Teaching the Virginia SOL Writing Domains

(3/6/17) Since the links below haven’t been working, here are some downloadable materials to use in teaching the VA SOL Domains:
SOL Domains Student Notes – a fill-in-the-blanks packet
SOL Domains Notes Slide Show – allows students to complete notes
SOL Domains Student Notes KEY – I use this for makeup mostly
SOL Domains Review (outline/matching) – for students to interact with the notes
SOL Domains Basic Rubric – for teaching students to score papers
SOL Domains Detailed Rubric – a more interactive scoring chart for students

Please note that the Virginia SOL Writing Domains have been revised. Here’s the link to the new EOC Blueprint.


“Okay,” I told my advanced tenth-grade English students when class began, “take out a sheet of paper and a pen. We’re having a test!”

I smiled around the classroom at the agape mouths and wide eyes.

“A test?” a few managed to ask nervously. “What’s it on?”

I ignored the questions and took on that serious look that means do-what-I-said-now.

“On your paper, I want you to number to ten and write the correct answer for each.”

They looked around the room, and I tilted my head, “This is an individual activity.”

Hands shot into the air. Some faces were puzzled; others were pouting; still others had reached the boiling point.

“How are we supposed to know what to do?” was the general consensus.

This was the beginning of my first lesson on the SOL Writing Domains, and it definitely got my students’ attention! Afterward, they were in agreement that learning what any test constitutes and how you’ll be evaluated on it is a big part of your success.

For those of you not familiar with this concept, the three domains (Composing, Written Expression, and Usage and Mechanics) are used by the state of Virginia to evaluate the Direct Writing portion of the writing SOL test. Here’s a breakdown of the domains and the features that define them:

The Virginia Standards of Learning Writing Domains

  1. Composing
    1. Central idea
    2. Elaboration
    3. Organization
    4. Unity
  2. Written Expression
    1. Vivid and precise vocabulary
    2. Selected information
    3. Voice
    4. Tone
    5. Sentence variety
  3. Usage & Mechanics
    1. Sentence formation
      1. Standard word order
      2. Completeness
      3. No enjambments
      4. Standard coordination
    2. Usage
      1. Inflection
      2. Agreement
      3. Conventions
      4. Word meaning
    3. Mechanics
      1. Formatting
      2. Spelling
      3. Standard capitalization
      4. End punctuation
      5. Internal punctuation

The direct writing portion is one of two that make up the writing SOL test (the other is multiple-choice), and during it, students are given a writing prompt on which to write. Each essay is then evaluated by at least two people across the state in each of the three domains, according to the following scale:

4 = The writer demonstrates consistent, though not necessarily perfect, control of almost all the domain’s features.
3 = The writer demonstrates reasonable, but not consistent, control of most of the domain’s features indicating some weakness in the domain.
2 = The writer demonstrates enough inconsistent control of several of the domain’s features indicating some weakness in the domain.
1 = The writer demonstrates little or no control of most of the domain’s features.
from Virginia SOL Assessment: End-of-Course Writing Test Blueprint

The readers read; then, the readers score; then, the scores form a mixture that determines whether a student graduates or not. (You can find the specific recipe in the Blueprint.)

This is serious stuff. Students enrolled in English 11 must not only pass the course itself, but also both the Writing SOL and the Reading, Literature, and Research SOL. Or they take it over and over until they do. Or they don’t graduate.

When I started teaching at GW three years ago, the head of the English department sat me and the two other “new” English teachers down for a session on teaching the domains. We went through the meanings of the three domains and their features and evaluated several student writings using the domains as a rubric.

I was no stranger to the domains when I went to GW. I remember sitting in Laurel Park High School’s library (still there, but now a middle school) poring over piles of paperwork that constituted the beginnings of the state’s SOL testing. That was probably nine or ten years ago, and though I’d used my understanding of the domains in teaching writing, I’d never taught them to my students. Live and learn!

Now, I begin every class with a detailed discussion of the writing domains and the features that define them. I found a great resource on the Virginia Department of Education’s website called “The Virginia SOL Writing Tests: A Teacher’s Resource Notebook for Enhancing Writing Instruction and Improving Scores on the State Assessments” that helped describe the domains and features in detail; I used it to create my SOL Writing Domains Notes.

I made a transparency out of my notes; then, I took all the “meat” out of it and made an incomplete outline I call SOL Writing Domains Student Notes. So while we’re discussing the domains and features, students are filling in the blanks on their sheets from the notes on the overhead, as well as adding information in the margins as directed. (We “review” a lot of extra grammar and usage, especially.)

Once I feel like everyone understands the information, we move on to using it — in evaluating student writing samples using first a basic, numbers-only rubric (SOL Writing Domains Basic Rubrics), and then, a more detailed one (SOL Writing Domains Detailed Rubrics) that I designed incorporating the three domains and their features. (I don’t have any of the writing samples in digital form, unfortunately.)

I usually evaluate a few writing samples with my students first, using the rubrics. This modeling has been extremely helpful. Then, I have them work in groups to do the same. Sometimes, I give extra individual practice, also.

Before we move on, students complete a review on the information (SOL Writing Domains Review) and take a test, also (not available for download – but let me know if you’d like a copy).

My next stop on the writing train is the essay-writing process, during which I continuously refer to those domains and features, pointing out how they work together and where they fit. This unit culminates with their writing an essay of their own from a prompt. Once their essays are finished, I have them use those same rubrics to evaluate each other’s papers; we continue this peer evaluation throughout the course. We also use these strategies in evaluating professional writing from their textbook and from newspapers.

The bottom line here is that learning how their essays will be evaluated — via understanding these domains and features — helps students to not only write better, but to understand how and why they write better. This helps improve success rates with not only the essay part of the SOL, but also the multiple-choice section! So in this case, at least, better test-takers are better all around.

If you’ve used other methods of teaching students how to evaluate their own and others’ writing, please let me know! Contact me through this site or e-mail me at mrshawke(at)gmail.com. :)

Available Teaching Materials

  • SOL Writing Domains Notes – Word File
    An outline of the three domains and their features with lots of elaboration. It’s in 18-point Verdana, so it’s easy to see from the overhead projection. I use a transparency of this, and students fill in the blanks on their SOL Writing Domains Student Notes as we go over it. I spend a lot of time on this, usually, because along the way we’re “reviewing” some grammar and usage, also.

  • SOL Writing Domains Student Notes – Word File
    An incomplete outline identical to SOL Writing Domains Notes but with blanks and boxes all over the place, so you can be sure students at the very least wrote the most important words once. I make a copy of this for every student and have them write down additional notes all over the margins as I’m going over the transparency of the SOL Writing Domains Notes!

  • SOL Domains Outline – Word File
    A bare-bones outline of only the three domains and their features; these are the words in boxes on the SOL Writing Domains Student Notes. This corresponds exactly with one section of the SOL Domains Test, and it is also included on the SOL Writing Domains Review.

  • SOL Writing Domains Basic Rubrics – Word File
    Includes two basic rubric sheets on one page. (I make copies and cut them in half, since we end up using so many of these.) Each sheet has seven columns: one that lists the SOL domains and features, one to hold the maximum point value per domain, and five evaluation columns with an “Essay #” header on each. We start out using these to evaluate sample essays; later, students use them to evaluate their own and each other’s essays. They’re quick and easy, but I generally require lots of comments for full credit. It’s too easy to just slap some numbers down without reading and/or thinking, which is why I developed the SOL Writing Domains Detailed Rubrics below!

  • SOL Writing Domains Detailed Rubrics – Word File
    Includes one detailed rubric sheet with evaluation columns for three essays. Each column has an “Essay #” header for identification. There are blanks to be filled in for each domain, focusing on the features, and each includes a “Points Given” box. I’ve found it best to model this evaluation before having students try it on their own or in groups. (I’d suggest the same for the basic rubrics, as well.)

  • SOL Writing Domains Review – Word File
    A four-page review of the domains and features, plus other related information that we go over when discussing the SOL Writing Domains Notes.
    Ten sections: 1. Matching terms with definitions 2. Completing an outline of the domains and features (from the boxes on SOL Writing Domains Student Notes) 3. Listing four methods of separating independent clauses 4. Choosing whether to use a or an (Yes, some students still don’t know…) 5. Listing five characteristics a complete sentence must have 6. Identifying run-on sentences and comma splices 7. Listing the seven coordinating conjunctions 8. Identifying the pronoun and its antecedent 9. Matching terms with their synonyms 10. Identifying sentences and sentence fragments.
    I let students use their notes to complete this, sometimes in groups or pairs, but always for a hefty number of points.

  • SOL Writing Domains Test (not available for download)
    A three-page test on the domains and features, plus related usage and structure issues.
    Eight sections: 1. Completing an incomplete outline with thirteen blanks 2. Matching twenty terms with definitions 3. Identifying run-on sentences and commas splices; then, fixing the errors with one of the four methods of separating independent clauses 4. Choosing whether to use a or an 5. Identifying sentences and fragments. 6. Listing the missing characteristics every sentence must have 7. Identifying the pronoun and its antecedent 8. Listing the missing coordinating conjunctions.

  • “The Virginia SOL Writing Tests: A Teacher’s Resource Notebook for Enhancing Writing Instruction and Improving Scores on the State Assessments” – PDF File.
    Published by the Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Secondary Instructional Services in 1999, and written/edited by Bruce B. Stevens. I found this document on the VA DOE’s website several years ago, but I had a tough time finding a copy online when I started to post these materials. It’s not on the state’s server anymore! I found one copy (all others were linked to the DOE’s site, which ended up being an error page. . .) on the Richmond school district‘s server, but I didn’t want to link to theirs; that would be in bad taste. So I copied it and uploaded it to my own. If you’re from the DOE and you’re unhappy with my doing so, don’t hesitate to let me know. =)

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4 thoughts on “Teaching the Virginia SOL Writing Domains

  1. Mr. Hawke–Thank you so much for all of this great domain scoring teaching material! I also LOVE your kick off gag about giving the kids a test that they know nothing about…I can’t wait to scare my students :)

  2. Pingback: SOL Domains Materials UPDATE | mrshawke-dot-com

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