Looking for Quality
in Student Writing

Learning to See the Things Kids Can Do So  We Can
Teach Them to Do the Things They Can't

by Steve Peha
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What is Good Writing?

You know it when you see it. It isnít that hard to tell whether a piece of writing is good or bad. You just have to read it. But things get more challenging if you have to explain why it's good. Even harder than that is analyzing the good things a writer is doing so you can learn to use his or her techniques in your own work. And teaching others how to use them is the hardest of all but that, of course, is exactly what we need to be able to do.

Having simple phrases to describe the good things writers do makes learning about those things easier. Good writing has:

Ideas that are interesting and important. Ideas are the heart of the piece ó what the writer is writing about and the information he or she chooses to write about it.

Organization that is logical and effective. Organization refers to the order of ideas and the way the writer moves from one idea to the next.

Voice that is individual and appropriate. Voice is how the writing feels to someone when they read it. Is it formal or casual? Is it friendly and inviting or reserved and standoffish? Voice is the expression of the writer's personality through words.

Word Choice that is specific and memorable. Good writing uses just the right words to say just the right things.

Sentence Fluency that is smooth and expressive. Fluent sentences are easy to understand and fun to read with expression.

Conventions that are correct and communicative. Conventions are the ways we all agree to use punctuation, spelling, grammar, and other things that make writing consistent and easy to read.

The framework I'm using here to talk about good writing is based on the Six Traits model which I received my training in from Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Over the years I have modified, simplified, and in many cases changed much of the language outright because it seemed to work better for me that way in the classroom. NWREL has made many changes to Six Traits, too. In fact, they now call it Six Plus One Traits. But it's based on the same basic idea of using trait-based criteria to define good work. For information on the "official" Six Traits in its most current incarnation, you should visit NWREL at www.nwrel.org.

One Pretty Good Piece of Writing

What does a good piece of writing look like? Itís hard to get kids to make something if they donít know what it looks like. Thatís why itís so valuable to look at models of good writing produced by writers just like them. When Iím trying to learn about good writing, I like to work with good, short pieces, instead of big, long novels, because itís easier to see how all the different parts work together.

Chores!

    Chores! Chores! Chores! Chores are boring! Scrubbing toilets, cleaning sinks, and washing bathtubs take up a lot of my time and are not fun at all.
    Toilets! When youíre scrubbing toilets make sure they are not stinky. Iíve scrubbed one before and I was lucky it didnít stink. I think toilets are one of the hardest things to scrub in the bathroom because it is hard to get up around the rim.
    Sinks are one of the easiest things to clean in the bathroom because they have no rims and they are small. I have cleaned one before and it was pretty easy.
    Bathtubs, ever washed one? They are big, they are deep, and it is hard to get up around the sides. The bathtub is the hardest, I think, to wash in the bathroom.
    All chores are boring, especially making my bed. Cleaning my room is OK because I have to organize, and I like organizing. Dusting is the worst: dust, set down, pick up, dust, set down. There are so many things to dust, and itís no fun.
    Chores arenít the worst but theyíre definitely not the best!

Well, what do you think? Not too bad, eh? Iíll admit that this isnít the best piece of writing Iíve ever seen. But I think itís pretty good. It was written by a third grader and I think she did a solid job of getting her point across about her struggles with the challenges of household chores. It made sense to me and I could relate to it. Some parts were even kind of funny.