Teaching Writing Part One: The Best Way to Give Students Feedback On Their (awful) Writing

This post was originally featured on Thought Partners,a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, Class Dojo.goats


“Garbage.”

“Disaster.”

“Stinkolicious.”

“BRILLIANT!”

With a stack of papers in front of us, students who (in class) engender sympathy, patience, and compassion suddenly earn nasty epithets – behind closed doors, of course.

Q: Why is it so frustrating to grade students’ writing?

A1: Unlike class-time, 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.

A2:  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.

A3: It comes down to 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 ornotice 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!”


I invite readers to visit

Teaching Writing Part Two: Providing Google-Outlines

Teaching Writing Part Three: The Best Way to Encourage Revisions


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