Teaching Writing Part 3: Best Practices for Encouraging Revisions – and Streamlining the Process

This is part 3 of a 3 part series. Read part 1, here and part 2, here

The most important exercises students can do as they learn to write (a close second to, well, writing lots of stuff) all feature responding to feedback.

That said, here’s what most of my experiences with giving students feedback on writing looks like:

Scenario: A student turns in an essay. Normal for a high school student, it’s full of syntax errors, has stylistic problems, it is hard to follow, and has some specious arguments.

Student: Mr. Wolk, why’d I get a bad grade on this essay?

Me: You didn’t get a “bad grade.” This is a work in progress, and the red marks show you where your paper needs work. The grade is an indication of how close to your goal you are.

Student Response 1: Well, I can’t read your marks.

Student Response 2: So, all I have to do is fix the stuff in red and it’ll be an A?

Student Response 3: But why didn’t you like the paper?

Student Response 1 is a problem because I put 15 minutes into making the corrections, and that time is wasted if the student (and I, probably) can’t read my writing.

Student Response 2 is a problem because it’s not about “fixing” or “making corrections,” it’s about editing and improving. Student papers need retooling, sometimes. Or a student needs to go back to – well, not square one, necesarily, but square 2, and reformulate an argument and the proof for the argument. This will not be a 2 minute “fix,” and I don’t want him to think it is. But it will make him a better writer and a master of the material.

Student Response 3 is a problem because the students have learned that teachers grade work with a desirable grade when they “like” it. And that is a dangerous but understandable conclusion for students to draw. It is counterproductive to the meta-goal of learning how to take criticism for the perfection of a product – and teaches that setback is bad. Unlikable. Yucky.

What students need is a clear workflow for learning the process of editing work.

The Challenge:

If the essay is a major part of the curriculum, including outlines and multiple drafts, then each step is built in. Students learn that preparation for writing, a good first try, feedback, and revision is part of the creative process.

But if this is an in-class essay, or a smaller summative assessment, or a mid-unit check-in, you may not have time (in the calendar) for an initial deadline, and a second deadline. And some students may turn in work that satisfies the requirements of the essay. Will you require rewrites for every student? Do you have time to grade second drafts for every student?

Finally, if time is short for you, like it is for all teachers, you’ll note that chasing after mutliple drafts of an essay in order to check to see if revisions were compled is frustrating – and then flipping back and forth between two documents (or two paper copies) is cumbersome.

How can we streamline the incredibly important process of students receiving, reflecting on, and responding to critique?

The Solutions:

1. Do revisions or edits in a format like Google Docs, using the Insert Comment feature. This ensures that the student can read the comment.

  • Include simple corrections and also links to digital documents containing pre-made primers/reviews on the most common writing errors or anything you’ve been focusing on in class. (Passive vs. active voice, transitions, how to cite, etc).
  • You can play with different platforms that allow you to comment in a Google Doc with words, crayon, voice, or even video!

2. Students write essays in the left side of a two column grid. The left side is for the first draft. The right side is for the second draft.

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  • This allows you to see the second draft right next to the first draft. Much easier to see if revisions are made!

3. Unless you are doing a full-scale essay with built in deadlines for outlines and revisions, consider making revisions optional. Here’s how:

  • On the final comment of the essay, include an interim score. Summarize and explain the interim score.
  • Students can recover 50% of any lost credit by perfecting the second draft. (For example, a student who earns a 70% on the first draft can earn an 85 on the second. This encourages students to submit quality work up front, rather than procrastinate until the the rewrite for their best effort.
  • Any error constituting a party foul (a silly misspelling, confusing too/to/two) earns a “strike.” 3 strikes loses 10%, unrecoverable. Students are thus encouraged to proofread before turning in work, rather than relying on you to be their personal editor. Any student who wants or needs your proofreading assistance in advance can meet with you (this meeting should be required – again, you’re not their personal editor) and you will proofread the work together. This reduces “learned helplessness.”
  • Clarify when the deadline is for the second draft. I advise ONE WEEK from the receipt of the revisions.
  • If there is anything about the essay that the student is unlikely to be able to fix on his/her own (whether it’s technical, grammatical, nuanced, or value-based), require a face-to-face meeting before the student begins working on it. If you’re using a program like Schedule Once to make appointments with students, include the link to your scheduling page right in the comment!
  • Students have 1 week from the moment the paper is graded write a revision and tell you in an email (this must be required) that the paper is revised. As these papers come in, flag them and grade them in batches.
  • If you’re using a Learning Management System or Electronic Grade Book, copy and paste your final inserted comment into the gradebook. At the end of the semester, you have a great start to a content-filled narrative for the students.

Additional Notes:

  • For high achieving students who are aiming for an A in the class, a B+ interim grade is often sufficient to entice them to do a second draft.
  • Students who bomb their first draft should earn a much lower grade than you would otherwise have given them, since you will want them to do a second draft. In other words, don’t reward a mediocre paper with a mediocre grade. Give a grade low enough to send the message that the paper is not acceptable – and that the benefit of a second draft is, indeed, required.
  • Give an A- to a highly achieving student who performs just under his/her capacity, who you would like to focus on other class goals (say, in the weeks before a major project). These students may opt not to do a second draft, and the A- sends the message: “Feel free to raise your grade, but it won’t hurt you if you need to start studying for the AP test.”
  • Use ClassDojo to record information about students who bomb their first drafts but do not bother to submit a second draft – or students who are required to meet with you who simply turn in a second draft, (thereby making the same mistakes they made the first time). These students (and their parents) will benefit from this type of very thoughtful “student-ethic” feedback.

Teaching Writing Part 1: Best Practices for Giving Feedback on Students’ (awful) Writing

“Garbage.”

“Disaster.”

“Stinkolicious.”

“BRILLIANT!”

Teaching grading papers often seem to forget everything they know about teaching: students who (in class) engender sympathy, patience, and compassion earn nasty epithets – behind closed doors, of course.

Why is it so frustrating to grade students’ writing?

One reason is that, unlike classtime when you and the students are face-to-face, your encounter with the student is moderated by his or her work. The students’ work appears out of the context of the student him or herself.

A second reason is that it takes longer to grade a paper than many tests, and the more problems the paper has, the more time it takes. And one thing teachers never have enough is time.

Another reason has to do with the apparent lack of progress many students make in their writing over the course of a year. When a student struggles with a unit, after the test, the effects of the struggle may not be apparent once there is new material (though math, science, and language studies may differ in this).

With writing, however, you take the time to boldly circle every split infinitive in the essay (see what I did there?) and write “split inf.” He or she may do a second draft. And the next paper? The student returns to annoyingly include (see what I did, again?) more split infinitives.

Does he not care? Does she not want to improve?

Hooligans!

Well, it’s not a defect in character that makes the student make the same mistake, and it’s not a defect in your character that causes you to be frustrated. It’s that you haven’t found a salient way to help the student see, understand, and catch the problem. While the student is not interested in learning to not split infinitives (see what I did, again?) The average student is not inherently interested in any of the feedback you give. So with no accountability, s/he is free to make the same mistakes.

This is not a matter of shouting loud enough, or scrawling in large enough red pen. Even if you threaten to boldly beat them with a Star Trek DVD box set, (again!), they will still not remember or notice when they make the mistake. All you will do is make them anxious and ineffective.

And you will be irritated.

The Solution:

Ok, so it’s simple, but requires discipline.

If you’re new to teaching this grade or level, hand out a list of writing part fouls: these are things which every high school student should know:

For example:

  • too vs. to vs. two
  • it’s vs. its
  • Capitalizing names
  • spelling errors which even the spellchecker catches

If a student misses three “party fouls,” I note on ClassDojo with a badge, “More careful proofreading.”

Beyond this, I suggest coming up with 3-6 main writing growth areas common for students at the level(s) you teach at.

For example:

  • Run ons and sentence fragments (9th grade)
  • Passive voice (10th Grade)
  • Completes arguments effectively (11th / 12th grade)
  • Sentence structure variety (12th grade)

Whatever your subject may be, formulating your ClassDojo writing badges brings an opportunity for meaningful collaboration with other departments, establishing a consensus of the main areas where students are already expected to have achieved mastery and/or may require reinforcement.

Next Steps:

On a simple level, as you record feedback on students’ writing, you create a cache of data you can incorporate into your summative narratives and reports:

“Madison needs to work on improving her use of active voice and using correct citation.”

“Maximiliian needs to work on completing his arguments and avoiding sentence fragments.”

Further Steps:

The “grand slam” of using feedback to help students progress in their skills is to help them reflect on their own, personal writing goals before they sit down to write. For example, with access to ClassDojo’s records, Madison can review the feedback from the previous term and, in a required pre-writing statement, articulate her goals:

“I will focus on avoiding passive voice and will proofread my work for spelling errors.”

With that step in place, your feedback to the student, besides the actual edits, can touch on whether the student hit their personal writing goal. You may consider offering up to 3% extra credit for any student who successfully addresses their goal – or, alternatively, include this as part of a student’s Student Ethic Modifier.

With effective strategies for holding students accountable to clear, constructive learning goals comes a reduction in frustration and “proofreader’s animosity!”

Less: “This is a travesty of the English Language! See me!”

More: “You met some goals! Here’s what to continue working on!”

This is part 1 of a 3 part series. Read part 2, here

It’s time to go digital with ELA!

Are you wondering what you can do to improve your students’ reading test scores this year? Are you trying to supplement your lesson plans with Common Core-based resources? Maybe you’re trying to reduce or resolve the setbacks from summer?

Here are great online resources that will help your students in English Language Arts:

Subtext

This free app and web-based platform allows teachers to assign leveled readings that can be embedded with quizzes, writing prompts, polls, and comments. Subtext has many texts pre-loaded, but you can always search for and upload your own digital text (e.g. a free Google book). In addition to collecting students’ responses to the pre-embedded prompts and quizzes, the system allows students to make their own annotations to the texts. There’s also a speech-to-text feature that works really well for struggling readers and English learners.

Newsela

This free site provides current event news articles that are vetted and leveled (based on Lexile measures). You can assign the same reading to every student, but differentiate the lexile level based on your knowledge of individual ability. In other words, Jack might read the article at 780L while Jamal reads the same article at 1170L. Your students can then discuss the article as a group and you can be confident that everyone was equally capable of accessing the content. The best thing about Newsela is that it gives your students access to relevant and authentic non-fiction texts. It’s a great tool for bell-ringer activities.

ReadWriteThink

If you’re looking for new ELA lesson plans or interactive activities (for individual or whole group instruction), ReadWriteThink is a great place to start. This nonprofit is supported by the IRA and NCTE, so you know the reading pedagogy behind the resources will be sound. They also provide at-home resources, so if you’re trying to get parents more involved in students’ reading success, you can suggest they look here as well.