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:
Originally Posted on the NCTE Web on March 27, 2001.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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].
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:
your previous draft.... In this draft.... The changes helped
increase in xxx in this draft makes yyy clearer in this version
than it was in the previous version.
this draft, you do a good job of xxx. In the next draft, you
might use xxx to do yyy.
drafts that you wrote earlier this term used a lot of xxx.
Now I see a lot more of yyy.
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.
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-ons32-1e). 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
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
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?