction and learning of writing. A real strength of the AWC is that it was created by teachers and tested in live classrooms, so teachers were a central part of its development. The authors also explain that the AWC is not meant to be prescriptive, but instead teachers are invited to make it your own (p. 3). Some other characteristics that make the AWC a particularly flexible and appealing scoring guide is that it focuses on writing as a developmental process, and it may be used with an array of writing assignments or for a number of purposes beyond assessment (p. 9-11).
The second chapter discusses the AWC in detail, and at first glance, it can be overwhelming to look at a model that spans several pages. In fact, Smith and Swain stated that for the National Writing Project scoring events, the AWC was printed back-to-back on an 11 x 17 sheet of paper. Six attributes of writing are presented in the AWC: content, structure, stance, sentence fluency, diction, and conventions. Thus, there are six scores that a student can receive in each category, one representing the lowest score, and six representing the highest score. The middle part of the chapter presents three examples of student writing, and how the AWC could be used to evaluate students strengths in the six areas, along with recommendations for possible feedback. The students themselves were diverse in terms of grade level, geographic location, and even language. The student writing was my favorite part of the chapter, and I agree with the authors who state that the AWC makes sense when viewed alongside student writing (p. 21). The final third of the chapter is the most conceptual part of the book where the six attributes of the AWC model are defined and a few pieces of student writing are included to analyze and discuss each attribute at length. One of the most useful parts of this chapter is when teachers talk about how they use the AWC to evaluate or teach about a particular attribute. For instance, I thought Paula Diedrichs description of how she presents stance to her students was an excellent way to explain a challenging concept: We talk about getting dressed for the prom versus going out with your friends four-wheeling. We dress differently for both occasions (p. 35). This will help students understand how a writers stance or tone might change depending upon the purpose of the written piece.
In Chapter Three, the authors share stories about the different ways in which teachers have used the AWC with their students, it was helpful to see how the AWC was adapted into elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. For instance, one middle school teacher, Nikki Mathews, used the AWC as a formative assessment tool and adjusted some of the wording in the model, then handed out packets of anonymous student writing and asked her students to evaluate the pieces using the AWC. In Debbie Dehoneys second grade class, she used her experience teaching young children to focus her energies on one AWC attribute (p. 52), which was content. She revised the original wording of the content attribute with the top score of six, adapted it to kid-friendly language, and then reorganized it into several different sections on a scoring sheet. Her adapted content attribute was used during class discussions to evaluate stories, as well as during individual student conferences.
The final three chapters will be discussed together since they present ideas for collaboration among teachers, and they include developing professional development opportunities, hosting a local scoring session, and integrating the AWC into the classroom. In Chapter Four, Smith and Swain discuss the critical role inquiry groups play in helping teachers learn from research and practice, problem solving, sharing knowledge, and reflecting (p. 70). The second half of the chapter offers practical ideas for offering professional development around the AWC, such as classroom testing a writing activity in order to share real-life experiences with particular strategies, challenges, and approaches to experience AWCs effect on actual student writing. Chapter Five provides guidelines for establishing a local scoring session, similar to the larger national scoring events. For instance, the selection of anchor papers provides a road map that enables scorers to interpret the AWC with consistency (p. 86). In addition, providing written commentaries for each anchor paper is another important part of the preparation process, as scorers can see how the AWC attributes are addressed within each paper. The sixth chapter brings us back to the classroom, and offers suggestions for adopting the AWC into the curriculum. One suggestion describes selecting one attribute as a starting point (p. 95), and using professionally written pieces as mentor texts that students can evaluate with the AWC (p. 95). The authors remind us at the end of the chapter that there is no one prescribed method for using the AWC, and that it is flexible in its application.
Smith and Swain have provided a wonderfully practical book for teachers who are looking for a useful guide for writing. The individual teachers stories about their experiences with the AWC, along with examples of student writing, were particularly insightful in illuminating the flexibility of the model in the context of actual teaching. However, there were certain topics that I wish had been expanded further, such as using the AWC for specific groups of students with linguistic and learning differences, or offering more examples of how early elementary classrooms have adopted AWCl to teach young children to write. Overall, Smith and Swains book has presented the literacy community with a promising tool that demystifies the writing process for both students and teachers.
About NWP. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/doc/about.csp