Writing rubrics: save time and grade effectively

As language teachers, we want our students to produce unscripted language. It’s great if students can fill in the blanks on a grammar test or match definitions to vocabulary words. Those kinds of assessments show clearly whether or not students are acquiring certain bits of language. But in the real world, those bits of language have to come together to form something meaningful, whether that’s in the form of a conversation, a speech, a report, an essay, etc.

So we should assess those “real” things. OK – how? The common answer is the rubric.

Many teachers hate these dang things. They take a little while to make and they’re never as accurate as you think. Or you spend too much time trying to be accurate and you waste half an hour trying to decide if your student should get an 8 or an 8.5 out of 10 for their second body paragraph (here’s a hint – it all evens out in the long run. Just pick one)

This post will talk specifically about ESL writing rubrics – I’ll write about speaking rubrics later. I’ve got two kinds of writing rubrics I use in my classes, and I’ll explain when and why to use each.

Let’s get started.

What is on a rubric?

This depends on a lot of things: what you’ve been teaching, what type of assignment it is, how long students have to complete it, and so on.

Generally, if I’m teaching a writing class (i.e. not a strictly grammar class), I’ll grade organization, content, and grammar (also called structure or mechanics).

Organization is how the ideas are organized (obviously). This usually includes how ideas are grouped together and separated from one another, usually in the form of paragraphs spaced out and indented. This can also include thesis statements and topic sentences if you are teaching those in your class and if it’s relevant to the essay being written.

Content is what’s within those paragraphs. Between the thesis statement and the topic sentences, you need some support, details, examples, explanations, etc. If all of those are well-written and relevant, the essay has good content.

Grammar is also pretty self-explanatory. How good is the grammar? For me, the key is comprehensibility. If the grammar poses no obstacle to understanding, it’s good. Even native English speakers make mistakes (and a lot of native English speakers are pretty bad writers!). You don’t need to go down a letter grade each time a students uses “the” instead of “a”.

General Rubrics

What I just wrote above is pretty much a rubric – you just need to assign points to each area and you would have a general rubric.

General rubrics are useful for general assignments. I’ve used general rubrics for diagnostic tests, midterms, and finals. This is because I usually give students an option of different types of prompts on each of these tests. They can choose to write an argumentative essay, a compare/contrast essay, a classification essay, or a cause and effect essay. Obviously I’ll have a lot of different topics, which would be difficult to assess with a more specific rubric. But I’ll still be able to tell whether or not the student has good organization, content, and grammar.

Here is a general writing rubric that I used recently in a writing class.

It’s nothing fancy, but it got the job done. I just gave a score out of ten for how I thought the student did in each category. Notice the comments section at the bottom: if you take off points on a general rubric, it’s important to let the student know why. It’s a holistic rubric, so while I had some bullet points for what I was looking for (specifically tailored to the level – high intermediate), I wasn’t checking boxes.

Specific Rubrics

Checking boxes is what you do on a specific rubric. Specific rubrics help the indecisive graders, the hemmers and haw-ers of the ESL world. These rubrics take a little bit more time to make, but they are much easier to use when grading.

Here is an example of a specific cause and effect essay rubric.

As you can see, this is much more structured. There are things that I was looking for in this specific type of essay and students got points for doing exactly what I asked them to do.

Again, I have an area for comments: even when you’re just checking boxes, you want to say what’s missing so that students know what they need to work on.

While this type of rubric might seem constraining for teachers and students, remember that students can overshoot the points on the rubric. I’ve had students write phenomenal support in their body paragraphs. There’s still room for students to go above and beyond the rubric if they hit all the things you’re grading (and make sure you write a comment that says how well they did.)

The advantages of this rubric are obvious – it’s faster to grade because you just go through and check to see if each of the things listed are in the essay. It’s also easier for students to see where they’re missing points.

How to save time: Modify rubrics

My writing class last semester wrote four different kinds of essays and I had a specific rubric for each of them. Why? Because for me, using specific rubrics makes it much faster to grade.

The downside of specific rubrics is that you have to take more time making them. Save yourself some time by having one template and re-using it again and again. Change, add, or delete cells in the charts. And don’t worry too much about having your numbers add up to something pretty like 50 or 100. I’ve had rubrics with ugly prime number totals like 43. It doesn’t matter – use your calculator to find percentages! It’s easier than trying to fiddle with points to make the total look nice.

Teaching moments with rubrics

Rubrics are useful for grading, but they can be used for other things as well.

Take my specific rubric above and delete all the numbers. Tell the students that the blank boxes are check boxes. Now you have a peer-evaluation worksheet.

By giving students that rubric and having them evaluate another student’s draft, they’ll start thinking about what’s missing in their own essay and fix it on their second draft.

I almost always show my students the rubric I’m using before I have them turn in a final assignment. That way they know exactly what I’m looking for. Sometimes I’ll give them a copy, have them take it home, and check to see if they’re meeting all the goals.

All these things have helped my students improve their writing. And it’s saved me a ton of time creating materials and grading.


I hope this was helpful. Thanks for reading.


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