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Making Meaning in Literature: A Workshop for Teachers, Grades 6-8


In a classroom where students are actively engaged in literature, there is a need to find authentic assessment vehicles that measure their progress as readers and thinkers. In this program, teachers from around the country identify useful criteria that they have used in both formal and informal ongoing assessments. The group also talks about integrating their evaluation strategies in the milieu of traditional and high–stakes assessments, while maintaining an emphasis on the individual growth of the readers in their classrooms.


“One of the things that I really find valuable… with assessment is having the kids… reflect on their goals. What goals did you meet? What goals did you not meet? Why did you not meet these goals? What could you do next time… to meet those goals? What goals are you going to set…?”
Flora Tyler
6th Grade Teacher, Picacho Middle School
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Few aspects of education pose knottier problems for teachers and students than issues of assessment and evaluation. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it is helpful to distinguish between them. Some educators are using the terms informal and formal assessment to make the same distinction.

Assessment means looking at what students can do in order to determine what they need to learn to do next. That is, assessment, whether of individual students or an entire group, is done to enhance learning and inform instruction. Typically assessment is holistic, often recorded anecdotally, via checklists, or simply as “credit” or “no credit.”

Evaluation occurs after a concept or skill has been taught and practiced, and is recorded via a grade or scaled score, indicating the level of achievement or degree of competence a student has attained. Graded writing assignments, test scores, and report cards are common examples of evaluation.

A particular mechanism might serve as a tool for either assessment or evaluation, depending on how it is used. Written work, a performance, or even an objective test could be used either to assess student capabilities to determine further instructional steps, or to provide a quantifiable evaluation of performance.

Effective instruction is directly linked to thoughtful assessment and evaluation. As effective teachers develop curriculum, they are conscious of the ways in which both they and their students will assess progress and developing understandings. Assessment becomes an organic component of classroom instruction, and evaluation in such classrooms is designed to target the specific knowledge, skills, and understandings identified by curricular standards, presented via explicit instruction, and practiced as students develop mastery.

In Workshop 7, teachers focus on issues of both assessment and evaluation as they discuss both theoretical concerns and practical strategies for responding to student efforts.

For a complete guide to the workshop session activities, download and print our Support Materials.

Key Points

  • In the envisionment-building classroom, assessment is an on-going process that:
    • focuses on how students are thinking and how they are growing as thinkers;
    • focuses on ways students develop interpretations of texts;
    • focuses on the expression of multiple perspectives about texts; and
    • focuses on ways of going beyond the text to ways the text connects with other texts and with students’ lives.
  • Students in envisionment classrooms participate in self-reflection and self-assessment.
  • Assessment helps teachers and students gauge how and what students are learning and thinking.
  • Assessment can help teachers shape timely instructional strategies targeted to immediate student needs.
    • Using many different assessment tools provides a rich picture of students’ capabilities as well as a composite picture of what students are learning.
    • By tracking what students are reading, teachers can assess their growth as readers and help them choose literature that is right for their abilities as well as suited to their interests.
    • Whole-class and small-group discussions offer teachers a number of ways to assess student understanding.
    • Writing such as reading logs provides a useful tool for both students and teachers to track students’ progress as readers and thinkers over time. It can reveal:
      • the depth of student thinking;
      • the quality of student thinking; and
      • the strategies students use when they experience literary texts.
    • Portfolios are useful tools to assess students as developing readers and writers over the course of a year or over the course of several years.
      • Portfolios help develop student awareness of their growth as readers, writers, and thinkers.
      • When students choose specific pieces for evaluation, they are learning to recognize quality work as they assess their own efforts.
      • Portfolios enable students to choose their best work to demonstrate their capabilities.
  • Self-assessment helps students reflect on what they are learning and pushes them to think more deeply about what they are reading, writing, and thinking.
    • Self-assessment helps students recognize what they need to learn next and set learning goals for themselves.
    • Self-assessment helps students assume responsibility for their own learning.
  • Teachers in envisionment-building classrooms often use student projects for assessment or evaluation. Offering students project choices gives them a sense of ownership over their work as they demonstrate what they know and what they can do.
  • Rubrics help students understand the criteria on which evaluation is based. Students can participate in the process of developing rubrics; doing so helps them understand the levels of mastery reflected in different grades.
  • When developing tools for assessment or evaluation, teachers should be aware of what they are trying to assess or evaluate, as well as how the particular tool connects to the instruction students have received. In addition, teachers should ask themselves, “What do students need to know and be able to do in order to succeed?” and “Do they have the tools to succeed?”
  • When developing tools for assessment, teachers might ask themselves, “What activities do I need in order to inform my teaching?” and “What activities will help students understand what they can do and what they need to learn to do next?”
  • Assessment and evaluation should be flexible and determined by what the students need.
  • Standardized tests should be used thoughtfully and viewed as one part of the assessment/evaluation puzzle and used in conjunction with other assessment/evaluation tools.
  • Students who learn to be good, thoughtful, critical readers do well on standardized tests and have abilities that will serve them well throughout their lives.
  • Because testing is pervasive in American society — within schools and beyond — teachers should help students learn the test-taking skills they need within the context of the curriculum.
  • When developing assessment and evaluation instruments, teachers in envisionment-building classrooms focus on the kinds of thinking they want students to do and develop tools that allow students to demonstrate it.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, you will be able to:

  • Understand the differences between assessment and evaluation and the uses of each.
  • Develop and use a number of different instruments such as observation, writing, reading, discussion, and projects for assessment and evaluation.
  • Develop ways to include students in their own assessment via self-reflection, self-assessment, and the development of rubrics.
  • Understand the importance of integrating assessment and evaluation with instruction.
  • Understand the importance of establishing clear and publicly explained criteria for evaluation.
  • Understand the value of standardized tests, their place in our educational systems, and ways to prepare students to succeed on them without making such preparation the centerpiece of instruction.

Background Reading

In preparation for Workshop 5, read “Ongoing Assessment: Evolving Goals” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press. Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

A compendium of resources and articles about Dr. Langer’s research and the envisionment-building process can be accessed from the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement’s Web site.

Explore the Envisionment Building resources to access articles and guides to fostering literary communities in your own classroom.

Homework Assignment

Respond to the following in your workshop journal:

Make a list of the assessment instruments you typically use to track student progress. Choose one and analyze its usefulness to you and students. What can it show you and them about their growth as learners? Are there ways you might revise it or rethink its use to make it even more effective?

Make a list of the formal evaluation tools you typically use. Choose one and analyze what students need to know and be able to do in order to be successful. Evaluate how well the tool is tied to your existing curriculum and instruction. Think about what you might wish to do to make it a more effective instrument.

In preparation for Workshop 8, read the introductory segment of “Strategies for Teaching” in Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

In addition, participants may wish to read the abstract of Judith Langer’s article “Excellence in English in Middle and High School: How Teachers’ Professional Lives Support Student Achievement” available online.

For additional resources, refer to the Additional Reading section of this workshop’s materials.

Extension: Classroom Connection

Student Activities
Try these activities with your students:

  • Choose an activity — formal or informal — that your students do several times during the semester (e.g. read a novel, write a formal paper on an aspect of the reading, give a booktalk, etc.). As a class, discuss criteria that describe an excellent piece of work for that activity (work that would deserve an “A”) listing them on chart paper or on an overhead slide. Then talk about what an inadequate performance (a “D”) would look like, suggesting that a failing grade is reserved for no performance. Continue to work together until you have developed a rubric for evaluating that activity. Before students do the activity the next time, have them review the rubric. After they have completed their work, ask them to use the rubric for self-assessment, writing an explanation for the score they assign. You may wish to give them the option to revise their work to earn a higher mark.
  • With student help, create a check list that you could use to assess the quality of group discussion. You may wish to include things such as “connects response to earlier comments,” “doesn’t interrupt,” “refers to passages in text to support a point.”

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner
Make a list of the tools you use to assess and/or evaluate students. Your list might include informal writing such as quick writes and literature logs; check sheets, quizzes and tests, formal, graded writing, presentations and performances, data from conferences, and portfolios. Chart your list items under the following categories: Tool, what the tool demonstrates about student learning, formal or informal assessment tool (or both).

As you review your chart, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I successfully tracking student learning with these tools?
  • Am I using a wide enough range of tools to allow students to fully demonstrate what they know and what they know how to do?
  • Am I using an appropriate balance of formal and informal assessment methods?
  • What might I do to improve the assessment/evaluation in my classroom?

Additional Reading

The National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement (CELA)
Directed by Dr. Judith Langer and Dr. Arthur Applebee, CELA is the only federally funded center committed to literacy research. All research is published on this site, including past studies, as well as reports about studies in process. Users can type the words “envisionment building” into the CELA Server Search and find a listing of articles and reports related to Dr. Langer’s research. In addition, CELA’s quarterly newsletter is available online.

Assessment Sites

Kathy Schrock’s Guide for Educators
In addition to an entire section on assessment and evaluation, this site offers lesson plans, teaching tools, discussion groups, and many other resources designed to help teachers.

This Web site is devoted to instruction at the middle school levels and offers a range of useful and practical information. Its section on rubrics is especially helpful in terms of both background information and a “rubric machine” that helps you create your own rubrics.

The National Middle School Association
NMSA is the only national education association dedicated exclusively to the growth of middle level education and seeks to be a key resource to parents, teachers, and administrators interested in developing more effective schools that are academically excellent, developmentally responsive, and socially equitable for every young adolescent.
This site offers a number of resources for teachers, including information on assessment and rubrics.

Young Adult Literature: Middle and Secondary English Language Arts
This site is a collection of links on the World Wide Web related to young adult literature and instruction.

YALSA Booklists
This site is a list of awards and the winning titles of each, including the Alex Awards, Best Books for Young Adults, and Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, to name a few. This site is sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA).

The Literary Link
This site offers a search engine that is helpful in researching information about young adult literature.

This non-profit site collects booklists, authors, reviews, and “must reads.” The young adult section of the site features a wide variety of links and author lists.

Newbery Medal Homepage

Middle Web’s Language Arts Page
Middle Web is a well-rounded resource for all middle school educators. The Language Arts portion of the site is a carefully selected listing of resources and links related to instruction and literature.

Professional Journals About Literature Instruction

CELA Newsletter:
The National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement, State University of New York, Albany, publishes a newsletter in the fall, winter, and spring. The newsletter addresses a wide range of issues concerning literacy.

The National Council of Teachers of English Journals:
NCTE publishes many subscription journals, including The English Journal, high school level, Voices From the Middle, middle school level, and Language Arts, elementary and middle school levels.

Texts mentioned by teachers in this workshop program:

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
A Girl Called Boy by Belinda Hurmence
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Holes by Louis Sachar