Responsibility for a child's writing instruction is usually accompanied by an obligation to evaluate the child's writing. Such evaluation can be a daunting task. The following suggestions will help you give your child's writing the response it deserves and will also help you provide the feedback that will make your child a better writer.

The Reader's Mindset

Approach a piece of child's writing the same way you as a reader would approach any other piece of writing: First get the message. Determine what the young writer is trying to communicate.

On a second reading you might approach the piece more objectively. You are still reading to get the message, but try to divest yourself of all prior knowledge of the writer and the topic—rely solely on the written words.

Respond First to Content

Too often we tend to zero in on mechanical errors such as those involving spelling or punctuation. Mechanical issues are objective; most of them have a clear right and wrong; they can be dealt with quickly and conclusively. Content issues, on the other hand, are more subjective; they have nuances; they beget additional issues and often seem to defy resolution.

Nevertheless, it is vital to address content issues first, to respond to the writer's message. If you were reading a love letter or a suicide note, would you suggest mechanical corrections before you responded to content? Although young writers will almost certainly have topics other than these, they ought to be writing about things that are important to them. Take time to state the message that you got from the piece of writing: for example, "I can tell that Nana's kitchen is a very special place to you."

A good next step is to be more specific about what made the content effective: for example, "You've described the sights and sounds—and smells!—so vividly that I felt I was there myself." You might even want to put some of these comments in writing.

From here, it's easy to identify other techniques that made the content effective—and perhaps mention one or two things that could have made it even more effective. Don't mention everything here. The writer won't remember it all and will instead be discouraged by how far short of perfection the writing has fallen. Select one or two things that the writer seems "ready" to incorporate into his or her writing.

Four Broad Categories

Once you have responded to the writing, you are likely to feel that you should evaluate it. An easy way to begin is to place the piece of writing into one of the following four categories.

Incomprehensible: Due to serious problems with content and/or mechanics, the message simply cannot be understood.

Understandable: Although the message may contain many errors of various kinds, the basic point seems clear. This is a good start for any writer.

Favorable: In addition to having a message that seems clear, the writing gives a favorable impression. Content is probably well organized and well supported; mechanical errors are probably few. All writers should strive to reach this level.

Eloquent/Profound: Not only does the clear message create a favorable impression, something about the content, word choice, sentence structure, figurative language, etc. moves the reader to "Wow!" Mechanical correctness alone cannot carry a piece of writing to this level.

Distribution of student writing into these four categories is likely to produce a bell curve. Most pieces of writing will fit into one of the two middle groups; few will be in the top or bottom group.

Questions to Help You Evaluate Content

The four categories above are quite broad. The following specific questions will help parents or teachers guide students toward the "Favorable" level. Approach the questions in the mindset of the objective reader who has divested himself or herself of privileged knowledge about the writer and topic.