My mentor and I are discussing if we should grade science notebooks, lab reports, and assessments for correct usage, punctuation, and spelling. Or should we ignore these errors and just grade for content? —G., Maryland
My contribution to your discussion would fall toward the content end of the continuum. It’s important to assess students’ content knowledge, the appropriateness of their conclusions, their use of evidence to support a claim, how they apply their knowledge to situations, and how clearly they organize data. But students’ written work can be hard to assess if it is riddled with spelling errors or uses sentence structure that is hard to follow. The rubric should reflect the students’ age, experience level, and facility with the English language. For example, expectations and requirements for high school seniors should be at a higher level than those for younger students.
It’s interesting to follow up with students. We often find that students, including those with special needs or who are English language learners, can communicate orally but struggle to write their thoughts in an understandable form. In these cases, if the student can explain their thoughts orally and/or with drawings, I would use that explanation to assess their learning.
But it’s also important for students to write for a variety of purposes and for their writing to be appropriate for its purpose. A museum zoologist I interviewed said that a good portion of his day was spent writing—notes, memos, observations, summaries, reports, journal articles, blog entries, and letters. Some of this written work was meant for his eyes only (notes, drafts, observations) while others were more summative and meant to be shared with others (reports, articles, letters). Your students’ work follows a similar pattern: writing for themselves (as in notes, reflections, exit tickets) versus writing for their peers or teachers to understand (lab reports or essays). The latter needs to be understandable to others.
When evaluating student writing, some teachers try to “edit” their work. But noting or commenting on every misspelled word and grammatical error is time consuming and assumes the teacher is knowledgeable of language usage and punctuation. Seeing a page of corrections in red ink can be discouraging to novice writers. (A colleague of mine on the science faculty is dyslexic—he noted that he would have a hard time correcting someone else’s work!)
My own elementary teachers were strict grammarians. We identified parts of speech, punctuated sentences, and diagrammed and parsed sentences. Unfortunately, we didn’t do much original writing. I struggled with writing in high school (even though what I wrote was grammatically correct), and I’m grateful to those teachers who encouraged and helped me to organize and express my thoughts in writing and eventually to enjoy doing it.
So in my own secondary classroom, I focused less on conventions and usage and more on the content and clarity of students’ writing. However, I did require that students use complete sentences, spell the words on the Word Wall correctly, and label all numbers. I framed this in the context of communicating clearly: “You have important things to say. When you write clearly, we can all understand what you mean. And I really want to understand.” I modeled and reviewed what a sentence was and what to do if I was unsure of how to spell a word. It took time but eventually most students were able to meet these expectations.
My students and I also brainstormed and posted commonly confused words: to-too-two, your-you’re, their-there-they’re, its-it’s, and choose-chose. Having these on the Wall or in their notebooks reinforced their proper use.
Writing informational text in science is different from writing narrations, opinion pieces, or poetry, and students need guided practice, support, and opportunities to communicate this way (although a student of mine did write a series of poems about marine invertebrates that was quite good, both in content and in structure!).
[In an NSTA discussion forum, several teachers suggested the CAST Science Writer as a classroom tool. I have not used it personally but it looks good.]