Home School Life Journal From Preschool to High School

Home School Life Journal ........... Ceramics by Katie Bergenholtz
"Let us strive to make each moment beautiful."
Saint Francis DeSales

Grading High School Essays and Papers

One of the most frequent questions I get asked by email is about how to grade high school essays and papers, so I thought I would share with you what I have learned over the years of homeschooling about this subject.
from a analysis of a play by Katie Bergenholtz

Different essays or papers will have different styles and purposes, so you will need to make it clear to the student why he is writing the paper and who his audience is. Is the paper to persuade, for example, and who are you persuading? Your peers? Adults? Do the people who are reading it already need to have a basic knowledge of the subject or can they come to the paper knowing nothing about the subject?
Style and Form: The Difference Between APA and MLA Papers and Essays

No matter what type of paper or its intended audience, the paper needs to have a clear thesis. It also needs well-reasoned support for the thesis. It should also contain appropriate quotes or paraphrased information from a few different sources (for a high school paper, I usually ask for five, but you can set any number you feel is appropriate). These sources should be cited accurately, which means that you need to decide what style is accurate for any given paper. You may want them to cite sources in a MLA style, APA style or a simplified version. I start out with a simplified version in 9th grade because they are still learning so much about writing, but by the time a student has graduated, he should be familiar with both MLA and APA styles. (A post about these styles, and their similarities and differences can be found here: Style and Form: The Difference Between APA and MLA Papers and Essays.) You will need to set a length for the paper, such as 2,000 words.
from a paper on President Johnson by Sam Bergenholtz

The paper should contain a fully developed  introduction, body and conclusion. If appropriate, it should contain a counter argument and a refutation of that counter argument. The paper should be free of grammar, usage and mechanics errors.

The rest of what I  look for is harder to explain to students. The paper should be written with an appropriate stance, style and tone. For example, the student should avoid using first-person or second -person.

Even if he has written papers before in middle school, you should not expect your student to write an high school level paper to its completion without any assistance from you. To accomplish this without either seeming like you are hanging over their shoulder or the student feeling like he has to get your approval too often before moving on, set dates for three rough drafts before the final paper is turned in.

The first draft is intended to be an exploration of the topic, and so the focus should be on the content, not on grammar or citation.  It should include an introductory paragraph that sets the context of the paper. It should contain a clear working thesis and as many individual points of support as he can think of. He should also attempt to embed at least two different quotes to provide evidence of support. I usually expect this to be half the length of the final draft. If your student is struggling to meet this length criteria, don't let him get hung up by it. He can add notes to himself such as, " I need to find a good source for a definition of this" and have him count this toward his word count. When he turns this in, you should make suggestions that will help him to write his second draft. Focus on the most obvious points and save the fine tuning for future renditions.
Finding Sources for a High School Level Paper or Essay
The second draft, which is due a week or two later, should reflect the changes based on the suggestions you have made. At this point, he may find out that he needs to do additional research. The second draft should contain a clear thesis statement and reflect any narrowing or refocusing of the thesis. It should also contain three solid points to support the thesis. It should contain quotes and citations from at least five sources, including two scholarly sources. (More about the difference between scholarly and other sources can be found here in the post, Finding Sources for a High School Level Paper or Essay.) These quotes and citations could illustrate or bolster a point from a credible source. They could illustrate the counterargument of the issue. They could define a term or concept that is not common knowledge. They could also illustrate a misconception or popular myth about the issue. 
from a paper on price controls by Sam Bergenholtz

The second draft should have clearly stated counterargument and refutations on the issue. It should have a draft introduction paragraph and a draft conclusion paragraph. It should also have a draft of the Works Cited page.

The third draft, also to be turned in a week or two after the second draft, should have an introductory paragraph that sets the context of the paper. It should have a clear thesis statement and clear, separate points of support for the thesis, each matched to an illustrative quote or paraphrase from one or more of the sources. It should include a clear counterargument,  preferably with quoted and cited evidence, and refutation. It also should have a conclusion paragraph. Lastly, it should have a Works Cited page that lists all the sources that are quoted or paraphrased and cited in the essay.
from an Economics paper by Sam Bergenholtz

Have your student think of the third draft as the final essay in terms of the content, because next he should look closely at the paper, addressing issues of grammar, citation, format and the Works Cited page. Help your student to resist the temptation to revise the content at this point, as students that are new to writing sometimes fall prey to over revising, often to the detriment of the paper. This draft should meet the length requirement (I usually set it at at least 2,000 words, not counting the Works Cited page, but you should set the requirement to coincide with your student's ability,  keeping in mind that you want to challenge your student somewhat.)  
from a paper on Ginsberg's poem, America, by Katie Bergenholtz

At this point, your student can turn in his final draft! In grading the paper, your job is to look to see if your student has followed your directions, each step of the way. I grade all of the drafts in order to give the student practice in looking at the different aspects that come together to make an excellent paper. Anytime he does not include what you have asked,  you need to take points off the final grade for that draft, anywhere from 5-15 points depending on what and how much he has left out. For example, if he does not have a clear thesis statement in his second draft, I would take off 15 points because that is a severe problem, and that alone would reduce the grade from a possible 100 points to 85, or a "B" in my grading scale. On the other hand, if the paper contains grammatical, usage or mechanics errors in the final draft, I may take off only 5 points as it is hard for students at this point to catch all of these errors while also trying to focus on the other requirements asked of them. (I even have trouble with this from time to time!) This would give their paper a 95 or an "A" on my grading scale. Of course your student will most likely have multiple things which lower his grade, especially in the beginning,  but any discouragement he may have should be overcome by his applying himself to rectifying the mistakes as he writes the various drafts. His grade will improve! You can decide,  as his teacher, whether you will average all the grades for all the drafts, or whether you will just use his final draft grade as the grade that will be reflected, along with other grades, as his class grade. I tend to use only the final draft grades as the grades for the class, but it can be useful for some students to use all the grades he has received averaged. For some students, if the grade is not reflected in his final class grade, then it doesn't count to them and they will not work hard to improve the drafts, as they should. You will have to determine what works best for both of you. Ninth grade is often a trial and error period as these things are worked out.
paper by Sam Bergenholtz

I hope this explanation of my process of teaching writing and how I grade papers helpful. Remember that learning to write and practicing writing takes time. Many mistakes will be made in the process by both student and teacher, but time and effort applied to it will reap results and prepare your student for whatever they choose to do in their future. 

If clarification of any point is needed, feel free to leave a comment and I  will try to answer any questions you might have. 


  1. I really need to work with the kids on their five paragraph essays. So much to work on, and so very little time.

  2. Very interesting and useful - thank you!


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