“There are moments as a teacher when I'm conscious that I'm trotting out the same exact phrase my professor used with me years ago. It's an eerie feeling, as if my old mentor is not just in the room, but in my shoes, using me as his mouthpiece.”
Who was your mentor? Who first helped you see yourself as a teacher? As a writer?
Every day in class, you have the chance to be that person for someone else. Every time you respond to students' writing, you help them build confidence and competency, help them self-identify as writers. What's more, regular feedback drives revision, a crucial practice that beginning writers tend to misunderstand or ignore.
Of course, the awesome pedagogical value of individual feedback also poses an awesome teaching challenge. How can you ensure your responses to student writing are frequent, effective, and efficient? The eight best practices that follow will help you meet the challenge.
1. Approach the writing with genuine interest and curiosity.
We often ask our students to tackle tasks with a positive mindset, but sometimes we need reminders ourselves. Writing instructor and scholar Peter Elbow believes teachers must like students’ writing before they can offer the best guidance for improving it. “Good teachers see what is only potentially good,” he says. “They get a kick out of mere possibility—and they encourage it.”
Elbow is not saying you need to like everything about what your students write, but that meaningful feedback derives from a genuine interest in your students’ ideas.
2. Highlight what works and what has potential to work.
Whether your feedback is written or verbal, begin with a word of affirmation. Praising any aspect of the writing—no matter how small—boosts students’ confidence and shows you value what they have to say. In addition, pointing out what works increases the likelihood that students will repeat the behavior the next time they write.
After commenting on the strengths of the writing, focus your feedback on areas that show potential for further development. Use this peer-response minilesson to practice stating positives before focusing on suggestions for improvement. When you use this approach with students, you show them a best practice for responding to their peer writers.
3. Respond throughout the writing process.
Students benefit from feedback on their planning, drafting, revising, and editing. If the thought of giving feedback this frequently seems overwhelming, remember this: you don’t have to respond to all aspects of the writing all at once, nor do you need to write formal responses every time around.
By keeping in touch with students throughout their writing processes, you can pick and choose what skills to focus on based on each student’s individual needs. Your regular feedback also highlights the value of writing as a process and encourages students to revise, leading to stronger writing and easier grading. Learn more about formative assessment.
4. Target ideas, organization, and voice, especially in early drafts.
These “big three” traits capture the key parts of communication: what a writer is saying (ideas), how the writer is saying it (organization), and to whom the writer is speaking (voice). No matter how well students have developed their writing, they can always improve these critical areas. Use these minilessons for teachable moments with the “big three”:
As you read early drafts, you’ll inevitably encounter sentence-level errors. Resist the urge to mark them until students reach the editing stage. Commenting on sentence errors too early risks diverting students’ attention from making more substantial changes to the big three traits.
5. Focus on solutions, not problems.
Effective feedback does not merely point out problem areas, but instead offers solutions. Consider responding in these ways when you encounter a significant problem in your students’ writing:
- Suggest a strategy, move, or example the student could use to improve the area of focus.
- Point to solutions elsewhere in the student’s work. For instance, if one paragraph clearly lacks support, point out a different paragraph that is more developed. Do you see how you provided examples and cited an expert in the second paragraph? That's excellent! Let's see if you can add those types of details to this paragraph.
- Ask targeted questions. You provide compelling benefits of food trucks, but some restaurant owners might say food trucks harm their businesses. How would you respond to those owners?
- Offer a writer's resource, such as a handbook or mentor text, for further support.
6. Vary direct and indirect instruction.
Some of the response strategies listed above are more direct than others. The directness of your feedback will change with the nature of the task and the experience and ability of the writer. In general, be direct with struggling writers and indirect with high-flyers. As the year goes on, shift toward indirect feedback to boost students’ agency as self-assessors. Find out more about writing assessment for students.
7. Search for patterns of errors.
Marking every grammatical error in students’ work is time-consuming and counterproductive. Papers littered with red marks and corrections do little more than overwhelm students and discourage learning. Your time is better served searching for patterns of errors—and only when students have reached the editing stage of the writing process.
For instance, the writer may repeatedly connect independent clauses with only a comma, causing a comma splice. You can help the student break the habit through this process:
- Mark the first instance of the error.
- Demonstrate how to correct it.
- Mark other examples of it, either by circling the error or by placing an “x” in the margin next to a line in which it occurs.
- Encourage students to fix the remaining errors in the same way as you demonstrated.
When a paper includes multiple patterns of errors, comment on the one or two that are most harmful to the paper’s clarity. This practice will save you time and help students internalize your feedback.
For further support, refer students to these minilessons:
- Fixing Run-On Sentences and Sentence Fragments
- Using Quotation Marks; Apostrophes; and Commas in a Series, in Dates and Addresses, and with Numbers and Interjections
- Correcting End Punctuation, Capitalization 1 and 2, and Subject-Verb Agreement 1 and 2.
8. Discover your own response style.
Some teachers prefer conferencing; others prefer written feedback. Some handwrite their feedback; others comment digitally using track changes. Some teachers comment in the margins; others provide rich summary statements; some do both. Experiment with different techniques, and stick to the ones that work best for you and your students.
A Note on Grading
You may have noticed that none of the best practices focus on grading. That’s because grading and responding serve different functions and should be completed at different times. Grading is summative and should occur only at the end of the project (see assessment resources). Responding is formative and can occur throughout the process. When you grade, you assess the writing to rank its performance. When you respond, you evaluate the writing to mentor students through their writing processes. The less you conflate the two practices, the better off your students will be.