Assessing Writing

Assessing NNS writing can be difficult, because no one wants to overly penalize students for errors due to lack of language. Most university instructors put a priority on the level of critical thinking that is demonstrated in a student's writing, but language errors can sometimes overshadow content for readers, and especially for native speakers of English, who are most likely to notice missing or incorrect language and punctuation. 

Native speaker instructors tend to do one of two things when assessing NNS writing:

  • Marking all grammar and vocabulary errors
  • Marking none of the errors and only commenting on content and organization

Neither method is ideal, because the former is often done at the expense of giving feedback on content and organization, and the latter only reinforces errors and error patterns in a student's writing by offering no correction or explanation that could help the student improve his language skills.

There are different ways to assess student writing that penalize less for language errors and at the same time clearly acknowledge a student's current skill level:

  • Graded assessments that are both formative (for learning) and summative (strictly for final grading of skill/knowledge level), depending on how feedback is given. 
  • Rubrics that keep the weight of the language component in perspective by focusing on a student's display of knowledge, interpretation/analysis, organization/development, or other such criteria more heavily.
  • Students being held responsible for those language features that are clearly attached to rules in English (and therefore easier for them to get right), but for other language features that are much harder to acquire (prepositions, articles, vocabulary choices) feedback is given but no penalty is attached.

Several sample rubrics are included in this section that can help instructors think about how they might assess students for those writing components they consider most valuable while still acknowledging a student's skill level and giving feedback that can help that student improve his language and grammar.