As teachers, what we write and how we write it can have a big impact on students and their parents. In this month’s Ilm o Amal, TRC staff gives valuable tips on how to make writing reports less overwhelming, what to say, how to cushion criticism and praise appropriately.
It is a daunting task to sum up a child’s achievements for the whole year in three lines in a report card. While giving an ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’ grade is straightforward and gives an overall picture to parents, it says little about how the child is performing. Thus the narrative comments that teachers write in report cards become all-important for parents and students who want to interpret the grades.
As teachers, what we write and how we write it can have a big impact on students and their parents. To begin with, a well-written report card is one that is well thought out. It is one in which teacher’s comments offer valid praise and also constructive criticism. Your comments should be clear and succinct and should offer solutions where required. The following 9 tips should help you achieve that:
Tip 1: Be specific when offering criticism or talking about an area that the child finds challenging. For instance a comment such as ‘Bilal is unable to write at grade level’, does not really say anything about the problem he is facing while writing. His parents are not likely to understand the comment and they probably don’t know how well others in class are writing. The comment also says nothing about what the parents and the child can do about the problem.
You can rewrite the comment by writing one or two positive sentences regarding the child’s strengths. Then write about the area that the child needs to improve and finally what the parents can do (or are already doing) to target the area(s) to work on. So the comment can be rewritten as: ‘Bilal’s writing shows that he has great imagination. However, he needs to read more books at home in order to improve his vocabulary and also to understand how writing is organised. Bilal also needs to be encouraged to proofread his compositions for mistakes and repetition.’ The second comment clearly identifies where Bilal’s problem lies and pinpoints precisely how he can improve it. The last comment highlights precisely the kind of support that the parents can provide.
Tip 2: Avoid jargon or technical terms in a report card.
Terms such as ‘critical thinking skills’, ‘motor skills’ and ‘spatial awareness’ are meaningful for a teacher, but they mean little to a parent. It is easier to unravel the jargon for the parents and tell them that ‘Shanzeh can organise information into categories (e.g. big/ small, long/short) and uses measurement terms correctly with some assistance’.
Tip 3: Avoid comments that refer only to the completion of a task
A comment that states that the child has completed a task is unhelpful, because it does not provide an evaluation. When a teacher writes, ‘Dania has completed all reading tasks this term,’ or ‘ Yasser enjoyed making the four PowerPoint presentations assigned to him this term’ there is no indication of Dania or Yasser’s real achievement on those projects.
Here the teacher would need to add some kind of evaluation, for instance what was learnt and how well, where is improvement needed and what should be done next.
Tip 4: Do not give descriptions of the curriculum.
Parents are more concerned about how their child is progressing toward expected levels of achievement, rather than an explanation of the topics covered in the curriculum. In any case, many schools share the curriculum at the beginning of the year, so it is likely that parents already have this information.
Tip 5: Remember that what you write on the report card will be there for life, so think very carefully about what you are putting down in a student’s permanent record. Do you really need to say, ‘Aleena forgets her homework diary everyday’?
Tip 6: Avoid comments that compare a student to his peers. Remember this is not a competition. Your job is to report to the parent where their child stands in terms of their learning. So even if it is effusive praise such as ‘Nael is the best in Math in his class’… avoid writing it. When you gush, you are not providing the child with a way forward. Also by writing a comment like the one given above, you are not only praising Nael, you are also undermining his peers in the classroom.
Tip 7: Think carefully about the correlation between the letter grades that you are giving and the comments that you are writing. Make sure that the letter grade matches the comment. So if you write, ‘Zara’s writing has improved consistently this term. She writes with confidence and her writing exhibits more detailed description’ and then give a ‘Needs Improvement’ grade that will only serve to confuse the parents and the student.
Tip 8: Do not make general comments about how helpful a child is or that they are well-behaved in the area designated for a subject. Put down such comments in the general comments box of the report card that is usually at the end, as such comments sum up the overall performance of a child.
Tip 9: Avoid giving unnecessary information. Do not give too many details and avoid repeating yourself. There is limited space in the report card and padding it with repetitive and unnecessary expressions just takes up valuable space. It is better to give details in a parent-teacher conference.
Finding the right words to write on report cards is not an easy task. There are however resources that you can use to help you. For instance, there are online resources that provide general report card comments that you can adapt to your situation. However when using these comments, remember that you do not want to merely copy and paste something that sounds like it fits your situation. The challenge is to use appropriate comments as a starting point and then adapt them to write informed comments that are concise and personal.
You can also get help from other more experienced teachers regarding how to phrase your evaluation. It may also help to look at comments written by teachers in your school in the past, if the school provides you access to it.
Finally, once a report card is complete, look at it objectively to see if it covers the following four aspects:
1. Does it provide information of what a student has achieved based on the teacher’s assessment throughout the year?
2. Does it identify the areas in which the student needs to work and improve his or her performance?
3. Does it tell parents what the school is doing to help the student’s future learning?
4. Does it suggest to parents how they can support their child?
Writing comments on report cards can be overwhelming for teachers, especially for those teachers who want to do justice to the task. Still, you should see the task, as a chance to reach out to parents and say things that are honest, yet thoughtful and helpful in order to make the communication worthwhile.