Teaching Esl Essay

I would like to start by raising a few questions:

1st. What direction should assessment of writing take?

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2nd. Should it assess samples of daily work such as a journal entries or portfolio writing?

3rd. Or is the notion of general assessment completely out of synchronization with the mega-trends in education where assessment and response to writing have become revolutionary? I will attempt to answer these questions as a recommended solution to teachers’ problems on how to assess, evaluate and mark students’ work.

Based on my experience as a teacher trainer, I should say that the teaching and subsequent assessment of writing leave much to be desired. Not much change has been undertaken in terms of approaches and classroom procedures. Might this be due to the fact that some of us teach the way we were taught? That some of us still cling to the age-old beliefs and practices in evaluating, grading and teaching, assessing and responding to student writing?

Let me cite some of the practices that most of us language teachers find difficult to do away with:

1. Teacher gives exercises and model paragraphs and essays for students to imitate. If this is all that a teacher does, then she hampers or impedes creativity on the part of the students.

2. Teacher lists a number of topics on the chalkboard, then asks students to choose one and write about it. This is done without so much as a preliminary activity to the actual writing exercise.

3. Teacher prescribes the exact number of words and the time limit with which to finish a piece of writing. For example, all papers have to be handed in at the end of a 40 or 60-minute period, inclusive of preliminaries such as instructions, number of words, number of paragraphs, etc.

4. Assessment, evaluation and grading are imprecise unsystematic. Teachers usually write marginal comments, which only serve to confuse students. General comments like improve, rephrase, vague, too broad or specify frustrate the students instead of help them.

5. Teacher gives writing assignments, which take time to mark and give back to students, or worse, teacher sometimes fails to return the papers. We were students once and we know how important the teacher’s feedback was. Can we blame our students today if they become indifferent to their English courses?

6. Teacher corrects all errors, “bleeds” students’ papers to death, figuratively and literally. Red pencilling all over the paper reveals that form, rather than substance, is given more attention. By correcting on form, students tend to turn in papers, which are almost flawless in grammar but lacking in substance. Research in the teaching of writing according to Sommer (1989) reveals that red ink, marginal notes and symbols for correction are generally ineffective in improving student writing.

He also says that beginning writers have the misconception that flawless grammars, proper punctuation, correct choice of words, are some of the primary considerations in writing; that “what the teacher wants” is more important than a student’s developing original ideas; and that writing submitted to the teacher for correction is finished work rather than a stage in the process of improvement and completion.

7. Readership is limited. Students write compositions for their teacher’s eyes only. They do not get the chance to read each other’s work.

These are only some of the classroom “malpractices” that confuse and disorient students. How then do English teachers put an end to these seemingly problematic scenarios in their writing classes?

Assessment and evaluation are not the sole responsibility of the teacher. Teachers need to make their students realize that their paper is their own property- thus answering the question of ownership. A paper which is “excessively marked and scribbled over” by the teacher is no longer the student’s property. It becomes the teacher’s. How can we assess and respond effectively to student writing considering the negative effects of certain traditional beliefs and practices?


My paper main objective therefore is to present new directions in assessing and responding to student writing. Wiser & Dorsey (1991) claim that what we are doing now is not much; what we are going to be doing is a lot more. Some of us want assessment to play a role that is totally different from the role it now plays. Others may want to do away with traditional assessment altogether and to explore writing assessment through the use of alternative forms of assessment.

Options in Writing Assessment

The term assessment, based on the context of my paper, involves the means of obtaining information about students, abilities, knowledge, understanding attainments or attitudes. An assignment in writing, for instance, will be helpful in assessing a student’s ability in and understanding of the assigned activity.

Sommer (1989) defines assessment as the process of finding out who the students are, what their abilities are, what they need to know, and how they perceive the learning will affect them. Sommer further distinguishes assessment from evaluation when he says that assessment takes place at the outset of the writing course, whereas evaluation describes ongoing activities that eventually provide closure in the writing course.

Assessment places the need of the students at the center of the teacher’s planning.

At this point, let me go back to the question raised earlier on – “How do we assess and respond to student writing considering the negative effects of certain traditional beliefs and practices?” My answer is, we have to explore new directions and perspectives along this line.

In the light of pedagogical concerns, I should like now to discuss options in writing assessment through alternative and non-traditional forms of assessing classroom-based writing. They are:

1. Portfolio assessment

2. Protocol analysis

3. Learning logs

4. Journal entries

5. Dialogue journals

Some of these forms of assessment are familiar to you but they will be discussed in the light of new trends and approaches relevant to the teaching of writing. It will dwell more lengthily an in greater detail than the rest the issues of portfolio assessment.

1. Portfolio – assessment

How can portfolios be used as an alternative method of assessment? New ideas in the teaching of English do come along. Some of them become quickly established in practice because they are “so right, so timely, so useful.” The portfolio in writing classes is a case of point. Disenchantment with the traditional modes of assessment has probably contributed to portfolio approach to assessment of writing.

What then are portfolios? Applebee and Langer (1992) define portfolios as a cumulative collection of the work students has done. Some of the most popular forms include:

a. A traditional “writing folder” in which students keep their work.

b. A bound notebook with separate sections kept for work in progress and final drafts

c. A loose-leaf notebook in which students keep their drafts and revisions

d. A combination folder and big brown envelope where students’ writings – exercises, tests, compositions, drafts, etc. – are kept. (Incidentally, this form of portfolio is my own creation.)

e. A notebook divided into two sections: one for drafts and the other for final copies (traditionally called original and rewritten compositions way back in the late 50s’ and the60s’ where I used to be a public school teacher in the Division of City Schools, Manila.)

A typical writing portfolio contains the student’s total writing output to represent his/her overall performance, but it may also contain only a selection of works which the student has chosen for the teacher to evaluate. In other words, portfolios show a student’s work from the beginning of the term to the end giving both teacher and student a chance to assess how much the latter’s writing has progressed.

Let me give a specific example. In April 1995, I personally handled 15 hours of a 30-hour writing class (a special CELL writing program.) which I team-taught with another teacher. The class was composed of 20 college bound students who wanted to improve their writing skills in preparation for university studies. I exploited portfolio approach, which I found effective despite the fact that the writing class was a non-degree program.

Instead of taking their portfolios home, the students kept them in a writing desk which I appropriated in one corner of the room (we had a permanent room for the entire course). Before they left the class at noontime, the students had to put their portfolios on the desk and would get them back as soon as they arrived the following morning.

The students had all the time to discuss their assignments, to write, to do exercises, and other activities relevant to the subject matter. Likewise, I had all the time to assess their work with the assistance of course of the whole class. Incidentally, I also asked my students to put their journals entries in a small notebook, which they kept in their portfolios.

Two days before the end of classes, I required my students to prepare a table of contents for their portfolios and to write a timed reflective essay in class which was the only timed writing they did, explaining their choice of papers for assessment and evaluation purposes. They got back their portfolios with my written comments and suggestions on the last day of classes as part of our culminating activity. This doesn’t mean, however, that portfolio assessments should be done only once; actually, they should be done at the outset and progress along with the students’ own progress in writing.

Portfolio collections form the basis for conferences, which I will discuss in a little while as one of the responses to student writing. Conferencing is a vital component of portfolio assessment. Farr & Lowe (1991) are of the opinion that students, through conferencing and keeping portfolios, experience making real-life decisions as well as decisions about schoolwork.

In order for students to take responsibility for their learning and their lives, ownership of their own choices and actions is an all-important consideration. In the traditional approach, ownership of work and learning is looked upon more as the responsibility of the teacher than of the learner. But when students actively participate in the selection and discussion of their work, they gain a true sense of ownership, which results in personal satisfaction, and feelings of self-worth.


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