traci's lists of ten

Traci's 32nd List of Ten:
Ten Tips for Responding to Student Drafts

Posted to WPA-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TechRhet on 3/20/01.

In the pre-conference CCCC workshop that I was a part of, I focused on ways of responding to student writing, based on my 4th List of Ten.

Naturally, the most important guideline to remember as you respond to your students is that different students need different kinds of responses. Education is not one-size-fits-all. What works for one student may not help another. That 4th List of Ten outlines some ways to react — you might use several different techniques, depending upon what you know about your student writers. Here are some guidelines that I wrote for the workshop that you can use as you choose among the various ways of responding:

  1. Determine and share how you'll respond beforehand.
    Be sure that you talk with your student when you make an assignment or as they're working on their drafts about how you will react to their writing. Tell them what you will be looking for in their work and how you'll go about determining whether they have met the criteria for the assignment. Will you be using a template? Will you just be looking at how they're using supporting details? Will you be paying particular attention to grammar and punctuation? Whatever it is that you'll be looking for, make sure that you share that information with them beforehand.

  2. Match your response to the assignment.
    There are a lot of ways that you can respond to student writing — whatever you choose should relate to what they're doing. For instance, if you're looking at very formal research papers, responding in the voice of a cartoon character really doesn't make much sense. Likewise, if the writing that you're responding to is an informal journal entry, it doesn't make sense for your response to be highly formal or to use a grammar checklist. The tone and purpose of the writing that you're reviewing should influence the tone and character of the response that you make.

  3. Know your audience.
    Every student has different needs, so it's likely that every response needs to be slightly different from the ones that come before and after. You have to know a bit about your students to know the best way to respond to each. However, you can make some general conclusions. The responses that you make to a class composed entirely of 18-year-old first-year students are likely to be different from those that you would make to a class of senior citizens. You might be teaching both groups to write personal narratives based on something that happened when they were children — but the differences in the backgrounds of the two groups affect the ways that you respond. One of the suggestions on the 4th List of Ten is to lighten things a bit by responding in a cartoon voice. While your 18-year-olds might enjoy reading what Bart Simpson or Eric Cartman has to say about their papers, you would need to be sure that your older students knew who the characters were before using that voice. Also remember that in many cases you're not just responding to the student writer. Your comments may also be read by adult family members, tutors, and other teachers.

  4. Be aware of overload.
    I've heard many students complaining, "She wrote more on my paper than I did." And we English teachers are as well-known for our red ink as the science types are for their pocket protectors. Don't overload a paper with comments. Focus your response — perhaps you'll look just at the use of supporting details and comment on how the writer has used specifics. Remember that you may look at a writer's draft many times. You don't have to mark every single thing in every single draft. If you're compelled by habit or departmental mandate to mark grammatical, punctuation, or mechanical errors in every draft, do so; but create some guidelines — mark only the first 5 errors, simply circle them and make a reference to your handbook. Let the handbook do the job of explaining so that you can focus on the use of specifics or the organization. To avoid marking up the text too much, you might simply create a key, numbering errors, and then providing information on an attached sheet that explains how the sentence should be revised. One of the scariest moments for students is getting that first batch of responses from teachers. You can do a lot to help with the overload problem and prepare students for getting their papers back by sharing papers that you have graded or responded to in the past. Seeing the kinds of comments that you have made on other papers helps them know what to expect.

  5. Conversations are better than single-sided responses — interact.
    An 'end statement' seems a rather terminal thing. Rather than ending things, enter into a conversation about the piece. Ask the writer questions that lead to interaction. Such techniques work best when you're responding to students via email or working with them in a conference; but that doesn't mean that you can't have conversations in other spaces. You might create a shared grading/response journal with your students, for instance. When they turn in drafts, they also turn in a journal with reflective comments about their work and questions that they have. You can respond in the journal and ask questions or make observations. The grading journal becomes a space for conversing about the writing that they're doing. If the journal is one that they use for an entire term, both of you will be able to review the commentary and conversation to identify patterns and areas where extra work might be needed or particular progress has been made. If students are working with tutors, you might ask the tutor to enter the conversation by adding comments to the grading/response journal as well.

  6. Work with technology smoothly.
    This seems like a simple guideline, but should probably be stated nonetheless. When we use various technologies in our classrooms, they should add to what we're doing, not distract from it. Take special care to ensure that students understand how the technologies that you're using work if you're going to use them as part of our response. If they don't know how to find your response or don't understand how to weigh the response that they see, they won't benefit from the commentary. [I've created a separate list on responding with technology — it will follow this post].

  7. Avoid the vacuum. (No, this is not about housecleaning)
    Your comments aren't issuing forth in a vacuum. Your students have written previous drafts and they'll write future drafts. Make your commentary as meaningful as possible by linking to what writers have said before and to the project that they'll be working on next. You might structure comments such as the following:

    • In your previous draft.... In this draft.... The changes helped me

    • The increase in xxx in this draft makes yyy clearer in this version than it was in the previous version.

    • In this draft, you do a good job of xxx. In the next draft, you might use xxx to do yyy.

    • The drafts that you wrote earlier this term used a lot of xxx. Now I see a lot more of yyy.

  8. Share your preferences with tutors and writing center staff.
    If you have a writing center or learning lab where you can send students for help on their papers, you can help your students get the most out of the interaction by sharing information about your assignment and how you respond to drafts. If you have a specific template that you will use as you respond to student papers, give copies to the tutors at the writing center. If you focus your response on issues of content alone, let the writing center or learning lab staff know that that is your priority in this assignment. The more the writing center or learning lab knows about the work that your students are doing, the more they can help your students gain as much as possible from your commentary. And you can help avoid situations where you and the tutors inadvertently give students contradictory advice or reactions to a text.

  9. If you use boilerplate, be sensitive.
    When you have large classes and lots of papers to grade, it's very tempting to create chunks of text that you use again and again to save yourself the trouble of writing them over and over. If you're going use the same chunk of text to respond to more than one student paper, use techniques that make the most of what you need to say to more than one student. For instance, boilerplate can make a lot of sense when you're responding to grammatical, punctuation, or mechanical issues. There's no need to explain the rules repeatedly in your comments. Simply point students to their handbooks, using the same basic format each time. You might use a format such as the following: "Check your handbook for information on...."; then simply list the errors and the page or section number (e.g., run-ons—32-1e). You might use boilerplate to point to the handbook but add a sentence such as "Look at the starred sentence on page 2. It's an example of a comma splice." You can also create keyed comment sheets. Let's say that there are three areas that students are having particular trouble with in their current papers (e.g., use of specific details, transitions, and thesis development). You might make a comment sheet that explains each of the three areas then in your response to the student paper, point to your comment sheet. For instance, you might say to the student, "I didn't get a clear idea of what xxx looked or sounded like when you talked about it in your paper. Look at the comments on Tip #1 on the Comment Sheet for ways that you might develop more specific details."

  10. If all else fails, let the writer take control.
    If you're not sure where to start your response, ask the writer. Simply saying, "What would you like me to look for in this paper?" can help you determine where to focus your comments so that they are most meaningful and will help your students since you're responding to the issues that they are most concerned about. If you're in a face-to-face conference with the student you can simply ask. If you're working in another way, ask the student to include some reflective commentary with the paper that you will use to frame your response. As part of the assignment, you might add these instructions:

    With your draft include a reflective commentary that answers these three questions. (1) What part of this paper are you especially happy with and why? (2) What part of this paper do you think you could improve and how would you change it? (3) What about this paper would you especially like me to comment on?

Originally Posted on the NCTE Web on March 27, 2001.