How to Use Formative Writing

by | Jul 31, 2018 | Social Studies, Writing | 0 comments

Please also make sure to check out the rest of the “Writing in Social Studies” series.

  1. How to Integrate Writing into Social Studies
  2. Formative vs Summative Writing
  3. How to Use Summative Writing
  4. How to Use Formative Writing

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  • Formative: serving to form something, especially having a profound and lasting influence on a person’s development

An integrated social studies unit may include both summative and formative writing, but each type of writing should be used differently. This article will explain the purposes of formative writing and examples of how to use it in the classroom.

What is Formative Writing?

Formative writing may be used at any point of the lesson or unit. It comes in a variety of forms and has a range of purposes that determine their placement within the plans.

In general, formative assessments are used to check student understanding as individual lessons within a unit are taught. By using formative assessments, teachers can catch any misunderstandings and help students correct them right away – before the summative assessment at the end of the unit.

Planning an Integrated Unit

When planning units for social studies that include writing as a central part of the learning, it is important to include a variety of formative writing activities for foundational skills development. The formative part of any lesson or unit is where the actual learning takes place.

The unit needs to include a range of activities instead of a routine that uses the same activity over and over. This allows the teacher to reach a larger group of students and support them in achieving mastery of the unit standards and goals.

Teachers should not take a narrow view of what formative writing includes, or it will limit their ability to reach all students in their classes effectively. Engaging students in writing daily, or at least routinely, will enhance their metacognitive skills and take away some of the anxiety writing causes in many students.

Purposes of Formative Writing

Formative writing has several purposes depending upon its implementation. It may be used for self-assessment by the students. Students may also use it as a resource for discussions and summative assessments. Finally, formative writing can be used as an assessment of students’ understanding of the most recent lesson taught.

Student Self-Assessment

Self-assessment is the most common use of formative writing. Activities such as Bell Ringers and Exit Slips require students to reflect on and demonstrate their understanding of themes, ideas, and concepts taught. They also provide effective transitions between the individual lessons of a unit and help students connect the lessons in meaningful ways.

Student self-assessment tasks are usually short response to either an essential question or focus questions directly related to the objective(s) being taught.

Immediate review of the self-assessment activity should follow its completion, allowing students to self-correct and ask questions to clarify any misunderstandings. This process saves time, gives the teacher feedback on student understanding, generates a score for their academic grade, and encourages students to attempt all the questions.

This formative writing should be implemented frequently throughout the unit and should have a smaller value, or weight, in the overall academic grade. It should not be collected for grading but scored for completeness by the teacher. A simple checklist with scores for complete, partially complete, and incomplete can be used for scoring purposes.


Formative writing may also be used for lesson assessments (quizzes). Students should be given a single prompt, usually the essential question of the lesson. Students write a response demonstrating their understanding of the lesson and any domain-specific vocabulary introduced in it.

Scoring of these assessments should have a specific rubric that may be presented to the class, or small groups, for self-assessment in the middle and secondary grades. Primary grades teachers may wish to collect, score, and conference with students on their writing instead of allowing students to correct their own work.

Scoring instead of grading is the rule of thumb again, using rubrics that clearly present levels of correctness in response to the prompt. Rubrics should have ranges of 0-3 for primary grades and 0-5 for middle and secondary grades. Each level of the rubric needs to clearly show the expected vocabulary, syntax, and content for the corresponding score. Rubrics are meant to assist students in evaluating their own writing to make improvements in future activities.

This type of formative writing occurs less often than the self-assessment activities and should carry a slightly larger value (weight) in the overall academic grade.


Student Resource

All the formative writing done within the unit plan should be organized and kept by the student for review, study, and reference. When moving on to summative writing, the formative writing pieces become a resource to pull ideas and information from during the drafting, revising, and editing phases.

Using a Reflection Journal

One form of formative writing is a reflection journal. These organized collections of writing enable students to review topics studied as well as make connections among them. It is a personal form of formative assessment, allowing for the development of metacognitive skills in students. Most importantly, it engages students in writing on a frequent basis.

Reflection Journal entries are used at the end of each lesson but are formative assessments. They allow students to think about and explain what they have learned during the lesson – as well as discover what they still need to learn.

Type of Reflection Journal Entries

There are many types of journal entries that can be used within a social studies classroom.


Summarizing is the most generic form of journal writing. It requires students to put the key ideas of the lesson into their own words, as well as use the domain-specific vocabulary.  A summarizing entry tests a student’s understanding of chronology, sequencing, and cause/effect relationships.

This entry is the easiest to create an answer key for and takes the least amount of review time.

Essential Questions

Essential Questions are an analysis form of journal writing. Responding to the lesson’s essential question demonstrates a student’s understanding of the material. Domain-specific vocabulary and direct text references are key elements of this type of journal entry.

It also needs a simple answer key, as all students are responding to the same essential question. The uniform answer key keeps review time focused and at a minimum.

For more information on Essential Questions, please see the post “How to Integrate Writing into Social Studies.”


Inferencing (or drawing conclusions) is another journal writing task. Students are expected to take the information of the lesson and use reason to develop conclusions based on that information. Since this is an interpretive activity, answers will vary.

A generalized answer key or rubric will be needed for review, requiring more time to complete.

Point of View

Point of View is a specialized journal writing activity that asks students to explain the topic from another person’s perspective. This is a higher level of task, requiring students to demonstrate their understanding on multiple levels. Students need to be able to separate their own views and ideas from the those of the assigned person. Effective writing in this domain is empathetic and includes feelings and observations relating to the viewpoint assigned.

Answer keys will need to be “point of view” specific as directed by the writing task prompt.


Comparison journal entries require lessons or topics with multiple characteristics or themes. Students must be able to identify similarities and explain reasons for differences in their writing. Textual support and references are necessary as opinion may not be used in the comparison. Again, domain-specific vocabulary is critical to the demonstration of understanding by the student, as well as to the usefulness of the entry when later used as review for the summative writing activity.

Accurate details are critical and answer keys will need to be thorough to ensure students have as complete an answer to review as possible.


Reflection journals are one way to effectively engage students in daily writing. They can implement a variety of writing styles, such as summary, essential questions, inferencing, point-of-view, and comparison. Engagement in frequent writing encourages metacognitive development in students and enables the teacher to receive more effective feedback from students on lessons taught.
Please also make sure to check out the rest of the “Writing in Social Studies” series.

  1. How to Integrate Writing into Social Studies
  2. Formative vs Summative Writing
  3. How to Use Summative Writing
  4. How to Use Formative Writing

Over twenty plus years, my educational career has spanned four continents and two states, as well as eight grade levels!

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