The best way to learn about your student writers is to perform a diagnostic writing assessment.  This can help you analyze what your students need and determine your instructional strategies.

When you get a batch of new students, you need to get to know them as human beings, but also as students — and more specifically, as writers.

You want your instruction to be effective and targeted to meet the specific needs of your students.  

What is the quickest way to do that? 

Have your students provide you with an authentic writing sample. 

Here’s how:

What can you learn from diagnostic writing assessments? Click though to discover how they can help you become a more effective teacher.  Download the FREE assessment tool.

What is a diagnostic writing assessment?

A writing sample is a piece of writing that your students have completed in response to a prompt, in class, and in a specific period of time.

Do you really need a writing assessment?

Let’s be honest, when you’re teaching writing, you have to hit the ground running.  You want your students writing, practicing, and growing from the first day of class.

The problem is, you have a classroom full of students who are all at different skill levels.  

Teaching writing is so challenging for just that reason!  One student struggles to write two sentences and another who can write volumes without a pause.  

Collecting a writing sample is one of the best ways to figure out what your students need.

It will also help you format your yearlong and monthly plans since you’ll be able to prioritize mini lessons and writing projects.

Do this first

Before your students start writing, design your assessment tool.    I see your tears — but wait!  It’s not that scary!

Look through your standards for the “big buckets” of writing skills.  They might include sentence structure, word choice, paragraph structure, developing ideas, and conventions.

Once you create your list, you can use hash marks to tally what you notice as you review writing samples.

How to get an authentic writing assessment

Day 1:  Tell students that on the next day they’ll be providing you with a writing sample.  They will write in class.

This writing won’t be graded; it will be used for you, the teacher, to help improve the way you teach writing.

Day 2:  Provide students with a prompt and have them write!  Don’t provide additional help. 

Use a timer, and be sure students know how much time they have to write.  I usually allow 15 minutes.  However, if your students are really struggling to write for that amount of time, you can end the writing time early.

What does it mean?

The first piece of data you can collect is while the students are responding to the prompt.  Don’t sit at your desk and read emails!

Notice (and take notes) of students who:

  • write fluidly
  • appear to be anxious
  • stare off into space
  • struggle with writing
  • finish early 
  • need help getting started

How do I Gather Data?

Once your students have finished writing, you can start analyzing.  

Step 1:  Get a big cup of coffee (or similar beverage☕) and settle down in a comfy chair.

Step 2:   Read and sort papers.  Do this quickly.  I make three piles:  1) above grade  2) on grade  3) below grade   Paper clip the piles so you have three stacks.  

I like to do this so I know where I think my students are at the start of the year.  This way, I know who I need to challenge and who I need to really keep an eye on.

Step 3:  Pick up each pile and read though and make notations on your assessment tool. You can use hash marks to note each one.

You have three choices here:  create a whole class assessment, create an assessment for each student, or both.

Personally, I think you should do both.  A master list and an individual list.

Creating an assessment for each student is extremely helpful.  You will learn a ton about your students when you do this. 

And a master list will help you see a snapshot of the needs of your whole class.

When marking your tool for individual assessments, don’t make a hash mark for multiple errors on one page.  For example, Susie writes a run on.  And another.  And three more.  Mark it as ONE hash mark.  


You are looking for the big trends.  It doesn’t help you to mark it multiple time.  You know, if you see a hash mark next to sentence structure that the student needs help with sentence structure.

What do I do with that data?

Use your assessment tool to determine how you want to tackle your writing projects and conferences.

What do your students really need?  Prioritize and divide and conquer! 

Work on mini lessons consistently and you and your students will see progress!

Need a bit more help finding lessons? Find and follow my shop here.

With gratitude,

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