essay writing

Q&A: Tips for Grading Your Homeschooler’s Essays

Q&A: Tips for Grading Your Homeschooler’s Essays

Now that my daughter is in middle school, I want to start giving her real grades on her essays and papers—but I am really not sure how to decide whether an essay should get an A, B, or C. Do you have any tips?

You can make yourself crazy trying to grade essays because there are so many possible components to consider. So make it easy on yourself, and determine the purpose of your essay upfront: Is your essay an analysis of a story? Then your grading should focus on how successfully your student analyzes the story. Is your paper a traditional research paper? Then your grade should focus on how well-researched and organized the paper actually is. This does mean that you’ll be mentally shifting gears with each essay assignment, but that’s really the key to thoughtful essay grading. Beyond that, here are some practical tips for grading essays that will help keep your grading consistent and helpful for your student:

Know what makes a good essay. It seems dorky to write a rubric for a single student, but you really should. Write down what differentiates an A paper (all sentences are well constructed and vary in length and structure) from a B paper (most sentences are well constructed and vary in length and structure) from a C paper (most sentences are well constructed but have similar structure and length). If you’re new to rubric-writing (and most homeschoolers are), this example from readwritethink.org is a good starting point that you can tweak as you go.

Let your student know your method. Say “For this book report, I’m going to be looking mostly at how well you explain the strengths and weaknesses of the book. You can use the plot to help support your argument, but you don’t need to summarize the plot for me.” If you make a rubric for grading essays, you should definitely share it with your student. 

Don’t play copyeditor. Your job isn’t to correct every misspelling and grammatical gaffe in your student’s paper—this isn’t a manuscript, and you aren’t an editor. Pick two or three grammatical concepts to focus on per paper (using quotes correctly, for example, or including citations appropriately), and limit your red-penning to these specific concepts. Look for patterns rather than specific instances—it’s more helpful to say, “I notice that you’re having trouble trying to squeeze too much information into one sentence, and you’re ending up with a lot of run-ons and hard-to-read sentences” than to mark up every awkward sentence. If your student seems to be backsliding on a grammatical or structural issue that should already be old hat, return his paper and ask him to do the grammatical revisions before returning the paper to you. (“It looks like you didn’t break this essay up into paragraphs—why don’t you fix that before I grade it?”)

Look for things the writer is doing well. I think you should always try to point out two things your writer is doing successfully in a paper, even if they feel like small or unexceptional things to you. It’s not that you want to cast faint praise or give a participation ribbon to your kid, but young writers need to know what they are getting right as well as where they can improve.

This Q&A was originally published in the winter 2016 issue of HSL.


5 Things I've Learned From Teaching a Homeschool Writing Class

Great tips for teaching writing to homeschoolers. Number three gives me hope! #homeschool

I teach a creative writing class at our homeschool group. It’s one of the best parts of my week because the class always comes together like an explosion of creativity. (Also all my students are just fantastic humans.) I’ve been lucky to watch the students I’ve taught get accepted to college, find professional writing jobs, and even go from mumbling that they hate to write to telling everyone that writing is their favorite class. I like to think that my students have picked up some knowledge over the years, but the truth is, I’ve probably learned more than they have—and all these lessons have proven helpful in helping my own kids to be better, more engaged writers.

  1.  It’s smart to go back to basics. The first time my class turned in a story assignment, I realized that some of them had never turned in a written assignment before: No one wrote names on papers, and some kids wrote on the back side of the paper instead of the front. Obviously that’s no big deal in a class like mine, but I made a mental note that I wanted to be sure to talk to my daughter about how to set up a paper that she’s turning in to someone else.
  2. Deadlines are your friend. My first class, I didn’t want to risk curbing creativity by being hard-core about deadlines and encouraged kids to submit work on their own timeline. But I realized that my writers did better when they had a firm deadline—otherwise, like me, they would just keep poking and poking at a piece until long past its best-by date. Setting deadlines gave them permission to finish a story and call it done-for-now. I still believe writer’s block is a legitimate excuse to miss an assignment, but now I set lots of deadlines and students consistently rise to them. 
  3. Spelling and grammar are easy to fix. I don’t worry much about about grammar and spelling in creative writing—that’s not really the point—but I do mark recurring errors in spelling or grammar, no more than two or three per story. And you know what? Probably 80 percent of the time, students don’t ever repeat an error after I mark it once. 
  4. Good writing does not only happen on the page. When I was planning my class, I envisioned kids bent over their notepads, the sound of their furiously scratching pencils echoing through the room. Instead, I found myself surrounded by non-stop conversation. (I even attained a dubious level of fame for having the loudest class in our group.) But I soon realized that all these conversations—even the ones that seemed the most off-track—found their way back into what the students were writing—and their work was better because of them. Lesson learned: Creativity doesn’t have to happen in vacuum. 
  5. You cannot give too much positive feedback. My students like to tease me about all the little green comments I leave on their work. (Also about my obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that’s another story.) When I was a teenager, my papers would usually come back with As scrawled on the top and sometimes “nice work” or “good job.” But I wanted more feedback—I wanted to know where my word choice had been spot-on and where my arguments had been particularly strong. I wondered if my teacher had caught my allusions or gotten the joke I’d tried to make in my conclusion. So I mark up papers with that memory in mind, making a point to note great sentences, smart ideas, and interesting constructions. If I think there’s a place where something could be stronger, I definitely note that, too, but the majority of my notes focus on what the writer is doing right—which is usually a lot.