Academic journal article English Education

Learning to Teach Writing through Dialogic Assessment

Academic journal article English Education

Learning to Teach Writing through Dialogic Assessment

Article excerpt

Skill in written communication is crucial to readiness for college and success while there, as well as to active participation in a democratic society. Supporting preservice teachers in becoming better teachers of writing should therefore be a top priority for English teacher educators. One way to provide English teachers with better preparation for teaching writing is to give them rich experiences with formative writing assessment during their preservice teaching experience. Typical methods of formative writing assessment include commenting on students' papers, either with or without a rubric as a guide; conferring with students or organizing peer conferences; teaching self-assessment; and progress monitoring with reference to curricular standards. In formative-as opposed to summative-writing assessment, teachers use the information they gain from assessments to inform subsequent instruction, and they also typically provide feedback. In fact, according to one recent meta-analysis of empirical research on formative writing assessment, the provision of feedback was the aspect of formative assessment associated with the greatest effect sizes (Graham, Harris, & Hebert, 2011). Feedback is perhaps the characteristic of formative assessment that distinguishes it most clearly from summative and high-stakes assessment, the latter often decried for its negative impact on the quality of writing instruction (Hillocks, 2002).

In this article we describe how experience with a particular type of formative assessment that we call "dialogic writing assessment" changed two student teachers' understanding of writing as a skill and of their students' challenges in developing that skill. In a dialogic writing assessment session, the teacher asks a student to think aloud-that is, to verbalize all the thoughts that occur to the student as he or she is composing a piece of writing-while the teacher listens, observes, asks questions, and offers prompts. In the standard think-aloud method of research and assessment the teacher or examiner is not supposed to intervene or ask questions; however, in dialogic writing assessment, questions and prompts are essential. To prepare for a dialogic assessment session, the teacher analyzes the writing task that the student will be working on during the session and prepares a set of questions and prompts. The aim in designing the questions and prompts is to illuminate the extent to which students have the knowledge and skills necessary to complete the task, and whether and to what extent prompts or questions can enable students to overcome those challenges.

Dialogic writing assessment shares many goals and characteristics with effective writing conferences. For example, it should aim to uncover what students know about and are able to do with writing (Atwell, 1998; Graves, 1994); serve as a site for productive reflection and deliberation (McIver & Wolf, 1999); allow for individualized support for student needs (Sperling, 1991); and provide opportunities for students to ask questions or express confusion about the writing task or content (Ewert, 2009). However, in keeping with its origin in the think-aloud method of research, dialogic writing assessment emphasizes process over product by including prompts to support students' thinking-aloud as they work through stages of the composing process, and it offers teachers the possibility of intervening in that process by both providing support and discerning what students can do with that support. The latter aspect of the assessment-discerning what students can do with that support-should give teachers a sense of where to target their instruction to strengthen emerging skills. Another way of thinking about the difference between dialogic writing assessments and writing conferences is that conferences are typically concerned with the development of a particular piece of writing, whereas in dialogic writing assessment the ultimate aim should be the development of the writer. …

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