Over the last year we’ve had a lot of fun at Reach Academy using comparative judgement to gain a better picture of how our children in primary are attaining when it comes to writing.
Whereas previously primary school teachers have been tied to vague descriptors, which promote a check-list approach to teaching, comparative judgement has provided us with a much more valid assessment of how good each child’s piece of writing actually is. As we’ve begun to collaborate with other schools, we have also benefited from gaining a better picture of how are children are attaining compared to a wider sample, something that has always been problematic with writing in primary.
In this post I want to address our next step in the comparative judgement journey – what I call the ‘Now what?’ problem. Yes, CJ is quicker. Yes, it’s more reliable. Yes, it gives you a more valid picture of children’s attainment. But once the children are ranked, and you have a standardised score showing you where each child is, what do you do with that information? How do you use it to actually help the children improve as writers?
Level descriptors, for all their flaws, seemed to offer a solution to this problem. You highlighted off the descriptors and the child’s next step would be whichever descriptor they hadn’t achieved. Of course, this was a nonsense, and led to contrived writing in which children shoe-horned front adverbials into their next piece of writing come what may, because that was on the target card stuck dutifully in the front of their book.
With CJ the next step isn’t so straightforward, but I’d argue that it allows for a more appropriate and nuanced approach to formative feedback. Whilst I’m tempted on some level to say that CJ’s primary purpose isn’t formative (it’s more of a ‘taking the temperature’, summative picture), I think that there are a few fairly quick and easy ways to provide children with rich and meaningful feedback.
I’d be very interested in colleagues’ suggestions for any other approaches that they have found to be successful. One of the most exciting things about CJ is that it’s being driven by teachers, for teachers. we have grabbed assessment by the scruff of the neck and ensured it gives us and our students what we and they need – a valid and reliable picture of where they are, and an appropriate set of next steps that will help children improve.
1. What makes this good?
Display the piece of writing that came out top of the pile at the end of the judgements. Remind the children of the original task, and explain that the teachers compared all of the pieces and agreed that this was the best. Then analyse the piece of writing together as a class, picking out the features that made is so successful. What elements do you think are effective. Why? Choose one of the features, and allow students to practice that element. For example, if you agree that rich description made it so good, then allow them to rewrite the sentence or paragraph in which they describe the setting or character.
“Let’s jot a quick list up of what makes this so effective. We’ve already talked about the rich description. Take some time to talk to your partner about what else makes it effective. You can annotate the text.”
2. Let the children compare.
Provide the children with two pieces of writing, one good, one weaker. Ask them to vote on which they thought was judged to be the better piece. Ask the children to justify their decision. Sentence stems may help here: In text A the writer _____, whereas in text B the writer ____.
For example: “Something that stands out straight away is that this story includes some dialogue between the characters, whereas the other piece doesn’t. Why is this better?’ Expected response: it makes you care more about the characters, and also brings them to life.
Then have the children edit and redraft the weaker piece of writing. Could they even get it to a place in which it reverses the judgement?
3. Involve parents
A “level 2b”, a “WTS” or an “emerging in age related expectations for composition” is pretty much meaningless when communicated to parents. However, providing parents with a range of children’s work can help them not only gain a picture of how ‘good’ their child’s writing is, but also of the sort of level of writing that is normal for their child’s age group. Sending home their child’s piece, with a piece that is slightly weaker and a piece that is slightly stronger will help them to have meaningful conversations with their child about their writing, and how they can further improve.
For example: “Here’s a recent example of your child’s writing. As you can see it has a lot going for it. Their verb selection in particular is very strong. Have a look at it compared to the other examples and try and identify how they could improve it further.”
P.s. If you’re new to comparative judgement, greater minds than mine have set out the nuts and the bolts, including some very practical how-to guides: