Athena Lester
By: Athena Lester
February 28, 2018

Homeschool, Literature, and Writing: What to Do with Poor Responses

“My homeschool student’s literature response is poorly written! How do I grade the response and help my student write better?”

This is an issue that every educator deals with. Some people might be tempted to slap a D or an F on the assignment and move forward, but that won’t help the student in future compositions, so what can we do?

Even though the concept of a “wrong answer” should not really apply to literature, written responses can still be poorly done. We want our students to learn and to grow into the very best version of themselves, and studying literature and writing literature responses can develop their thinking as well as their communication abilities.

But what should you do when something about the student’s writing just doesn’t work?


  • identify what is lacking
  • discuss how to remedy the situation with the student
  • have the student correct the problematic areas.

Often, poor responses fall into one of three categories:

  1. It misunderstands the literature
  2. It doesn’t use textual support
  3. It is badly written

How should you respond in each of these situations? For now, let us consider example high school-level responses to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” (This poem is readily found online if you are not familiar with it or need a refresher.) The prompt they are answering is:

Explain a theme in “The Road Not Taken.” Support your answer.

Example #1

       “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost is an excellent poem about resisting peer pressure. In the first stanza, a traveler is contemplating two roads, and in the final stanza, he says that he took the road that most travelers ignored. The roads are metaphors for life choices, and the traveler chooses to resist going with the crowd. In the same way, people should choose to make wise choices rather than popular ones. Frost’s poem is an edification for people who choose to do what is right, even if most people choose to do what is wrong.

This response is very well written! The word choice is elevated, it cites specifics aspects from the poem, and the content is well organized and communicates clearly—but it fundamentally misses the point of the literature.

Frost’s poem is not about peer pressure, so even though the student has evidenced critical thought and written well, they missed what the poem is about.

In this situation, praise the student for writing and communicating well and then discuss the literature with them. Show them how they may be misreading or misinterpreting certain areas and then guide them to better understanding. Oftentimes, we read or see what we want to see in art rather than what is actually there.

Oftentimes, we read or see what we want to see in art rather than what is actually there.

Example #2

          “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost describes how everyone makes choices that affect the rest of their lives. Sometimes in life, choices are made, and there’s no going back. For example, if someone chooses to commit a crime, they cannot escape from the aftermath of the crime. Personally, I have made choices that I’m sure have changed my life. When I was in fifth grade, I chose to take piano lessons instead of joining a soccer team. I’ve played piano ever since, but I wonder what kind of person I would be if I chose soccer instead. Robert Frost’s poem focuses on this kind of contemplation of life choices.

This student understands the point of the poem! The opening line clearly and correctly states one of the main themes. The rest of the response, however, provides no support for why the student thinks the poem contains this theme.

Even though the student has the right idea, they are making an unfounded claim. They apply the idea very well and provide a fabulous personal anecdote that relates to the poem, but they never connect with the actual text.

In this situation, commend the student for their valid understanding and relevant life applications, and then explain that they need to support their understanding with textual evidence. Just like a blueprint for a rocking chair doesn’t only show the finished product but also the parts and methods for achieving that finished product, a literature response must demonstrate why and how the literature supports certain ideas. (Another way to think about this is likening it to theorems and proofs in geometry, but I didn’t want to scare anyone away with math.)

Example #3

          The roads mean life choices. The poem says neither one is better. It says both are worn about the same. That means just as many people chose one as chose the other, but later the poem says he took the one that was less traveled. But that doesn’t mean it was better. Sometimes choices aren’t better or worse but just one or the other. And some choices can make big differences in life, like the poem says. That’s what the poem is about.

This response has the right idea and uses textual support—but it is very poorly written. The word choice is lacking for a high school student, it is more like a list of statements than an organized paragraph, and they never even indicate what poem they are discussing!

In this situation, once again, encourage the student that their reading of the literature was excellent and their ideas were correct; they only need to work on communicating better in writing. Show them how they can organize their thoughts and articulate their ideas in a stronger fashion. Encourage them to improve their word choice and to transition more smoothly from thought to thought. This student gets the literature. They simply need to improve their writing.

These concepts can apply to any kind of literature response—responses to short stories, novels, poetry, nonfiction, and so on.

Overall, when it comes to literature responses, you want your student to understand the literature, use textual support, and communicate clearly in writing.

By Athena Lester

Curriculum Development and Scoring Services