Professional Learning Teacher Inquiry

On the Verge of Understanding: A District-Wide Look at Student Writing


This article offers an account of how to look at student writing using a simple but effective protocol, asking what students have accomplished and what they are "on the verge of" accomplishing. Although the article features elementary teachers collaborating, the protocol will be a useful framework for educators at all levels.

Original Date of Publication: August 3, 2017



Rather than beginning with all the extenuating circumstances, we placed student work squarely in front of us. Rather than selecting and sorting the ‘good, the bad, and the ugly’ pieces, we looked at all the students’ texts with the same set of questions. Rather than spending time with our writing laments about missing conventions and lack of details, we focused on finding what was there by describing what we saw in the work and citing evidence in the student texts. Articulating these discoveries, no matter how small, provided the nudge we needed. It is essential for us to see our teaching, our writing curriculum in the students’ work. What teachers do makes a difference in how much our students are capable of achieving as writers. This pushed us to find some answers for the last important round of questions. ‘What are the implications for teaching and learning?’


Based on what we saw in student writing, we brainstormed some next steps for our daily teaching practice. For example, fourth grade teachers read the collected student fantasies. They noticed a variety of dialogue tags—whispered, sneered, demanded, etc. in the students’ pieces, many fourth graders seemed to be on the verge of understanding paragraphing when using dialogue, and one of the implications for teaching included teaching students how to use dialogue to develop plot and characters.