Assessing writing assignments: criteria and approaches

My students keep making the same mistakes”, “My students don’t understand what they need to do”, “It’s hard to provide effective feedback”. Do you have difficulties with creating relevant grading rubrics or providing constructive post-writing feedback? What the best criteria and approaches for assessing writing assignments? Keep reading. In this article, we will highlight the main points which matter while grading writing tasks and suggest ways of giving appropriate feedback to a piece of writing.

Grading writing tasks

From the very beginning of a writing session, students must be aware of the main criteria and goals of the writing task. Whatever methods of assessment you choose, be sure to let students know how they will be evaluated. Here are several ways the writing task can be evaluated.

Guiding Questions

Using the questions below as a guide can help to assess ESL writing easily and fast. These guiding questions can be used for longer pieces of writing such as essays, reports or critiques.

  1. Does the writing effectively address the topic and task? Are there any sentences that do not relate to the points of the writing task? Was any necessary information ignored in the response?
  2. Is the writing well organised and well-developed? Is there a clear structure? (e.g. thesis statement, introduction, body, conclusion, etc.)
  3. Does the writing display unity, progression and coherence? Are transitional words used to connect paragraphs, sentences, and ideas? (e.g. first, finally, also, moreover, in conclusion, etc.)
  4. Does the writing display consistency in the use of language? Is there significant switching of tenses or pronouns? (shifting from past to present tense for no reason, changing we to I pronoun etc.)

Marking Keys

Low-level ESL learners should be taught conventional grammar and spelling to build a solid foundation for future, more complex writing tasks. So, when assessing basic writing assignments, it can be helpful to focus on correcting mechanical errors by using marking keys. This will allow students to reflect on their writing and try to find the errors on their own. Here is a list of the most widespread marking keys which will help to grade a writing task.

  1. GR=Grammar mistake
  2. SP= Spelling error
  3. WW=Wrong word
  4. ?=Unclear meaning
  5. WO=Incorrect word order
  6. INC=Incomplete sentence
  7. PU=Incorrect punctuation


Another popular way of evaluating writing tasks is doing it through rubrics (charts or grids) on which we identify the central requirements of the given writing assignment. Then, we evaluate whether or not, and how effectively, students met those criteria. Here is an example of grading rubrics.

Assessing writing assignments: criteria and approaches
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Feedback on writing tasks

Relevant feedback helps students to reflect on the writing task. Only through appropriate feedback students will understand the marks they have been given, know where/what to improve for future assessments, identify their strengths and weaknesses. Hereby, you can see several ideas on how effective feedback can be structured.

  1. Give multiple types of feedback early in the writing process. For example, talking with students about ideas, having students respond to their peers’ drafts in the process, etc. These are all ways for students to receive feedback while they are still in the process of revising.
  2. We as teachers try to offer as many comments and suggestions as possible in order to improve the learners’ writing skills. However, excessive feedback can leave students feeling daunted and uncertain where to start in terms of revision. Offer students concrete possibilities or strategies for revision. For example, “Good job with the choice of cohesive devices. You kept to the topic. Work more on the coherence and the correct use of tenses.”
  3. Allow students to maintain control over their papers. Instead of acting as an editor, suggest options or open-ended alternatives the student can choose for their revision path. For example, “How could you reformulate this sentence to use Passive Voice?” “Do you think you have suggested enough supporting ideas for this statement?”

To understand whether the feedback is helpful for students, you can use the checklist below.

➡ Is your feedback relevant and specific?

  1. give feedback to the grading points designed before the task
  2. be specific, avoid phrases like “good writing” or “needs improvement”, etc.

➡ Does your feedback have a call to action?

  1. provide specific actions for future assignments
  2. even if a student has done well in an assignment, a student should still know why they did well, and what they should take forward to future assignments

➡ Is your feedback constructive and motivating?

  1. be constructive and design your feedback to aid students to improve
  2. adopt an encouraging tone and offer realistic suggestions
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