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Giving Feedback on Student Writing

Learn how to conduct effective peer and teacher writing conferences to improve student writing.

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One of the great pleasures of teaching writing is reading and responding to student work. It can be joyful, even while it can also be time consuming and frustrating. In order for the writing workshop to be successful, teachers must be able to respond to student work efficiently and effectively.

The role of formative assessment

In a writing workshop, the difference between assessment and evaluation must be clear to both students and teachers. Formative and summative assessments play an important role in the writing classroom, but neither can do everything necessary to simultaneously help students improve their writing (as formative assessments do) and describe student effort and growth (as summative assessments do). Formative assessments help students rewrite their papers. A teacher responds to student work in progress, either orally or in writing. The student uses that response to create another, stronger version of the same paper, to try a new technique to see what happens, or as one more piece of feedback that he or she may accept or reject.

Teacher response is crucial to writing workshop because it is feedback given from the view of a more experienced writer. For all the things that peers can do for one another as audiences for writing, there are also things only the teacher can do. Because the purpose of formative assessment is to keep the writer moving, there is no room for simultaneous summative evaluation that would indicate to a student that something is finished. his book Alternatives to Grading Student Writing, Stephen Tchudi argues that once grades are assigned all thinking stops. We should not expect students to continue to revise if we have finalized their work with an evaluative sign.

There are two main types of formative response: writing conferences and written response to writing. Both have elements to recommend them and elements that make them a challenge. It is important to have a clear understanding of these response forms, what the expectations are for the student, and how to most efficiently engage in them.

When will you respond?

Teachers respond to student writing for many of the same reasons that students respond to one another’s writing — to make the audience visible, to offer suggestions, to ask questions of the writer that help them to re-see their work, and to productively revise. While peers may struggle to come up with productive responses, the teacher usually has much to say. Having the discipline to listen or read carefully and to talk or write less during opportunities to respond is often more difficult for teachers than coming up with suggestions for students. Scholars of writing stress the importance of a small bit of focused feedback rather than a checklist of things to do. Writers absorb very little of what we say about their writing and what we write about their writing. Less works best in response.

Most writing teachers use a combination of peer and teacher response as the prompts for student revision. When doing so, students get the benefit of a peer response and one from a more experienced source. The relationship between these two forms of response is important. It would be frustrating for a group of peer responders to know that the writer is going to get feedback from the teacher on the same text they looked at because the teacher’s opinion will probably trump theirs. In addition, when the teacher responds first, peer groups have less opportunity to successfully respond because the most obvious responses are already given. A reasonable balance between peer and teacher feedback might look like this: Josh writes a draft and brings it to a peer group. Based on that feedback he creates a new draft, which he shares with his teacher. This response leads him to another draft, one that he feels is ready to move from revision to editing.

In this scenario, Josh gets the benefit of two kinds of feedback, peer and more expert. His teacher can expect that he will revise on the basis of peer feedback before coming to the teacher for his or her response. This way, the group responds to draft 1 and the teacher responds to draft 2. Josh’s teacher is wise enough to require revision based on group feedback first (remember that Josh doesn’t have to use the group feedback, but he does have to make changes).

Significant effort goes into arranging peer groups; they are essential and not warm-ups for the teacher response. In this model, Josh has been required to present his teacher with a second draft. If what Josh calls a second draft is actually a first draft that has had minor or no changes, his teacher will send him back to his desk for a true revision before giving feedback. This teacher only gives feedback on second drafts, preferring to leave the slightly easier task of responding to the first draft to a group or a buddy. If Josh argues that his group or buddy feedback was not useful, he will be reminded that he doesn’t have to listen, but that he does have to make his changes.

Writers learn by revising, so the requirement for change is a nonnegotiable. Josh’s teacher may respond to him in a writing conference done in class, or she may do so by writing on his paper outside of class. These two kinds of responses are discussed below.

Conferencing with students

Writing conferences are brief meetings between teachers and individual students in which they discuss the student’s writing. Writing conferences can have many purposes: they can be for sharing, for evaluation, or for feedback that prompts revision. This final purpose is the one that is highlighted in this article. A word about the other two: Sometimes you might wish to hear student writing without responding in a formative fashion. Sometimes you just want to listen and enjoy, and a writing conference is a perfect place for that. At other times, you need to do some quick evaluations. In this case, the student-teacher conference might find the student reading as you make some notes on a form or rubric. Just like the sharing conference, this evaluation conference does not involve formative feedback, although you might give a summative evaluation in the form of a number, a letter, or a comment on student’s progress. The characteristics and some typical language for each of these conferences are summarized in the table below. Although these conference types serve different purposes, they are not mutually exclusive. You may find that one lapses into another as needed for an individual student.

Conference Type Activity Sample Comment
Feedback ConferenceHelping student by giving feedback to prompt revision“I would really like to hear more about…”
Evaluation ConferenceAssigning student a summative markYou have done a great job with all this and I believe that you have earned __ grade.”
Sharing ConferenceListening and appreciating student writing“Thank you so much for letting me hear that story.”

The most common writing conferences are those that arc designed for feedback that will prompt revision. You meet for a very short time with an individual student so that you can discuss your response to the paper. A one- or two-page paper can be read aloud by the student. A longer paper will be difficult to manage in a short time frame. In that case, you may ask for the paper prior to the conference so that you may have time for a quick read. In the case of the shorter paper, the conference begins with student reading as you listen carefully, perhaps taking a note or two. In the case of the pre-read paper, the conference starts when you ask the student how things have gone so far with the paper. New writing teachers are often daunted by the prospect of having to give feedback without much time to think. It is true that part of the character of the writing conference is its brevity, and, in fact, without this brevity you will be frustrated by how few conferences you can get to. You should aim for between five and seven minutes per conference. This may sound very brief, but it is actually ample time if you are prepared to progress through the conference in an organized fashion.

Three-tiered conferences

While every paper will require a different kind of response, going in with a plan for how the discussion will proceed helps you to be faster and more effective for your student. The three-tiered conference approach is one example of a structure that helps the conference to be predictable, brief, and useful. In this approach you provide three kinds of feedback.

The first is an initial personal response to what was written. It is important that students understand that even the teacher will emotionally respond to writing, that even more than being a teacher, you are a person with whom they are communicating. This concept can be difficult for students who are never quite sure that teachers exist beyond their role in schools. This can also be difficult for teachers who are not used to revealing emotions or personal thoughts to students. It is so important, though, that the student be seen as a real writer writing to real readers who can and wil1 respond from their own experiences. This need not be a long comment, but it should be a sincere one. Just as students can benefit from prompts when they respond to one another’s writing, you might keep a list of prompts handy as you work with students in writing conferences.See the sample sentence starters below for ideas.

Respond first as a person:
(one response)
  • “This is so interesting to me because … “
  • “I had an experience that this makes me think of…”
  • “Ok, I am dying to know …”
  • “I love skiing too; this makes me anxious for fall to be over so I can see some snow.”
Respond next as a member of a writer’s community:
  • “This piece would work better for me if …”
  • It sounds to me like this is really two stories.”
  • “I could use a much clearer picture of …”
  • “There is just something i don’t understand about…”
  • “You know what I think you could write more about?”
Respond as a writing teacher:
(one response)
  • “I see that you are having trouble with this technique we discussed. Do you think you need some more instruction on this?” You’re still struggling with the lenght of those sentences. Why don’t you … ?”
  • “I really fell like you could have done more to change this from your first draft.”

The second layer of response in this approach is one that is characteristic of a member of a writing community. In the writing workshop, the teacher is part of the group of writers gathered together in support of one another’s writing. Because of this, students are often asked to comment on the teacher’s work, and the teacher is able to use these responses to work on his or her own writing. This reciprocal relationship is important and works best if you offer your feedback as something to consider as the writer revises, rather than a teacher-directed edict. No matter how hard you try to understate your own power in the writing workshop, many students won’t fully believe you aren’t demanding when you are really suggesting, but you ought to try to communicate this idea. In this second tier, you should use I-centered language and might borrow the same language that is used in the peer group (see examples above.

In the third tier, you respond in a teacherly manner. There is no reason not to use this special, individual time to do some direct teaching. This may related to a qualitative concern about the writing or the behaviors in writing workshop that you believe may have interfered with good writing outcomes (e.g., the student was observed spending only five minutes revising after leaving his group) or it may relate to a new strategy that you think this student is ready for or needs more support on. In other words, the third tier of response is used to teach this individual student something related to their writing.If you discipline yourself to focus on only one aspect in each tier you will find that students are much more able to respond to your comments. You will also find that you can get through conferences quickly.

The last piece of the writing conference may be the most important. Once the teacher has responded in tiers or in any other format that works, it is the student’s turn. Some teachers ask the student, “What did you hear me say I felt about the paper?” to see whether the communication had been clear. Other teachers prefer to ask, “What do you think you will do next?” so that the student can think through planning the next steps. This move from responder (the teacher) to writer (the student) helps to reinforce the idea of student as author. Some teachers act as scribes at this point, summarizing what the student says on a sticky note, so that the student has a record of what they agreed on and so that the teacher is reminded when she or he sees the final version.

The three-tier response method is only one such model. It matters less what kinds of responses you wish to give than that you have a plan to handle writing conferences predictably. In addition to cutting down on time, having a model allows you to help your students know what to expect from this interaction. Like all parts of the writing workshop, you’ll want to prepare students in a mini-lesson for what will happen in a conference. Doing a model writing conference or playing a previously recorded one for students to listen to can help them to understand the different parts. “Listen,” you might say to your students, “the first thing I am doing is just responding. You might not use that response for your revision. The second thing I am doing is giving you a piece of advice that the writer mayor may not elect to use. The third thing I am doing is reminding the writer of something they do need to take care of.”

You will probably have a lot to say to your students in response to their papers. It is worth remembering that students absorb so little of what we say at any given time. In this, you might notice many things about the student paper that you could comment on in tiers two or three. It isn’t necessary to tell a student everything that you think all at once. This should be a liberating idea. Just because you know something could improve, doesn’t mean you need to reveal it. Students are learning how to get and use feedback; this process is difficult and much more likely to succeed if they are given a little at a time. It is less important that any one paper improves dramatically than that the writer learns how to get and employ feedback from an audience, whether that audience is you or a peer.

Berne. J. (2009). The writing-rich high school classroom. New York: Guilford Press.
Adapted with permission of Guilford Press(opens in a new window). Copyright Guilford Press. All rights reserved under International Copyright Convention. No part of this text may be distributed, reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, or stored in any information retrieval system without permission of The Guilford Press.