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"This study was an alpha field-test of the earliest paper version of The Writing Continuum (later changed to the Universal Writing Continuum) with K-5 grade volunteer teachers in 3 elementary schools in New Hanover County Schools; n=25, each teacher scoring 4 papers. The researchers then conducted two audiotaped and transcribed focus groups with these 25 teachers, one group per school. Teachers’ general perceptions were that the formative assessment instrument had useful features but the 9-page paper continuum was cumbersome to use. Sample comments about what teachers liked: “teachers can learn about writing and the standards by scoring papers,” “precise alignment with the CCSS, breaks down writing for instruction,” “provides you with in-depth understanding of the writing process and your students’ abilities as writers,” “can use to create flex writing groups,” and “the scoring method was useful.” Two major suggestions were made: 1) make it into an online tool and 2) add 3 sublevels for each level: 1 = developing grade level standards 2 = adequately meets grade level standards 3 = thoroughly meets grade level standards and transitioning to next level. Based on participants’ feedback, the paper version of this informal writing assessment was turned into a computer application and database."

Debbie Powell, developer, demonstrated the continuum and interviewed K-12 administrators (12), NC Department of Public Instruction consultants (6) and curriculum coordinators (8) for their feedback in small focus groups. Usefulness was rated high, but all wanted more research to see how teachers respond. The biggest concern was how many new things teachers are being introduced to. Three major suggestions were made repeatedly:

“The Universal Writing Continuum is a new program—actually in its beta testing phase—that allows teachers to track from year to hear how students are doing on their writing. It's part database, part scoring system, part tracker. Not only does it record regular writing assignments, it keeps track of benchmark papers, so that you can assess how your building is doing in writing. We've been working with its creator, Dr. Debbie Powell, from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington."

  • Provide benchmarks throughout the year that could eventually provide predictive data for summative writing assessments.
  • Use the familiar colors and terms of red for below basic, yellow for basic, green for proficient and blue for advanced.
  • Make it as self-directed as possible.

"Informal feedback was given by participants as part of the discussion. Some participants suggested that instructional strategies needed to be included. Many commented on the continuum as a good solution to demonstrating progress for all students, including those above and below grade level."

A pilot of the Universal Writing Continuum was conducted in 2012-13 with 38 K-12 teachers in 5 states to test the database’s capabilities, to find glitches, to seek suggestions for improvements and to test for reliability. One hundred and four teachers initially signed on to the study, sixty-eight teachers completed the pre-survey, and fifty-nine teachers were given a one-hour, online training session for using the continuum for scoring. The remaining 36 teachers did not return their consent forms. Thirteen administrators agreed to participate, however none completed the pre-research survey and only one attended the training. All participating teachers were asked to score 2 writing samples (chosen by the teacher or student) for each child in their class (one class for middle and high school). One sample was to be from the period of the January/February and one sample toward the end of March. Teachers were asked to score at least the first 6 traits on the online Universal Writing Continuum. Teachers were asked to upload to the website a copy of the writing sample for each student. A pre-survey and post-survey were administered to the 68 teachers.

Of the 68 teachers completing the pre-survey, there were 1 high school, 2 middle school and 65 elementary teachers; 13 completed the post-survey.

Thirty-eight teachers logged in to the UWC application; 30 completed the first set of papers, 3 partially completed their set, and 5 did not attempt to score any papers. For the second set of papers, 13 teachers completed set 2, 4 teachers partially completed a set, and 21 teachers did not attempt the 2nd set.


Teachers aren’t teaching writing regularly. Twenty-six of 68 respondents answering the question said that they teach writing less than 30 minutes daily; 84% or 57 teachers teach writing 40 minutes or less daily. Teachers felt much more knowledgeable about the reading Common Core Standards than the writing and language standards. Teachers report that they are more comfortable with the structure and features of an argument/opinion and narrative than informational texts. Thirty-one percent of the teachers reported that they were uncomfortable with assessing writing. Areas of professional development that teachers felt would be most important (75% or more of the teachers replied that it would be useful or very useful) are: writing process, writing workshop, writing qualities, text types, demonstration videos, mentor texts and use of anchor papers. Teachers reported a significant increase in their knowledge of the standards over the 7 months between the pre-survey and post-survey, but we can’t necessarily contribute this to their use of the continuum because we don’t know what other professional development occurred during this time.

Of the 13 teachers completing the final survey, 7 were undecided if they would choose to use the Universal Writing Continuum; 6 would choose to use it, 0 responded that they would not use the continuum.

Teachers’ Comments from Post Surveys:

  1. The UWC is aligned with the Common Core; many of the elements of writing can be found in the Common Core. The UWC goes beyond the Common Core by including writing elements and language not addressed in the standards. The UWC simultaneously organizes the Common Core by the writing elements and by grade level. It advances the expectations mid-year, thereby helping teachers determine if the work is of grade-level (or not) performance. (Colorado elementary teacher)
  2. I think a continuum is helpful to teachers needing guidance on pinpointing areas of strength and weaknesses with individual students. Once I learned how to navigate through the system, the Continuum was easy to use. Great tool that provides informative information (Missouri elementary teacher)
  3. I cannot yet give it a glowing recommendation, but I feel it has promise. However, I think it requires more training than the organizers thought, and I also think teachers need more incentive to use it in terms of lesson planning and organizing their courses on the front end. I have been uneasy from the beginning, but this may also be because the organizers of the research project seemed unorganized and the project didn’t really seem ready to go (tech issues, not enough anchor papers, less training available, emails far past dates when they were supposed to be sent or not going to all participants, etc.…) (Colorado elementary teacher)
  4. I find it useful, helpful, and a great guide to go by for writing. (North Carolina elementary teacher)
  5. The writing continuum is a solid tracking device for students’ growth in writing. It is easy to use and provides another data point to view growth. (Nevada middle school teacher)
  6. I would say that it is very comprehensive and better than anything that we currently have for scoring a student’s writing. It is very explicit and it is easy to see the progression from one proficiency band to the next. It also ensures that teachers know the Common Core Standards not only for their grade level but as a continuum. If used throughout the school year consistently, students and teachers will have great data to discuss in terms of progress or lack of in specific areas of writing. If assessed regularly, students should be able to target areas of weakness as a writer and improve those areas contributing to the whole. (North Carolina middle school teacher)
  7. It takes a long time to complete. It gives you some good documentation of students’ growth as writers. (North Carolina elementary charter school teacher)
  8. I think it is an extremely useful tool. It seems very time consuming at first, but it gets easier the more you use it. (North Carolina elementary teacher)
  9. The Universal Writing Continuum was very beneficial to my Common Core writing instruction. I was also able to address students’ strengths and weaknesses. Using the writing continuum I was also able to strengthen my knowledge of writing standards for other grade levels. We have got to teach children to think clearly through writing and this tool really helps us focus on the job to be done. (North Carolina elementary teacher)
  10. I think the tool is amazing and provides an in depth understanding of the writing process and your students abilities as writers…. It allows you to quickly score any paper in writer's workshop even while you are conferencing with kids, if you like, and the computer will generate reports over a months' time of how the entire class is progressing on as many as 10 features of writing.
  11. I just have to say that I love it; I love that it’s so broken down and so precise. ..It’s just not something broad to look at; you can literally go back and look at the story and check to see did they do that? I was really taken with this.
  12. One of our big things as a school with vertical alignment is having a common language. I feel like this lends itself so much as a school to having that common language. If a child has heard this since first grade, second grade, by the time they get to me in fifth grade when I’m talking to them about making sure their story has a focus, they’ve been hearing that all along. I like that a lot.
  13. It’s great the way it breaks it down for instructional purpose and is very user friendly for scoring. It’s very user friendly for instructional purposes. I would use sub-categories for mini lessons. I think it needs to be implemented school-wide or better district-wide. It needs to be a school-wide expectation so it can grow along with the kids. It makes the writing evaluation so easy to use and provides a great record to use with parents at conferences.


  1. Although these experienced teachers (86% had 6 or more years experience) had positive things to say about the continuum and found it useful, more than half did not continue to use it and more than half (7/13) said they were undecided if they would choose to use it. Teachers are inundated with assessments and many other demands. They are not teaching writing regularly or for extended periods of time. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) guide for writing (Graham, et al, 2012) recommends one hour daily dedicated to writing beginning in grade 1. With writing not being assessed at the state level in many states, there is no pressure from administrators to monitor students’ progress in writing.
  2. The participating schools each had 1 to 4 teachers rather than an entire staff and none of the schools had active administrative support for using the continuum. This likely explains the number of teachers who did not complete all elements of the study. The project staff did not offer any incentives and at times were late in following up with the teachers.
  3. Though the teachers say they are comfortable with the standards, there are still many areas of writing that they feel a need for professional development.
  4. More professional development for evaluating students’ writing and using the continuum are needed for the instrument to be successful.
  5. Teachers need time to talk to each other about student writing, to compare evaluations and to have more time to become familiar with the continuum before they are expected to evaluate writing independently.
  6. It seems to take teachers scoring 4-5 writing samples before they become comfortable using the tool. Because there was a large time gap between the two sets of papers and the final set occurred later than expected, falling into a time period close to the end of quarter testing, teachers found that they had too big of a learning curve to score the second set of papers. Perhaps they should have been required to evaluate students’ writing bi-weekly.
  7. If writing were a greater emphasis in these schools, if there was strong administrative support and the entire school was working together on the adoption and implementation, there likely would be more positive results that better reflect what the teachers say about the Universal Writing Continuum.
  8. More extensive pilot studies of the completed platform need to be conducted with school districts or independent or charter schools. The administrators much be active participants in future studies as well as all of the teachers.

One of the required evidences UNCW students must demonstrate for North Carolina Licensure at the end of their student teaching is an analysis of learning using authentic assessment.

In Undergraduate pre-service teachers’ first semester in the Foundations of Literacy course, Debbie requires students to evaluate writing samples for the children they are tutoring. Consistently, students are able to meet the standard for authentic assessment analysis in their first methods course by using the Universal Writing Continuum.

The following are analyses of the writing strengths and needs of two 2nd grade students by using The Universal Writing Continuum. It is important to note that this analysis was written by an undergraduate pre-service teacher in her first semester of methods courses and prior to even accessing the module on teaching writing. Students complete a one-week module on assessing writing and spelling before they complete this task.

Preservice Teacher 1:

Strengths in Writing: Based on Dr. Powell’s writing continuum, I assessed Charles’ writing development using nine different traits. Charles’s strengths include having a strong sentence structure and fluency. When reading his piece, it has a natural flow which the reader can read with ease. He uses a variety of sentence structures in his piece titled, “Going to the Pool.” One sentence states, “My grandpa and my Grandma won’t go to the pool because they can’t swim.” He uses proper subject verb agreement and writes correctly, using the appropriate tense. Charles also uses declarative and interrogative sentences. However, he failed to put the punctuation in one interrogative sentence. This is why I put him in level D for conventions as he “experiments” with new punctuation. He is consistent at appropriately capitalizing the first word in the sentence and spacing between words. He is also very good at writing to learn/audience of self. He attempts using complete sentences to enhance the meaning and his strategies are quite clever. Instead of saying “his grandparents don’t go swimming because they can’t swim,” he uses a variety of sentences to explain that he asked them why they don’t go and that they replied they can’t swim. He also enhances his point by making an inference that “they can’t swim because they never go.”

Needs in Writing: Charles is in the 2nd semester, second grade. Based on The Writing Continuum, Charles should score a level E to be proficient at this point during the school year/semester. However, he falls into a level D or below for seven out of the eight writing traits. Each of his needs for the individual writing traits is explained below. His idea/content isn’t well established. He titles his piece, “Going to the pool,” but never talks about the actual event of swimming. Charles needs work on generalizing and coming up with an idea that he can write effective supportive details. According to the continuum, Charles, “attempts to restate topic or question” and “lack[s] in-depth understanding or strong purpose.” I placed him in level D for ideas/content, but he is bordering the level C, because the length of his piece is inadequate to fully develop his idea. In regard to his structure and organization, I have Charles in a level D. His piece uses temporal words that has minimal detail, and contains only two sequenced events. He orders the information so the reader is able to follow, but there is really no conclusion at the end. In regard to voice and point of view, I put Charles at a basic level D, because he doesn’t write in 3rd person as well as 1st person. It seems that most of his pieces are a narrative account of events and therefore, he is always writing in 1st person. However, his voice in the piece does have a very unique perspective and you can almost hear him telling you his story. Charles is also in a level C for word choice on the continuum because of he doesn’t take risks in adding new words. He needs to focus on the structure of a paper, having a title, author, paragraphs with a beginning, middle, and end. Charles also needs to attempt to use illustrations in his piece to support or show the reader what is happening. His piece lacks any illustrations and in regard to the Presentation/Publishing content area, I had to place him in the level C for spatial principles. He doesn’t stop to think about adding an illustration, even after he has completed his piece.

Preservice Teacher 2:

Strengths in Writing: Using the Writing Continuum, I have decided to place Demarco in writing level E, which is proficient for the 2nd grade level. I've decided to analyze both of his written pieces, the Turtle Book and "One Day," because both of them show some distinct strengths he has as a writer. For ideas and content, Demarco has the ability to pick a topic and ensure that it is introduced, developed, and concluded sufficiently. He has the ability to pick a controlling idea and carry that idea throughout his story. He displayed both of these strengths in both of his written pieces. For structure, organization, and genre, he is able to write with a purpose. In his story, "One Day," he was able to follow a sequence of events and in the Turtle Book he was able to organize the pages in the text to follow a specific order. In his story, "One Day," he was able start off with a lead and provide closure. He also attempted dialogue, although it was not well developed. For voice, point of view, and attention to audience, I believe Demarco's writing abilities tend to each of the bulleted points. In both of his written pieces, he showed a sense of audience by providing examples to clarify meaning. His voice is definitely beginning to emerge and his written pieces are unique to his personality. In the story, "One Day," he was able to write in third person. For word choice, Demarco is able to use some transitional words between ideas in his story, "One Day." For sentence fluency and structure, Demarco is able to use different sentence structures, write complete sentences with subject-verb agreement and noun-pronoun agreement, and use declarative and exclamatory sentences. He displayed strengths in all of these abilities in his written piece, "One Day." For conventions, Demarco is somewhat able to abide by the rules of Standard English by use of capital letters, end punctuation, and conventional spelling. He displayed these traits mostly in his Turtle Book, however, he did struggle with these abilities in his other written piece, "One Day." For presentation and publishing, Demarco is able to add illustrations to provide some of the important information. In the Turtle Book, Demarco was able to create illustrations to provide additional meaning to the information provided. For writing process, Demarco is able to prewrite, as seen with his graphic organizer for the story "One Day," and is able to edit for misspelled words, as we did with the Turtle Book.

Needs in Writing: I believe that Demarco has to be inspired in order to write, he does not like writing on demand. As seen with both of the written pieces he created, I had to provide him with visual stimulations and good quality literature in order for him to write. Once I did that, he was writing away. When writing his informational piece, the Turtle Book, Demarco displayed many strengths in writing and spelling. I allowed him to keep the books I read to him; Franklin Afraid of the Dark and All About Turtles. I believe this helped him come up with ideas to write about and also helped him spell more complex or unfamiliar words correctly. I was able to really see some of Demarco's needs when he wrote his story, "One Day." The two aspects of his writing in this piece that I believe need guidance on are his consistent use of overused words and his lack of conventions. Throughout the story, he uses the word "said" many times and does not use any alternate words. He would definitely benefit from learning more exciting, spicier words to use when writing. His major need is to work on the use of conventions. In the writing, he uses the conjunction "and" a few times to connect sentences in an appropriate way, however, he also uses the word "and" many more times to connect different thoughts. He does use capital letters for the beginning of the sentences and proper nouns, however, he only has one complete sentence where he uses end punctuation. The rest of the sentences in the piece are run on, and, although the thought is complete, the sentence is not. Demarco would definitely benefit from additional instruction in the use of conventions in his writing. He used them well in his Turtle Book but he also had additional resources for help and was only writing one to two sentences per page instead of writing a while story.

Conclusion: The UWC provides teachers, even very inexperienced pre-service teachers, with the language to talk about writing and the specificity to plan instruction.