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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Reading & Literacy Opinion

‘I No Longer Give Grades on Student Writing Assignments, and It’s the Best Thing Ever!’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 03, 2021 15 min read
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(This is the third post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

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

In Part Two, Matthew Johnson, Emily Phillips Galloway, Robert Jiménez, Holland White, Joy Hamm, and Alexandra Frelinghuysen offered their commentaries.

Today, Alexis Wiggins, Keisha Rembert, Alicia Kempin, Sara Holbrook, and Michael Salinger contribute their ideas.

“Publishable” and “Not Yet Publishable”

Alexis Wiggins has worked as a high school English teacher, instructional coach, and consultant. Her book, The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders (ASCD), helps transform classrooms through collaborative inquiry. Alexis is currently the English Department chair at the John Cooper School in The Woodlands, Texas. You can contact her or sign up for her newsletter:

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

That is the $64,000 question. For much of my career, I’ve prided myself on assigning engaging writing assignments that students will want to write and revise with enthusiasm. At least that is what I’ve told myself. But is enthusiasm the same thing as making all the students revise? Most people would say it is not.

Years ago, I tried my hand at something very different, something that aimed for enthusiastic, student-driven revision. I was inspired by an idea I got from my father, education reformer Grant Wiggins, who referenced a university professor that never gave grades on his writing rubrics but instead assigned one of two categories: “Publishable” and “Not Yet Publishable.”

I knew for high school students, I would need more detail and scaffolding to help them make sense of a new kind of assessment and feedback, so I built a more comprehensive rubric and added a third column called “Revisable.” I told my students that “Publishable” was A work, “Revisable” was anywhere between a B+ and a D-, and “Redo” had just completely missed the mark because the assignment had not yet been fulfilled. I allowed my students to revise their papers as many times as they wanted to until they reached “Publishable” status and was fascinated with the results. My students largely worked their tails off to eventually move from the “Revisable” column to the “Publishable” column. The downside? It was killing me.

I couldn’t handle the volume of revisions I was confronted with and the amount of comments I had to write out on every single draft submitted to provide adequate feedback to help students revise and improve. As a result, I abandoned the practice after one year.

But a decade has passed since then, and I have spent much of those 10 years working on developing assessment criteria and rubrics at the schools. In recent years, I’ve suspected that with more targeted work on standards-based rubrics, this revision system could be more manageable and highly beneficial to students.

Instead of spending hours writing out comments or correcting student errors, the rubrics themselves are designed backwards from the end goal: persuasive, eloquent use of language and argument. With the specific criteria spelled out clearly on the rubrics, I only have to check the category it falls into under each standard (Publishable, Revisable, and Redo) and leave a quick note as to what the student can do to revise and strengthen that criterion if not yet Publishable.

I might add some additional marks on the paper itself, but these are now minimal thanks to the targeted rubrics. I experimented this past year with my senior Film and Composition class, a yearlong English course that I teach by myself and found my grading time was greatly reduced, even as the volume of submissions increased.

The rubric I designed is detailed and specific to my class—it may not be the right rubric or standards for you—but I believe the principles behind it can be applied successfully to other classes and age groups.

The key idea here in my “Wiggins Assessment Method” is that students never receive a grade on any assignments; they only ever get “Publishable,” “Revisable,” or “Redo” on their rubrics, and at the end of their semester, their grade is determined by a breakdown of how many assessments are in each of those categories (these details are spelled out on the back of the rubric linked above). They can revise as many times as they would like to before a clearly communicated due date near the end of each semester. For example, if they have three publishable and two revisable assignments by the end of the semester, their grade is an A-. If they want to do better, they keep revising up until the final deadline before the semester’s end.

The results with this standards-based rubric and more targeted feedback process? The best system I have ever experienced in my 20-year career, hands down.

I used to dread grading papers. Dread, loathe, and avoid. Now, with such a detailed, pared-down rubric, my grading time has been cut in half. The rubric does most of the work for me, and office hours take care of the rest.

The reason I most dreaded grading before wasn’t so much the time commitment as the fear of how a student would respond emotionally to the grade I gave them. With my new assessment method, there are no more fraught emotions because there are no grades on individual assignments. We just look at the work together and discuss what changes are necessary to get the work “Publishable.” Sometimes students are satisfied with their progress and decide to stop revising before the assessment is “Publishable,” allowing them to better own their process and choose the final semester grade they are comfortable with.

Students have reported nearly unanimously in surveys that they have improved, wanted to revise their work, and paid attention to teacher feedback more than ever with this new system. Nineteen out of 20 of my students said this was the best style of assessment they had ever experienced and that all teachers should use it. They note that it allows them to be in control of their grades, their revision process, and their learning overall. Repeatedly, students commented on how this system reduced their stress level while increasing their learning and growth.

I’m a convert; I’ll never go back to teaching Film any other way, and I hope to try this method with other age groups soon. I can honestly say that with this method, I actually look forward to grading my students’ papers, and they are motivated to keep improving their writing entirely on their own. Win-win.

My summary: “I no longer give grades on student writing assignments, and it’s the best thing ever!”


“We revise pieces of my work together”

Keisha Rembert is a passionate learner and fierce equity advocate. She was an award winning middle school ELA and United States History teacher who now instructs preservice teachers. She hopes to change our world one student at a time. Twitter ID: @klrembert:

Students often tell me that writing is overwhelming for them. When I dig a bit deeper to understand, they usually say, in not these exact words but close enough, writing and revision is less about expression and more about judgment: You did not include a comma here, check your word choice there. The complexities of writing are so vast (grammar, semantics, spelling, organization, etc.) for them that it is exhausting, and they just want the process to be done.

My retort is that I want to free them from their fears of judgment and have them experience the joys of revision. We revise pieces of my work together and talk about it. We acknowledge that mistakes are opportunities. I share that the reality is we rarely get things entirely right the first time. Revision is where we find the golden parts of our voice and the opportunity to clarify and expand on those golden pieces.

Revision is also a communal process. This, I think inspires students to want to make it better. After reading the work of a friend, they often discover new thoughts and ideas to make their piece better. Revision in my classes is about community. It is talking out ideas with others and sharing information which is the heart of good writing and the revision process. Getting students to see that writing is messy, and perfection is the enemy of progress especially when it comes to writing, helps them realize their messiness if appreciated and something to embrace. It relieves the pressure of having to do it right, always.


A growth mindset

Alicia Kempin is a fourth-grade teacher at The Windward School, a preeminent independent school in New York which provides a proven instructional program to children with language-based learning disabilities. She enjoys sharing her love of reading, writing, and math with her students:

As a teacher of students with language-based learning challenges, it’s often difficult to get children to write, let alone revise their writing! There are, however, several strategies I use to encourage the revising and editing process with my students.

I have found that one of the most effective ways to demonstrate the importance of revising and editing to my students is by completing unelaborated paragraphs together. This is an engaging writing activity in which I purposely prepare a terribly written paragraph on a topic with which the children are familiar. (Of course, I do not tell them that I intentionally wrote a bad paragraph; that’s part of the fun!) I display this awful paragraph on the white board, read it to the students, and ask them what they think. Inevitably, these honest children will tell me it’s horrible. So, I tell the children that the goal today is to improve my writing by revising and editing it. (They love that they get to improve MY writing!) We do several of these activities together as a class and use a revising and editing checklist that prompts them to use particular writing strategies. For example, I might say “Improve the topic sentence by adding an appositive” or “Answer the question words when and why to expand the sentence.”

After we complete all the revising suggestions, we read the original paragraph once more, followed by the revised paragraph—and what a difference! The children not only see the side by side comparison of the first paragraph compared to the revised paragraph, but they also hear the difference. I believe that hearing the original and revised paragraphs really helps the children to internalize how a paragraph can be improved. These unelaborated paragraphs can then be followed with children writing paragraphs of their own with some teacher directed revising goals which are more general such as “Improve topic sentence” or “Expand detail sentence two.” Ultimately, the hope would be to have the students eventually internalize these strategies and not even need revising goals.

Another strategy I use to encourage revising is to build enthusiasm for vocabulary. I do this throughout our reading and writing lessons by directly teaching vocabulary words and by modeling more advanced vocabulary in my oral language. For example, if we are discussing a book in which a character is sad, I might ask, “What is another adjective we can use to describe how that character is feeling?” I would try to elicit the words heartbroken, devastated, crushed, etc. That translates into our writing process when the children have completed their rough drafts, and I ask them to look for words that might have “juicier or more flavorful” synonyms. We work to elevate vocabulary throughout the year and challenge each other to use more interesting words. Fourth graders really seem to love words like flabbergasted and astonished! When the children know and use these words regularly, it’s easier for them to revise their writing and look for words they can “elevate.”

Perhaps the most meaningful strategy I use with my fourth graders is to model and encourage a growth mindset about writing and revising. I start by sharing some writing that I have completed and then show them the pages and pages of revisions that I made in order to get there. It is important for children to see that good writers look for ways to improve their writing. This is also when I tell the class a secret: that an eraser is an opportunity to improve—not just a tool to “fix mistakes.” Embracing a growth mindset in the classroom allows children to feel safe in taking chances, and it is a natural intrinsic motivator. I have found that what the children want more than anything is to take ownership of their own improvement. And let me tell you something—the children beam with pride when they see the results of their effort!

Encouraging a love of writing and revising takes an extraordinary amount of work and enthusiasm on the teacher’s part. By allowing children to view writing as a fun, engaging process, rather than as a laborious product, they become motivated to grow and improve as writers.


Instead of “drafts,” call them “versions”

Sara Holbrook is a novelist, poet, and educator with a multitude of books for both teachers and students under her belt, including The Enemy: Detroit, 1954, which won the 2018 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award.

Michael Salinger is a poet, performer, and advocate of poetry and performance in education.

Together, they co-founded and direct Outspoken Literacy Consulting, an organization that runs programs to help K–12 students in the United States and around the world develop writing, public speaking, and comprehension strategies:

Labels matter. The first thing we do is ask every writer to label every new piece of writing “Version 1.” This makes it clear from the beginning that this is an embryonic document. We use the word “draft” as a verb. There are no “first drafts” in our writing workshops because a first draft just sounds like a throw away. Instead, we take Version 1 and begin to tinker with it. Change a sentence? Add an adjective? Writers are on Version 2, and the process continues.

We begin very simply and then increase complexity with subsequent revisions. A writing lesson might go like this:

  • Think of a simile comparison regarding XYZ. (This is Version 1.)
  • Use that to develop a more complete description of your subject matter. (This is Version 2.)
  • Can you add some sensory terms to bring the reader into the scene? (This is Version 3.)
  • Bring a character into the situation. What would that character say? (This is Version 4.)

How did we come up with this approach? This is how we write. We are both trade book authors and writers of professional development books. Before that, we were both business writers—Michael was an engineer for 23 years and Sara was in public relations. We deconstructed our writing practice and realized a couple important things:

  1. We never start at the beginning of a long piece of writing, develop a story arc according to some predetermined pattern, and then use a rubric to make it right.
  2. All writing is creative. Any time we begin with a blank page and put words on it, it is a creative process.

When we visit schools, we show teachers how they can use simple frameworks to help students jump start their writing by starting with Version 1. We show them how we guide students through the next couple versions. Writers will discard the framework as the writing takes off on its own, kind of like taking off the jumper cables after the car is running.

Kids intuitively get it. We compare the writing process to playing a video game or learning a sport; people start with simple moves and level up. Students begin to internalize the reality that revision is incremental and writing is always an evolving process. We’ve found that the teachers we work with are excited by this writing process, and even relieved. Start simple and add complexity is a recipe for success as students adopt an “I can do that,” attitude.

We actually have kids bragging,

“I’m on Version 6!”

“Oh, yeah? I’m on Version 13!”

But one of our favorite lines to hear from kids is, “Oh, don’t worry, just put it down. It’s only Version 1.” We reinforce that no one expects the first version to be perfect, it’s just something to build on. And then we offer choices on how to take that next step.

We also invite students to share aloud throughout the writing process. By reading aloud, Version 1 and Version 2, partnering, or working with a mini writers’ group, students are able to see and hear their own progress as writers. We’ll ask, “Which version is working better for you?” Then we’ll let the writer explain what made the revised version better and where they want to take it next.

By building revision into the beginning of the writing process rather than leaving it until end, students are eager to add complexity and clarity to their writing.


Thanks to Alexis, Keisha, Alicia, Sara and Michael 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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