How do you know when a student has turned in a good essay? It can be tempting to answer this question as former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in describing obscenity: I know it when I see it. But educators need a more concrete definition they can apply consistently across all subject areas.

For Patti West-Smith, the answer is simple: Does the piece of writing do its job?

“There’s no magic prescription for that,” said West-Smith, a former teacher, principal, and instructional supervisor who now heads the curriculum team at Turnitin. “It’s simply, does it work?” In other words, she said, is the essay effective in communicating its ideas? Does it resonate with its intended audience? If so, then the writing is probably good—and if not, then it needs revising.

West-Smith was the first guest in a new podcast series launched by Turnitin, called The Written Word. Co-hosted by Meredith May and Sean Tupa, the podcast explores how written language helps us communicate and engage with the world around us.

In the debut episode, West-Smith described how to evaluate whether a piece of writing is effective. She also revealed what teachers must do to be successful in their writing instruction—including the four essential elements of student feedback.

Purpose and Audience

If a piece of writing is of high quality when it does its job, how can teachers measure this effectiveness? There are two key factors involved, West-Smith said: purpose and audience.

“One of the things you have to consider right off the top is, what is my purpose here?” she said. If the purpose is to tell a story, then how you approach that task is very different from how you inform or persuade someone.

“Even if the topic is the same, those are very different things,” she noted. “What makes a narrative effective is very different from what makes an informational piece or an argument effective.”

The intended audience also matters. For instance, an argumentative essay must make an effective claim. But what that looks like depends on who is reading the essay. “A claim that uses logic is appropriate for a particular audience, but a claim that uses emotion might be more effective for a different audience,” West-Smith explained.

“There is this constant interplay between purpose and audience,” she observed.

(Next page: Effective writing through opportunities and student feedback)


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