Mark Overmeyer Answers Your Questions about Assessment!

Today Mark Overmeyer, author of What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop stops by to answer your questions!

Do you have any suggestions on how to maintain balance with conventions and other areas of writing based on assessments? I know focusing too heavily on conventions will negatively affect their other areas of writing (even if they are already demonstrating strengths in the other areas), but I would also like for them to get a better grasp on the conventions expectations for 7th grade.

This is a very good, and important, question.

Yes, you are correct: it is true that focusing too heavily on conventions can negatively impact writing performance. Ironically, a complete focus on teaching grammar out of context can actually cause students to decrease their achievement in grammar and in writing quality.

More information about the research on grammar instruction can be found in several sources, including George Hillocks’ Teaching Writing As Reflective Practice: Integrating Theories and Constance Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context.
You are in luck, however.

There are two great resources that are practical and full of ideas you can implement right away: Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop and Everyday Editing by Jeff Anderson. Jeff has created classroom-tested, grammar-in-context ideas for upper elementary, middle, and high school students. The best part? The lessons and ideas are organized so that you can easily access which skill you want students to work on (e.g., sentence fragment corrections, subject verb agreement, correct use of commas, correct use of capitalization, etc.).

I know many teachers who have used Jeff’s ideas, and I have used them myself. Jeff believes we can help our students to become better writers while they internalize conventions if we ask them to notice what is right about well crafted sentences. Instead of using sentence correction exercises, Jeff suggests we display well-written sentences that feature a skill we want students to work on, and then ask the students what they notice about the craft and the mechanics that make the sentence correct. It is an inquiry based approach to teaching grammar (rather than an error-correction approach), and it works.


I will be moving from 40-some odd students this year to close to 120 next year. What is your advice for managing writing assessment for a group this large? (in middle school).

This is such a challenge. You have so much to think about when you teach this many students, and it is so easy to become overwhelmed.

My first piece of advice is to carefully plan your instruction with some built in places for you to read short samples of student work for very specific purposes.
Let me try to explain what I mean by walking through a suggested framework based on a specific unit of study.

I will choose personal narrative as a genre study just because it is so common across grade levels. If this explanation does not provide enough specific suggestions for your context, do not hesitate to let me know and I will walk through a different genre.

When I teach any genre, I want to know first if student is able to make meaning in this genre. (I owe a tremendous debt to Carl Anderson and his book Assessing Writers for many of the ideas that follow).

So, if I want to know if students can make meaning in the genre of personal narrative, I will ask them to respond to a series of quick writes that require them to narrate and describe situations they have experienced:


  • Tell about a time you were afraid (or happy, or proud, or…)
  • Describe your favorite place (or food, or season, or holiday, or video game, or sport…)

These are just ideas- anything that you can use to motivate students to write for five or ten minutes will work. When you collect these short samples, you can begin to see if students can make meaning in this genre – we must narrate and describe (among other things) when we tell stories about our lives, so I want to know very early on if students can do the work of writers who create personal narratives.

I would also expose students early on to mentor texts representative of the genre study. The quick writes provide a kind of practice in the parts of the genre, while a study of mentor texts provides an opportunity to provide clarity about what students will be writing. For more specific guidance on using mentor texts in a genre study, see Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop, and for using mentor texts in nonfiction writing, see Dorfman and Cappelli’s Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8 – my new favorite book.

So the beginning of each unit involves quick writes, which can be assessed quite easily. I can also assess students as they study mentor texts, particularly if I ask them to try their hand at mimicking the crafts they notice in these texts.

These short writing pieces will be worth only a few points each, but they will allow me to predict the future success of the unit.

Students can begin to draft longer pieces as they develop an awareness of the features of the genre. You can develop a list of these features together based on what you notice as you read like writers.

As soon as students begin drafting, you are in great danger of becoming overwhelmed by the paper load. My advice is to read each draft for very specific purposes, and to ask students to revise drafts based on what you notice they need to work on. Keep a positive attitude by first admiring what they are doing well, and then looking for teaching points. When you discover teaching points all students can benefit from, then you have an idea for a mini lesson. When you discover teaching points a few students can benefit from, you have ideas for small group work or you have conference topics.

One typical reason I read early drafts is to just establish if students understand the structure or organization of the genre. In keeping with personal narrative example, I first read drafts to see if they can keep ideas focused while using a narrative flow. If they get stuck in describing every insignificant detail, I can work with them on keeping the narrative moving. If they jump from event to event and develop a list-like story, then I can work with them on slowing down the moment.

The last section of my book provides some more detail about this topic of reading student writing for singular purposes.

I hope this provides you with enough to think about… please let me know if it helps!

Visit the other stops on Mark’s blog tour:
June 23:
June 29:
July 1:

And, you can enter a contest!
Contest details
In his new book Mark discusses how a writing prompt that might seem limiting actually helps students focus their writing. He talks about a second-grade classroom where students were excited to write about the following topic: “Your baby brother is inside the house and you are locked out and need to figure out a way to get back in.”

Your challenge is to write a quick, piece in 500 words or less for that prompt. Mark will select the winner, who will receive a free, signed copy of What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop . Submit your entries by July 15 to The best entries will be posted on the Stenhouse blog and website.

Mark Overmeyer Answers Your Questions About Assessment

Right now, you can read What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop on the Stenhouse website for FREE! What a fantastic way to start the summer. Even better? Mark Overmeyer will be answering your questions here on June 25th! So get reading and come back to this post to ask Mark your questions about formative assessment.
Leave your questions in the comments here and I will get them to Mark.  He will post the answers to your questions here on June 25th!


(Don’t leave me hanging….I need some questions!)

Summer Blog Blast Tour

I have been slacking, I admit it.  But the Summer Blog Blast Tour is going on right now and there are some phenomenal interviews!

Here is the list of this week’s interviews, from Chasing Ray. Chasing Ray will be updating the post with direct links to the interviews each day!

Monday, May 18th
Andrew Mueller at Chasing Ray
Kekla Magoon at Fuse #8
Carrie Jones at Writing and Ruminating
Amber Benson at Bildungsroman
Greg van Eekhout at Shaken & Stirred
Tuesday, May 19th

Maya Ganesan at Miss Erin
Sherri Winston at Finding Wonderland
Amber Benson at lectitans
Carolyn Hennesy at Little Willow
Jo Knowles at Hip Writer Mama

Wednesday, May 20th

Barbara O’Conner at Mother Reader
James Kennedy at Fuse Number 8
Maggie Stiefvater at Writing & Ruminating
Rosemary Clement-Moore at Little Willow
Jo Knowles at lectitans
Melissa Wyatt at Chasing Ray

Thursday, May 21st

Siobhan Vivian at Miss Erin
Alma Alexander at Finding Wonderland
Laurel Snyder at Shaken & Stirred
Cindy Pon at The Ya Ya Yas
Thalia Chaltas at Little Willow

Friday May 22nd

Jenny Davidson at Chasing Ray
Rebecca Stead at Fuse Number 8
Ryan Mecum at Writing and Ruminating
Lauren Myracle at Little Willow
Kristin Cashore at Hip Writer Mama


Be sure to check it out!

Walter Dean Myers and Dope Sick

The Learning First Alliance has posted a great interview with author Walter Dean Myers about his upcoming book Dope Sick and about how best to help young people who get on the wrong track.   The book was inspired by the time he has spent with young men in juvenile detention centers, discussing how they ended up where they were.  This quote from the article broke my heart:

I’ve spoken to so many of these young men. I had a very sad experience recently. I spoke to a kid in an elementary school and told him about a book I was working on. Then, three years later, I met the same kid in a juvenile detention facility and he asked me if I had finished the book. Very sad.

Myers also discusses what he thinks schools can do to reach out to students, especially those who are slipping through the cracks.  I fully support his vision of involving students in books, rather than just reading them, answering a few questions, and moving on.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: As you reach out to kids who begin to see their own experience in your life and begin to take hope from it, do you have a sense of what schools can do to help impart the same kind of messages? Either specifically through your Second Chance Initiative, or more generally?

MYERS: One of the things I would like to see is what I saw at the Harlem Children’s Zone—that is, the schools bringing in parents. Have parents come in and discuss some of these ideas with the children.

[Schools can] have open forums on books, rather than [have students] just read a book and then go back and answer questions about it.

Allow the kids to challenge books. I love it when someone challenges my book and will perhaps bring me in, and I’ll have to defend the book. That’s great, because that gives me an opportunity to go there, talk to these kids, and let them know. I say, “Listen. This is how I went about writing this book. This is what I meant to do. This is what I felt like I should be doing. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t work, but this is how I did it.” At that point I’m humanizing the process for the kids.

The entire interview has been posted on their website, Public School Insights, which celebrates what is working in public schools and aims to enrich the national conversation about public education.

And there’s more!  Want a preview of Dope Sick before it is released on 2/10? The first three chapters are now available for download on And wait, it gets even better! The entire book will be available online at from February 10-24.

Welcome, Kelly Gallagher!

Kelly Gallagher, author of the upcoming Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It (available to read online here), has been on a blog tour all week.  Today I am thrilled to introduce him here, at TheReadingZone!  For the past few days, Kelly has been answering questions posed by you, the readers.  I am thrilled to include his responses here!

From Ann- As a teacher, what can I do about programs like Accelerated Reader? How do I keep my job (as an untenured teacher) but still instill that passion for reading in my students?


The key word in the question is “untenured.”  :) The good news is that AR
allows students to read real books…and good books, too. The bad news is
that the love of reading is undermined by the dumb quizzes and the quest for
points. I would explore ways of using the books but reducing the quizzes and
point grubbing (See McQuillan’s study in Readicide). Read Alfie Kohn¹s
Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes—great book.

After you are tenured, close the door and do what you think is best for your
kids. Take a more active stance. Educate others on the long-term
de-motivation caused by  ³carrot² programs. Model, model, model. Surround
kids with great books.


From Clix- Oh! I’d want to know if he has a blog ;)

I don’t, but I do have a website,


From Lisa: I have been flipping through and reading over at The Tempered Radical. I guess my big question is how do we help them love reading AND do well on the test. Obviously we have to care about the test whether we actually care about it or not. : ) I have my own ideas on this subject, but would like to hear his.

If you turn students into readers, they will do fine on the tests. There is
a direct and strong correlation between time spent reading and performance
on mandated reading tests. Not surprisingly, students who do the most
reading are the students who score highest. Conversely, students who do the
least amount of reading frequently score the lowest. If we want our students
to score higher, they have to read more. Incidentally, I have not had a
single student in over 20 years of teaching who was a non-reader and who
also scored high on the verbal section of the SAT. Not one. On the other
hand, I can pretty much predict which of my students will score well on the
exam before they take it. You guessed it: the readers.


It seems that reward programs for reading are all the rage now- from AR (Accelerated Reader) to Scholastic’s Read 180. How does a teacher work with these mandated programs when the district is unable to purchase more than a few dozen tests? In other words, when students must complete reward programs but can only choose books from a small, preselected list (that often includes more classics than anything else!), how does a teacher continue “the good fight”?


The best thing about AR is that it gets kids to read good books. The worst
thing about AR is it ties all reading to a stupid reward system‹a system
that teaches students to read because they can earn points (instead of
reading because of the value of reading itself). I believe this harms young
readers. Many studies have shown that reward systems like AR actually
decrease reading motivation once the ³treatment² is finished.
If your administration forces you to use the program, try to get them to
change their minds. I think the first thing teachers can do is challenge the
school¹s decision to use the program. Ask to see justification‹studies that
indicate that there is a long-term benefit from using the program. Share the
McQuillan study (and others) cited in Readicide. Ask administrators what we
are really teaching kids about reading when we tie all their reading
activity to earning points from shallow multiple-choice assessments.
Worst case scenario: do everything possible to augment your classroom
library. In Reading Reasons I discuss a number of ways one can build a
classroom library without breaking the bank.

As soon as I hear back from Kelly, I will update with his responses.  But what do you think of Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It? I have been recommending it to everyone I know and I think this is one of those books that will change the culture of our schools. It may start small, but people are going to be talking about this one! I absolutely agree with Kelly and his assessment of reading in our schools. See my review here.
Thanks goes out to Kelly Gallagher, as well to as the teachers who submitted questions. I appreciate Mr. Gallagher including TheReadingZone on his blog tour and wish him well as he continues his tour!

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher

On January 26th, Kelly Gallagher will be here at TheReadingZone answering your questions!  His newest book, Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, will be released on February 10, 2009. However, thanks to Stenhouse, we can get a sneak peek at the entire book before Kelly stops by!

So here is your assignment: Get reading! I have read the book and it is amazing- count on a review in the next few days. However, now I need you to read the book. This is your chance to pick the brain of Kelly Gallagher….when will you get this chance again?

You don’t need to read the entire book. One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 2: Endangered Minds (beginning on page 27). Gallagher presents a flood of information on the dearth of reading material in our schools and the effects on our kids’ reading. Read it, make notes, and come back here to post your questions! Kelly will be here on January 26th and I can’t wait!

Kelly will be participating in a five-stop blog book tour. Each of the following blogs will post either a Q&A with Kelly, or a review of the book, or will give you the opportunity to submit questions to Kelly. So browse the book and then check out all of these blogs in the coming days and discuss this vitally important topic!

Blog tour dates and stops:

1/20 – A Year of Reading 
1/22 – The Tempered Radical 
1/23 – The Dream Teacher 
1/26 – The Reading Zone 
1/28 – The Book Whisperer < span>

Kelly Gallagher Is Coming!

On January 26th Kelly Gallagher will be stopping by to answer questions from you, my readers!  Kelly has a new book coming out and it is amazing. Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It is being added to my list of “bible books”.  I am only about halfway through it right now, but I just keep finding myself nodding along with it and sometimes yelling, “YES!”, after reading a chapter.  

Don’t worry, around January 14th I will be able to share a link to the full text of the book so that you can also read over the book before asking Kelly your questions.  This is an amazing opportunity from Stenhouse and I am so excited to be a part of it.  So mark your calendars!k

Mary Pope Osborne Blog Tour!

Recently, I read Magic Tree House #40: Eve of the Emperor Penguin for the Cybil Middle Grade category. When the opportunity arose to interview Mary Pope Osborne, I jumped on it! Below is our interview.


Welcome to TheReadingZone!  Thanks so much for stopping by.  My younger sister is a fan of The Magic Tree House series, and she is dying to know how you get your ideas. Do you pick a topic (such as Antarctica) and then write the story around it? Or does the story come to you first?

After a lot of thinking and talking to kids, I pick a topic and start researching it. I scribble for weeks, filling notebooks with ideas and information. Then I organize all my notes and thoughts, and as I’m doing this, things start to swirl in my head, and I start writing little bits here and there. I grab more books and look up more things, and the next thing I know, Jack and Annie are saying this and doing that…and I’m running to catch up with them.


How hard is it to tread the line between including too much information about a topic and not enough? In other words, do you ever struggle with fitting in the information about a specific topic without hindering the story?

If I want to share more information and it doesn’t fit the story, I can put it in the notes at the back of the book. Or my sister Natalie Pope Boyce (who now writes the Magic Tree House Research Guides) can put it in her book of nonfiction that acts as a companion to the fiction book.


Where do you write? Do you have a special room, or a desk, or do you have to leave your house to write? Do you follow a special routine, like writing at specific times or a certain number of words per day?

The only routine I have is that I have no routine. You could catch me at work any time, day or night, writing a chapter or just writing a paragraph. No two days are ever the same. Now I mostly work in my study in Connecticut, as it overlooks a lake and has tons of bookshelves, a fireplace and 3 dog beds for 3 dogs. But for almost 30 years I wrote in New York City, and because our apartment was so small, I worked all over town, writing in libraries, parks, cafes and coffee shops.


When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? Did you start as a young child or was it a decision made later in life?

I didn’t decide to be a writer until my late 20’s. Once I figured out that’s what I loved to do more than anything else, I couldn’t imagine ever doing anything else.


And last, but not least, as a teacher I have to ask this. What is the best memory you have of a teacher in your life?

Well, I grew up going to many different schools, as my dad was in the army. So my memories about school are pretty jumbled. But my high school English teacher, Miss Davis, sticks in my mind. I mostly remember that she loved praised good writing and would talk passionately about books she loved. I was always glad to go to her class and be in her sunny presence; and I remembering feeling really sad when during the school year, she got married (for the first time, at age 50!) and moved away.



Wow, Mary!  Thanks for sharing!  


The Magic Tree House books are awesome early chapter books and kids eat them up.  If you are still looking for a holiday gift for a young reader in your life, Mary Pope Osborne’s series is a surefire winner!



Be sure to check out the rest of Mary Pope Osborne’s blog tour this week!

Monday 12/15: Big A little a

Tuesday 12/16: Here

Wednesday 12/17: Fields of Gold

Thursday 12/18: The Page Flipper

Friday 12/19: The Well- Read Child

Interview with Mary Pope Osborne!

Tomorrow I will welcome Mary Pope Osborne to TheReadingZone!  Stay tuned for a great interview.

In the mean time, check out the rest of the blog tour that Mary Pope Osborne is on this week!

Monday 12/15: Big A little a

Tuesday 12/16: Here

Wednesday 12/17: Fields of Gold

Thursday 12/18: The Page Flipper

Friday 12/19: The Well- Read Child

Interview with Terri Fields

After reading My Father’s Son, I was dying to know what inspired this awesome story of a teenage boy whose world is turned upside-down when his dad is arrested and accused of being a serial killer. Luckily, the wonderful Terri Fields was kid enough to answer a few of my questions. Below is my interview with her!

I absolutely loved reading your latest YA, My Father’s Son. What inspired you to write My Father’s Son? Was there a certain case in the media that made you start thinking about the families of those accused of horrible crimes?

I was interested in the idea that we want to see our parents only in the role we have conceived for them. Teens, especially, have so much other turmoil in life that their parents are supposed to be a constant.
But is that reality? To investigate, I created a very extreme plot situation.

It’s awful, but it seems like these crimes are in the news more often in recent years.  How did you go about researching for the book (if there was any research necessary)? Did you interview family members? Read newspaper articles?

I read a lot about serial killers, especially BTK, whose family believed him to be an honorable citizen and loving dad right up until he was caught.

As someone who feels like there aren’t enough hours in a day (which is why it took ten days to get these questions to you!), I would love to know how you make time to write! Are you a full-time writer or do you have a day job? And what is your daily writing routine like?

I have just retired from teaching. I now have two part-time jobs related to education that still enable me to work with students and teachers. I think that’s important because it helps keep my voice honest. I also do tons of author visits which I adore! Because I have been a writer while raising two children and teaching, I’ve found that I don’t have a writing routine. I grab time whenever I can, and I love escaping to that inner world of my imagination. I’ve written for grades K-12.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished a book called The Fiction Class which I recommend.

And just for fun, what is your favorite dessert?

Hot Fudge Sundaes. If only someone could figure out a way to take the calories out of them, I’d eat one every day!

Me too, Terri!  In fact, I could go for a hot fudge sundae right now….

Thanks for stopping by, Terri!  It was great getting inside your head for a few minutes!


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