Teaching essay writing is no simple task:

  1. The pressure is on:  this is a skill that students need, are tested on, and will need to harness for the next grade level all the way into college.  

  2. Students somehow forget what they’ve learned in between assignments.  I mean...how many times do I have to teach you what CLAIM is?!?! We JUST went over it!

  3. There are just TOO MANY skills all depending on each other.  Every time we teach an essay, we feel compelled to teach and grade everything, from selecting best evidence to writing a correct MLA header!

You get the picture.  We’re in this together.  This article is the first in a series of articles that will break down into detail ways to handle these problems and to focus your instruction in a way that’s helpful to students and life-saving to your weekend hours with your friends, family, and social life!


Design the rubric

You might be thinking, why is the first part of a game plan the last thing I look at in the process?  Rubrics are for grading, so why make that the first step? Well, beginning with the end in mind is not only best practice in curriculum design, but it’s going to make the grading process (yes, the dreaded stack ‘o’ papers) a lot less painful!  Here are my top tips for designing your writing rubric:

  • Design ONE rubric that you can use all year long.  Yep. One that works for ALL kinds of writing or can have just one row adapted to fit the writing task.  This gives students the opportunity to learn your rubric - to internalize each of the criteria and the feedback.  When students know their rubric, it lets you lean on the language in the rubric more than leaving the same comments over and over again!  

  • Use student friendly language.  If the rubric communicates clear, concise writing goals, again, you can lean more on the rubric when it comes to giving feedback.  

  • Eliminate points.  Label your grading scale with a ranking scale that let’s students know where their skill level is - not how many arbitrary points they’re worth.  You can still use points in your grade book, but on the rubric, they’re more distracting to students than helpful. I use “Distinguished”, “Proficient”, “Basic”, “Below Basic” and “Missing”.  Other teachers use A-F or 1-5.

  • For your skill rows, try to group skills into big categories (think: holistic) rather than breaking things down into tiny tasks.  For example, if you have two rubric categories, one for MLA and one for Grammar, consider combining them into an “MLA & Grammar” category.  Again, this will help with providing helpful feedback that doesn’t take you weeks and weeks to come up with.

Stop keeping the essay question a secret

For a long time, it’s seemed like it was a big secret to find out what the essay question would be at the end of a unit.  Knowing what we know now about curriculum design, it’s important to reframe our older perception of this experience. In my earlier years of teaching, I was also guilty of starting a novel without even knowing what the question was!  I now call this “teaching into a black hole” and it’s just as scary as it sounds. We NEED to know what the assessment will be before we begin teaching the novel unit - PERIOD. Whatever the question may be, whether it is a literary analysis skill or based on the unit’s Essential Question, this question should be the guidepost for us as we are designing lessons all throughout the unit.  Put the question on a bookmark. Discuss it at the beginning and middle of the story and see how student perceptions have shifted. Create annotation exercises around the question. Keep track of evidence using Google Keep. Ask different versions of the question in discussion, in smaller writing assignments, and for quick little homework assignments. The more exposure and practice the students have with the question, you’ll be able to spend more time on teaching writing at the end of the unit and less time making sure everyone understands the question and knows how to approach the essay.  By the way, you’ll also read MUCH BETTER ESSAYS. You’re ensuring that your students are already thinking about and processing the essay all unit long.

Systematically plan your writing week

Instead of letting your writing week turn into a mish-mosh of drafting and brainstorming, create a specific goal for each class period leading up to the essay writing day.  What are the skills (priorities) that require whole-class direct instruction? For me, those skills are claim writing, finding best evidence, and thinking through the structural packaging of the essay in an outline.  So, when we finish our novel unit and are ready for writing week, my students go through a four day pre-writing workshop. Each day has a mini lesson, work time, and a homework assignment. I’d love to send you a copy of my calendar - sign up here!

Know the difference between grading and providing feedback

I know this is what everyone wants to know: what’s the secret ingredient in the quick-essay-grading sauce?  Well here, the secret: grading fast depends on everything I’ve talked about prior to this: a well designed and clearly understood rubric, writing practice, and targeted lessons that precede essay turn-in make for a much faster and more focused grading experience for you. For me, grading is circling items on the rubric and getting that rubric back in the hands of students quickly (I collect on Fridays and hand back rubrics on Mondays). Feedback, however, comes in the form of a conversation that I have with students on the whole-class and individual levels.



To grade quickly, there are of course the practical tips:  turn off your phone, isolate yourself from the outside world, and don’t start until you’re ready to chug through uninterrupted.  Speed in grading is reliant on the rhythm you develop as you read responses one after another. You’ll start to see your students papers holistically and you’ll even start to see your class as a whole.  This is the goal: let go of the nitty gritty issues in grading full papers. Hone in on subject-verb agreement and other grammar and style based details when students write shorter pieces. If you have a grammar or MLA component in your rubric, make it worth the least amount of points.  You want to make sure that you can quickly, almost at a glance, assess the OVERALL quality of each category. If you can let go of how annoyed you are to see ANOTHER lowercase “daisy” in your stack of The Great Gatsby papers, the faster you’ll move.  If the errors are distracting (overall) students should receive a lower score in that category, but you need to free yourself to move on to the bigger issues.  Does the claim build and stretch throughout the paper? Did the student create a cohesive argument? Are the chosen pieces of evidence convincing and well analyzed?  These are the things that deserve your attention.

When you’re ready to get down to business, allow yourself to read, circle the rubric, and repeat.  Don’t slow down. Don’t second guess yourself. Don’t write a single comment. Get in the zone and start to absorb the papers.  After about 10-15 papers are read and rubrics are circled, add a few quick notes to a post-it on some of the common errors that you’re noticing.  Remember, try to leave the grammar and style issues alone (unless they’re rampantly glaring!) and focus on the bigger picture writing skills that you’ve been practicing.  If you’re noticing that students are struggling with something that you haven’t really taught, first, you shouldn't be surprised, and second, there’s no need to critique it now.  Put it on the list to teach for the next round of writing. You don’t need to cover everything in every paper - focus on the priorities you set out from the beginning. I use these common errors as discussion points in each of the reading conferences that I have after essays are returned.

I hope these ideas can start a thought provoking discussion in your department or on your curriculum teams.  Share this article with your teacher bestie and have a debate. There is so much more to say and I promise more is to come in this series.   Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or come over and hang out with us on Instagram @mudandinkteaching.

Want a copy of A Teacher’s Ultimate Guide to The Literary Analysis Essay?  I’ve got tips and a two week calendar all arranged for you in a printable PDF.  Just tell me where to send it below and I’ll keep you in the loop about future posts and conversations on this topic.

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