Tag Archives: responding to student writing

Responding to Student Writing

Responding to your students’ writing is one of the most important responsibilities of a writing instructor. Thoughtful, specific, and focused instructor comments can help students improve their writing as much, if not more, than your lively, engaged presence in the classroom.

Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Consider your commentary part of your teaching practice. As such, it should be consistent with your classroom instruction. For example, if you tell students in the classroom that they should prioritize higher order concerns, such as focus and development, over surface features, such as grammar and punctuation, then you should make more comments about focus and development than you do about grammar and punctuation.
  2. Time your feedback so that students receive it in time to process it and apply it to their next piece of writing. To make this work, you’ll need to take into account your response time when scheduling due dates for assignments.
  3. Limit your comments to no more than two—or at most three—significant items so that students will not be overwhelmed and discouraged. Research shows that most students cannot prioritize instructor comments, so that a comment about typos gets the same amount of weight as a comment about an unclear thesis statement; limiting your comments to no more than two or three significant items helps you focus on the most important features that need your feedback, and this in turn makes it more feasible for students to process and use your feedback. Nancy Sommers recommends that instructors ask themselves, “What are two things I can teach this student in my comments on this paper?” Think of your comments as “teaching moments” rather than “corrections” or merely grade justifications. To do this, you’ll need to first skim the paper in its entirely before writing anything.
  4. Restrain yourself from editing the student’s paper. Most students learn very little—if anything—from having their papers edited. Instead, edit one paragraph and write a comment in the margin about the patterns of error you’ve noticed. Avoid simply labeling errors as most students don’t know what our jargon means. Remember that the audience for your feedback is students, and use language they can easily and quickly comprehend.
  5. Make your comments specific, descriptive, and clear. The irony of the marginal comment “be specific” (without any explanation) is not lost on all students. Once you begin to see your comments as part of your teaching practice, you’ll want to make your comments more closely mimic the kind of conversation you would have with a student during office hours about a piece of writing. It’s easier to write fuller, more specific comments when you comment on fewer things, too.
  6. Create a handout for the entire class that comments on features that the class as a whole did very successfully or less than successfully. This will help you reduce the amount of time you spend writing the same comments on each student’s paper. This is tip that can only really work if you first skim the entire batch of papers without writing any comments.
  7. Reframe how you think about responding to student writing. Instead of thinking of it as “grading” (which foregrounds grade justification) or correcting (which foregrounds student errors), think about it as “reading,” “responding,” “giving feedback,” or another more positive term. You may be surprised to see what a difference this small shift can make in your attitude toward responding to student writing, which will likely make it feel less like a chore and more like another part of your teaching practice.

For more ideas, read Traci Gardner’s “Ten Ways to Respond to Student Drafts.” 

How to Read Student Writing for Content

I encourage instructors, tutors, and education students to train themselves to read student writing for content (or Higher Order Concerns) rather than error (or Lower Order Concerns). After reading Joseph Williams’ “The Phenomenology of Error,” in which he observes that “if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find,“ they usually agree with me that reading for content is a good idea–“But how can I do that when there are so many errors?” they ask.  

You have to train yourself. This is something I learned from Janice Neuleib, who told me to learn to read at two levels, which she called “ground level” and “25,000 feet.” Ground level is where you notice the grammar, usage, mechanics, etc. and 25,000 feet is where you notice the big picture stuff. As I’ve trained myself to read at these two levels, I’ve added a third, which I call “10,000 feet”; at this level, I notice stylistic aspects of a piece of writing, such as sentence structure (not grammar! I mean aspects such as whether or not sentences are hypotactic or paratactic, running or periodic, noun-based or verb-based).

Here are some steps I suggest you take if you’d like to train yourself to read at Neuleib’s two levels or my three levels:

  1. Begin by asking students to format their writing in a way that suggests it should be read for content—i.e. single spaced.
  2. Think of what you are about to do as “respond to student writing” rather than “grade papers” or “correct papers.” Frame the task in terms of responding rather than fixing or judging.
  3. Read student writing under conditions that are similar to those in which you read for pleasure. For me, this means at a coffee shop or at home in a comfortable chair.
  4. Read the paper once for each level you are reading at, so that your brain can focus on one task—reading for content or reading for surface error (or reading for style, if you add the third level). For the 25,000 foot reading, I read fairly quickly, picking up ideas and concepts and noticing how they are developed throughout the piece of writing. For the 10,000 foot reading, I read fairly quickly, stopping at a random point on each page to read sentences carefully. For the ground level reading, I read one page carefully (yes, only one page, because I am looking for patterns of error to highlight for the student, not proofreading—which, after all, is the student’s job, not mine).

If you try to build this habit into your practice, give it at least 30 repetitions before it feels even remotely natural. Like all habits, it takes time to make it feel “normal.” (And by 30 repetitions, I mean responding to 30 sets of papers).