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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Reading & Literacy Opinion

12 Strategies for Encouraging Students to Want to Revise Their Writing

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 21, 2020 13 min read
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(This is the first post in a five-part series.)

The new questions-of-the-week is:

How do you get students to want to revise their writing?

Getting students to revise their writing can be a challenge. Often, they have a “one-and-done” perspective.

So, what can teachers do to create the conditions for a different mindset?

That’s the question we’ll be exploring in this five-part series.

Melissa Butler, Jeremy Hyler, Jenny D. Vo, and Mary Beth Nicklaus will share their recommendations today. All four were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources On Getting Student Writers To “Buy-Into” Revision.

Shifts of thinking and practice

Melissa A. Butler is part of the Western PA Writing Project and a writer/educator living in Pittsburgh. She focuses on noticing as an interdisciplinary method of practice, especially the noticing of small ordinary objects in our lives:

The word revise evolves from to see and look again.

To look again, to see anew—such a joyous thing to do.

Yet, in many classrooms, revision becomes a step in a procedure in a subject called “writing” instead of a fluid, playful rethinking that is the core of any creative process. What small shifts might we make for students to delight in looking again at their writing?

Shifts of thinking:

What are your feelings about revision? We teach who we are. If you like revision, if you love the mess of process, this will show up in your teaching. If you don’t, that will show up, too.

Revision is a constant, not a step. Despite how it’s described in many writing programs, revision is not something to do only after a draft is written. Revision happens all of the time in small ways each time we look again … at a thought, a scene, a phrase, a pattern, a word.

Revision is reflection. That’s all it is—seeing anew. Looking at something from new perspectives, fresh eyes. It’s not a heavy process of “fixing something,” it’s a light process of trying new ways to notice.

Reflect on your planning and lesson design. Revision feels like a chore when writing itself is a chore because it is assigned for a grade or rubric. But, when students select their own topics and forms in a Writing Workshop, they have an opportunity to practice their authentic processes for creating, including revision.

Shifts of practice:

Name small moments of revision. Throughout the day, point out examples of flexible thinking, when students change their minds or are inspired by someone’s idea, when one topic of conversation turns into another, or when a student’s drift of thought results in a new connection. Be explicit and name these moments as revision.

Display stories of thinking on the walls. As much as possible, display processes of thinking instead of finished products. Allow students to see how an idea grows over time, how one child’s thinking connects with others, how there is a thick and complex process for how ideas grow.

Don’t introduce erasers. Once students embrace the idea of flexible thinking and easily cross out written ideas to change/add to their writing, erasers are no big deal. But before this happens, why make available something that keeps students wanting to “correct” or “be right” or hide the important history of their thinking?

Play improvisation games. Improv allows students to practice dispositions that help bring joy to revision, such as: add on, speak when you don’t know what to say, look silly, be wrong, fail in public, change directions, follow an idea that’s not yours, be inspired, laugh.

Practice revision with diverse forms and materials. Have students draw, use clay, cook, play physical games, build with recycled materials. Point out how they are playfully revising (seeing anew) throughout such processes.


Start with the “why”

Jeremy Hyler is a middle school English and science teacher in Michigan. He has co-authored Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools (Routledge/Eye on Education), From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age, as well as Ask, Explore, Write. Jeremy blogs at MiddleWeb. He can be found on Twitter @jeremybballer and at his website:

Teaching middle school students to write is always a challenge. It never fails that most middle school students write it and then never want to look at what they wrote again. They would rather wish the writing never existed or they can quickly delete it from their Google Drive. Have you ever noticed when papers are given back, students just look at the grade and then try to never look at the paper again? Believe it or not, there is a reason they do this. Students don’t see value in the writing assignments that are being assigned.

So, getting students to simply care and desire to revise their writing is going to be challenging. If teachers want students to invest time in their writing, the students need to see the value in writing and the purpose for writing the assignment. To help do this, teachers should always start with the “why.”

This doesn’t mean the teacher necessarily stands in front of the class to give all the answers. For instance, a teacher can lead a guided discussion at the beginning of a writing assignment by asking students the following:

  • Why am I, your teacher, assigning you this writing piece?
  • Why is it important to learn the skills involved with this writing?
  • Why is it important for you to do writing well in the real world?

By starting with these types of why questions, students will have purpose for starting the assignment. Then, when it comes to revising, the same “why” questions can be answered.

  • Why do writers need to revise?
  • Why does revising making your writing better?

Students are not going to invest the amount of time we want them to invest in their writing unless we start by asking why. If teachers just assign writing and never take the time to start with why, students will not see value in any writing assignment, let alone do any revising.

I would also add that if we don’t respect the spaces where our students write on a daily basis, they will not take interest in writing. Students can express themselves in different spaces while still addressing what we as teachers want them to accomplish and retain when it comes to writing skills. Ask yourself, “Why do I assign the types of writing to my students?”


They think “writing is a chore”

Jenny Vo earned her B.A. in English from Rice University and her M.Ed. in educational leadership from Lamar University. She has worked with English-earners during all of her 24 years in education and is currently an ESL ISST in Katy ISD in Katy, Texas. Jenny is the president-elect of TexTESOL IV and works to advocate for all ELs:

Writing fluently and coherently while at the same time keeping your reader engaged and interested in your story is a difficult skill for many students to master. Our English-learners have an even more difficult time because they are still learning the intricacies of the English language while at the same time developing their writing skills.

A lot of my ELs do not like writing. They think it is a chore. It takes most of them so long to complete the first draft that they do not want to think about REVISING! But revising is an essential step in the writing process.

There are two strategies that I use to get my students to want to revise their writing. One, I share with my students mentor texts that have examples of great writing. Two, I go through the revising process with them by modeling how I revise my own writing.

If you are learning something, you may as well learn from the best, right? What can be better examples of best writing than mentor texts? Especially those published by professional writers and well-known authors.

When we teach students to write, one thing we always tell them is to not tell but to show with words. By using mentor texts to highlight good writing, we are showing our students examples and not telling them how to do it. Mentor texts can be in the form of books of different genres, a newspaper article, a magazine article, an essay, or even a piece of writing that you the teacher have composed yourself. If I’m teaching narrative writing, my mentor text should be a story with interesting characters, a well-developed plot, and meaningful dialogue, among other things. If we are working on informational writing, my mentor text should have all the components that I want the students to include in their writing—examples, descriptions, and statistics, etc. Make sure you choose your mentor text wisely.

An important part of studying mentor texts is to annotate them and identify the elements that make this piece of writing great. Give students time to practice annotating so that they can know what to include in their own writing as they write and when they revise.

Another strategy I use to get my students to want to revise their writing is to break the revising process down into small, doable steps and to model the steps for them with a story we have written together as a class. One day we will work on just the introduction of our story. I will share with them different ways to hook the reader with the introduction. Then I show them how to apply the skill by modeling it with the class story. Lastly, the students will practice with their own story.

On the following days, we will focus on a different skill a day, following the same process of teaching, modeling, and practicing. Breaking the revision process down into smaller steps makes the task less intimidating for the students by giving them just one area to focus on.

Exploring mentor texts and breaking the revision process down into doable steps are two ways that I use to get my students to want to revise their writing. I’ve been able to get beautiful pieces of writing from some of my students. How do YOU get your students to want to revise their writing?


Have students write about “a subject they feel passionate about”

Mary Beth Nicklaus is a teacher and literacy coach/specialist at Wisconsin Rapids Area Middle School in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. She enjoys teaching students to use reading and writing to positively affect their lives.

Get students to want to revise by steering them to a subject they feel passionate about. A desire to revise stems from love for their subject and a heartfelt drive to communicate their story. A super way to evoke excitement is with a lesson where you formulate and revise writing together! You can work the process with the class on a projected “shared” document using the following steps:

  1. Reveal teacher as writer. Watching you become motivated gets them Here is an example: I decide to talk about “weird things that happen.” Most are excited to share everyday stories about strange happenings. I tell students about the time I accidentally hang up on a police officer five times because I thought he was a scammer. I call the police department back after coming to my senses. It turns out the neighbors had really called the police. There was a box from a subscription meal service sitting on my steps for over a week. (I was visiting in another state at the time.) People were afraid I was trapped, hurt, or dying inside of the house.
  2. Use comments or questions they may have about your subject to begin to write. I begin by narrating my thoughts as we write. My students are happy to advise me. They volunteer adjectives and verbs. We formulate sentences. I pose “I wonder what sounds better” questions: “One time I was sitting in a chair, and the phone rang” or “Last Saturday started out as a very weird and disturbing day.” As the story emerges, I keep asking, “How does this sound?” The students give me their opinions and answer my questions while I am writing. They help me come up with precise verbs to vitalize my action descriptions. They even help me make my writing more concise when I guide them in that direction with my questions. We continue to write until I reach paragraph length. Students can hardly wait to dive into the writing waters. Involving them and asking for help in the messy process all writers go through increases their confidence.
  3. Invite students. Students cannonball onto our document underneath my writing and into their own stories. I continue revising while students write. They follow my lead. They ask questions. They ask for opinions which also become opportunities for impromptu mini-lessons. Out of our teacher tool bag come in-context lessons on “there or their” or lessons on using a thesaurus to transform common words. Together, we encourage each other and contribute ideas.
  4. Allow the flow to carry you through each other’s writing. We scroll. We pause from our own creating and check the work of others, we get ideas—fleshing out our writing from the bare bones of skimpy sort of paragraphs. Diego writes about getting hit in the head with a football, getting a CT scan that he didn’t remember, and the aftermath of staying in a darkened room for three days while dealing with excruciating migraines. Kaitlyn’s writing reflects the angst of getting separated from her mother at a mall when she was 5 and then finding out years later that her mother thought she had been taken. Our questions like, “How does this part sound?” “Should I say run here, or would it sound better to say ‘raced’?” morph into discussions on the actual events they are writing about. Students pause, share, and validate each other’s reliving of events. They even may go as far as, “That reminds me of the time we read …” discussions.

This lesson operates as a single lesson on revising, or you can turn it into a build-as-you-go unit. The chemistry in your class and curricular needs determine the direction. This is an account of an online lesson co-teacher Kaitlyn and I did with students during quarantine this spring. We mean for it to be a one-time lesson, but student fervor stretches it out for over a week. One student even asks Kaitlyn to keep working on his story outside of class.


Thanks to Melissa, Jeremy, Jenny, and Mary Beth for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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