Beyond Standardized Measures of Written Narratives

Unfortunately, there are limited, good standardized measures to assess written expression. The good news is you can effectively and informatively assess your student's writing skills using informal techniques. The following information is designed to give you a template to informally assess written narratives. A thorough evaluation of your student’s writing abilities is critical for providing effective intervention. Writing is multi-faceted and demands many cognitive abilities including grammar, organization, planning, spelling, vocabulary, and voice, just to name some. The student’s age and the type of writing will determine your approach to assessment. Informal assessment of narratives is described here (with expository writing and formal assessment on separate pages).

The first question to answer is what type of narrative writing does the curriculum expect the student to perform? Elementary grades focus primarily on the narrative form of writing, in other words, writing stories; although middle and high school students may struggle in this area as well. These are usually personal or fictional stories. Regardless, these narratives require a specific story grammar, which may be evaluated through informal assessment of your student's written samples. A brief description of areas to assess follows. See our Expository Writing: Dynamic Assessment page.

Informal Narrative Assessment

You will learn a great deal about the student’s writing process by observing her plan, compose, and edit a story. Does she take time to think and make notes about what she is going to write or does she just begin writing? Many classroom curricula utilize visual organizers to help plan key words, plot, and characters. It is helpful to see what a student was able to come up with on her own in her visual organizer. If you are in a clinical setting, you may wish to give your student a visual organizer to complete prior to writing. 

A visually stimulating picture filled with activity is a good prompt. Ask the student to write a creative story about the picture and to make it as interesting as possible. Assign a time limit—20-30 minutes depending on the age. Tell the student that you will want to be able to read the story when she is finished.

Observe your student as she begins to compose the story. Does she write fluently or is it laborious? How does her handwriting look? Many students with dyslexia simply are not able to get the ideas from their heads onto the paper. You will obtain important information by comparing an oral narrative with a written narrative. Many times students with dyslexia simplify their vocabulary, grammar, and story structure in writing, yet can verbally narrate without any difficulty. If this is the case for your student, you will want to focus your attention on writing fluency.

You may also wish to do some dynamic assessment to find out if your student would benefit from typing her story (this eliminates the graphomotor component of writing), using word prediction (reducing the struggle with spelling and handwriting), or voice dictation (speech-to-test) software. In the dynamic assessment, you want to determine what the student is able to do independently and what an appropriate instructional level is for intervention.

As you evaluate your student’s written narrative, you will look at both content (grammar, sentence structure, story cohesion, story grammar, vocabulary, and voice) and mechanics (spelling, capitalization, and punctuation). Each area is described  below.

Grammar & Sentence Structure

Grammar, which follows a developmental order, incorporates both morphology (word endings such as plural -s, possessive marker, and verb tense; and prefixes, suffixes, and roots) and syntax (word order and length, structure, and complexity of the sentence). Written syntax should be somewhat comparable to a child's oral language skills at any particular age. In elementary school, students should be able to write word endings for the present progressive (+ing) and past verb tense. They should be able to write compound sentences (using and, but, and or) and, as they get older, begin to evidence complex sentences (using conjunctions because, if, and then) and modifying clauses (The girl, who sat next to me, was nice.). 

Morphological skills continue to develop in late elementary and early middle school to incorporate multisyllabic words (using Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes). By middle school, students should use a variety of sentence types and have good control of syntax for clear and fluent writing.

You may wish to tally the number of complex sentences and the number of words with three or more syllables in a student’s writing. Note whether the student is able to use introductory and modifying clauses in her writing or resorts to short, simple sentences.

Story Cohesion 

Story cohesion refers to the “flow” of the story. Cohesive ties also follow a developmental sequence. In preschool, sequence words and conjunctions (e.g., but, and, so, because, if, then) emerge. In elementary school, pronouns and clear referents are established in narratives. In addition, conjunctions for complex sentences are emerging, as well as modifying clauses (e.g., The bear, which was the largest in the zoo...). In the complex and interactive episodes written by adolescents, students should use conjunctions and introductory phrases (e.g., therefore, however, also, in the meantime) for complex sentences that reveal the character’s motives, feelings, and goals and that tie with previous events and descriptions.

Without cohesive ties such as conjunctions, sequence words, and pronouns, a story often feels stilted, redundant, or hard to follow. Does the story move easily from one event to another? Is there an explicit order to the story? Are pronouns utilized to eliminate redundancy (with identifiable referents)?  

Story Grammar

Story grammar refers to the use of characters, setting, and plot within a story. Does the student provide rich descriptions of the characters and their relation to each other? Is the setting vivid and clear to the reader? Can you draw a picture in your mind of the setting? Is the plot interesting? Does it compel you to read further?

 The structure of the plot follows a developmental sequence.

  • In the preschool years, stories range from descriptive sequences to reactive sequences (with action and cause and effect). 
  • By early elementary school, students often use a chain of events with either an implied or explicit goal. The character’s emotions are often included. Late elementary school students’ story grammar evolves to include the character’s plans to rectify the problem and a primitive resolution to the story. 
  • An adolescent is capable of composing a developed resolution to the story, and embedding subplots to the story (e.g., two characters may have conflicting plans and goals). These later narratives incorporate critical thinking (including a problem, response or action, and a plan) in every episode of the story. 


Vocabulary is a critical component of good writing. If the student is writing to a picture prompt, does the vocabulary include elements from the picture? Does she use a rich variety of words commensurate with her speaking skills? You may wish to tally the number of “content words” related to the prompt. In addition, ask yourself these questions: Are the verbs active (leaps, charged, poured) versus passive (was, did, had)? Was the word choice descriptive rather than vague? Does the student use adjectives and adverbs to describe nouns and actions? Were examples of metaphor and figurative language incorporated?

Many dyslexics demonstrate very limited vocabulary use in their writing. This may be due to a number of reasons. Many times, these bright individuals will only write words that they know they can spell. I have had students tell me this very thing. For example, rather than writing "olfactory," a student will choose to write "smell," thereby underrepresenting her knowledge and capabilities in her writing. It is important to assess oral vocabulary as a comparison point. The Expressive One-Word Picture Vocabulary Test -2 (EOWPVT-2) is a good measure for this.

Another reason for limited vocabulary use is word finding difficulties. Therefore, it is important to obtain a measure of oral word naming to compare with written fluency. Again, the EOWPVT-2 is a good test to use.

Finally, by nature of their reading disability and reduced access to text, many dyslexics, particularly as they get older, evidence a poorer vocabularly when compared to their typically-developing peers. For this reason, it is important to get a benchmark of vocabulary early in order to determine any degradation of vocabulary skills as the student ages. In addition to the EOWPVT-2, an assessment of receptive vocabulary (such as determined by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-4) is beneficial.

You can assess your student's diversity of words rather easily. Choose a writing sample, count the number of unique or different words written and divide that by the total number of words to yield a type-token ratio. You will have the percentage of different words used. For the older student, it is also sometimes helpful to also assess the number of multisyllabic words written.


Voice refers to the student’s unique point of view. This should be evident in the narrative through sharing an insight, humor, or emotional state. Some narratives are written in first-person form and help the reader to experience an event from the writer's perspective. There may be a moral to the story or a persuasive element to the narrative as well.

If the writing is in some way novel and engaging with an interesting “hook”, then the student has successfully used her voice. If, however, the narrative is run-of-the-mill with poor flow, vague vocabulary, and no real message or plot, then the student’s voice has been lost in her struggle to write.

Writing Mechanics

Writing Mechanics refers to a student’s spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and handwriting skills. Many students with dyslexia struggle in one or more of these areas. 

  • Capitalization refers to a student's ability to use capital letters at the beginning of a sentence, in a quotation, and in proper nouns. Simply tally the types and number of capitals used correctly and incorrectly.
  • Handwriting may be an additional struggle for students with dyslexia. Handwriting that is strikingly large or illegible, has irregular spacing, or “floats off of the line” may be the result of underlying graphomotor issues that warrant a referral to an occupational therapist. Note whether the process of forming the letters appears laborious. Note the pencil grip that the student uses. Beyond preschoolers, it should be a tripod/pincer grip rather than a fist. If you are working with a student with keyboarding skills, compare the writing process and final product of a hand-written versus a typed narrative. Any of these areas of concern may also require a follow-up referral to an occupational therapist.
  • Punctuation gives you insight into the student’s grammar and meta-cognitive skills. Some students do not use appropriate punctuation because they do not understand the grammatical constructs of a sentence or a clause. Meta-cognitive skills give the student awareness that someone else (i.e., the reader) will need to understand what she wrote so using punctuation and proofreading are essential elements of writing. A simple tally of the types and number of punctuation marks correctly and incorrectly used will give you solid baseline data and information as to where to begin intervention.
  • Spelling is a complex area of language, which requires five types of knowledge: phonemic awareness, mental orthographic images, phonics knowledge, morphology, and semantic knowledge. As you read your student’s narrative, highlight and categorize each of the student’s spelling errors to formulate a hypothesis about where the breakdown exists. Are the errors phonetically plausible (i.e., can you decipher the word)? Are the correct number of syllables represented? If there are copious spelling errors, particularly in late elementary school and beyond, further spelling testing should be pursued. Prescriptive tests such as the Spelling and Phonological Evaluation of Language and Literacy (SPELL) or the Soo Battery of Phonics Skills can be helpful in determining specific goals and recommendations for the student. Standardized instruments, such as the Test of Written Spelling-5 (TWS-5) may be useful for determining whether the student requires specific intervention.


Finally, you will need to assess your student's editing skills. Her writing needs to demonstrate that she understands the importance of painting a clear picture for the reader. This is an important meta-cognitive skill to have. Unlike oral narratives, the listener (i.e., reader) is not present and, therefore, cannot ask for clarification. The student needs to be able to analyze her writing by taking the perspective of her reader and assess whether the story flows, the amount of information is appropriate, references in the story line are clear, and the story is of interest. At a more basic level, the student needs to have skills to edit for mechanics, which may require accessing spellcheck or utilizing an editor.

In summary, a comprehensive informal assessment of your student's writing will yield both strengths and weaknesses. Given that you have aligned your assessment developmentally with the demands expected of her in school, you will be ready to begin intervention and the assessment can serve as your baseline data. Additionally, the dynamic nature of informal assessment allows you to begin having a dialogue with your student about the process of writing and its components. Many poor writers think that good writers just write well, and they do it in one fell swoop. Nothing is further from the truth. By making the process of writing salient to your student, you begin to develop her meta-cognitive skills for and about writing. This is an important, and necessary, first step to creating a successful writer! Success starts here!