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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

Making Revision of Writing a ‘Collaborative Process’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 22, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the second post in a five-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today, Matthew Johnson, Emily Phillips Galloway, Robert Jiménez, Holland White, Joy Hamm, and Alexandra Frelinghuysen offer their commentaries.

“Today, my students generally enjoy revision”

Matthew Johnson is an English teacher from Ann Arbor, Mich., and the author of Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out (published by Corwin Press). His work has been published by Principal Leadership, Edutopia, ASCD, The National Writing Project, and the National Council of Teachers of English, and he blogs weekly at www.matthewmjohnson.com:

For far too many years of my career, I found it nearly impossible to get students to engage in meaningful revision. Instead, when I asked students to revise, they tended to do one of the following:

  • Actively resist the revision and say something along the lines of, “I don’t really need to revise/I can’t find any changes to make.”
  • Quickly proofread their draft for commas, apostrophes, and other minor mechanical errors, and then hand it back as “revised.”

A quote by Kathleen Dudden Rowlands changed everything: “Published authors know that revision is the heart of producing effective writing. … Developing writers don’t know this. They think of revising as a chore assigned because they aren’t good writers and can’t get their writing right the first time.”

I suddenly knew where I’d gone wrong. I required revision, but I never actually taught my students what it was or why it is so crucial.

Today, I actively teach my students why revision matters through discussions of the limits of working memory; by dissecting writers talking about revision, like this classic from Ta-Nehisi Coates (starting at 2:00); and by sharing studies like the 2011 Nation’s Report Card that shows that the one of the most predictive measure of an essay’s score is how often the writer hits the delete key (with those who hit it a lot generally getting much higher scores).

I also give students a choice of revision tools. We discuss various methods like RADaR or using revision checklists. And finally and most crucially, I give them serious time to revise—generally at least two or three class periods—and focus some of my feedback on helping to guide them through the process.

Today, my students generally enjoy revision. If one looks at their revision histories in Google Docs, for instance, it quickly becomes clear that my students do understand that, in the words of famed writing teacher Donald Graves, “Writing is revising.”


“Invite students into your writing journey”

Joy Hamm has taught 11 years in a variety of English-language settings, ranging from kindergarten to adult learners. The last few years working with middle and high school Newcomers and completing her M.Ed in TESOL have fostered stronger advocacy in her district and beyond. She loves living in other countries and being a language-learner herself. Joy currently enjoys learning Mandarin, raising chickens with her family, and finding time for a good book:

My revising epiphany happened three years ago while teaching 6-8th Intermediate ESOL classes and working on my initial National Board Certification of Teachers (NBCT). Previously, I would circle the room during writing time to provide feedback and reminders such as, “It’s OK to make mistakes; revisions just make us stronger writers.” That phrase did little to motivate my ELs because they never saw me modeling my own writing nor my revision process. My students were stuck in a mindset where revisions suggested, “My writing sucks” or “Good writers create perfection on the first try.”

The NBCT year demanded every spare moment, so during independent writing time, I began typing my components and projecting this work on the screen. Students intently watched as I reread paragraphs whispering to myself, how I went back to the prompt and rewrote again, or used cut and paste and searched for stronger synonyms in the thesaurus. It wasn’t direct instruction, simply a vulnerable display of my writing process in real time.

There were lots of guffaws when I showed my ELs some peer-edited copies. They were shocked and delighted that their perfect English teacher had colorful marks all across her typed pages. As they scrutinized the five revisions between my first and final draft and we discussed observations, it was the impetus they needed to take ownership of re-examining their writing. Invite students into your writing journey; your actions truly speak louder than words.


Multilingual Learners & Revision

Emily Phillips Galloway is an assistant professor, ELL and literacy education, Department of Teaching and Learning, at Vanderbilt University. Her research explores the relationships between school-relevant language development and language expression and comprehension during middle childhood with a particular focus on linguistically and culturally minoritized learners.

Holland White is a doctoral student in the Teaching, Learning, and Diversity department at Vanderbilt University. She is on the TRANSLATE research team and previously taught high school ELA in Austin, Texas.

Robert Jiménez is professor emeritus, ELL and literacy education, Department of Teaching and Learning, at Vanderbilt University. He is one of the primary designers of the TRANSLATE instructional model, which focuses on promoting the use of multilingual-learners’ translingual literacies to comprehend text:

Let’s start with the central idea that should drive our writing instruction: Writing is about communicating with others. We revise our writing to be understood better by a particular audience. With this in mind, we focus in this post on supporting multilingual-earners (MLLs) in our classrooms to develop as skilled writers—a core component of which is creating classrooms where students are actively engaged in revising as they write. In particular, we focus on supporting learners who, while in the process of developing English, bring significant language resources from a home language that can be tapped to motivate and support revision of written work.

MLL students often have experience engaging in a practice called “language brokering.[1]” When acting as a language broker, children and youths facilitate communication between parents and others who differ from them culturally and/or linguistically. This practice is well-documented in Latinx families and communities, in which multilingual families teach youths to engage in translingual practices, often moving between languages fluidly to communicate. These skills are infrequently leveraged in English-medium school instruction. While often conducted orally, language brokering shares significant overlap with revision.

Each involves taking existing language—whether oral or written—and revising it to best support communication with a listener or reader. This involves intuiting the needs of the audience and tailoring language to meet their needs. Of course, beyond revision, language-brokering skills also support students when composing written text: Work by Orellana and Reynolds (2008) suggests that the very skills that support language brokering are similar to school-based practices like paraphrasing, and they demonstrate how classroom practice can draw on these familial practices to improve the literacy learning of MLLs[2].

In our research, drawing on research in language brokering, we have worked to design a model for collaborative translation of English text in the classroom, called TRANSLATE. TRANSLATE involves working with peers to orally generate translations (from English into students’ home languages), to record these in writing, and then to collaboratively negotiate revisions[3].

The final step involves producing an English summary statement of the text. In this context, we have learned more about the factors that motivate revision of written work.

First, discussion with classmates about what to write serves to support students to generate clearer first drafts, reducing the degree to which tasks have to be revised. Second, working with peers to produce the initial text naturally forefronts the communicative goals of writing. Students must first be understood by classmates, and this informs how they craft their written texts. Third, revision that is a collaborative process in which students work collectively to communicate with an imagined audience of home-language speakers is a powerful context for focusing on language, for discussing how meaning is sharpened, and to creatively engage with sentence structures.

As students hear and see their own language, discuss it (argue!) with others, and reflect on it (including with teachers who can make explicit what they know and are doing), they develop what is known as “metalinguistic insight,” and this insight characterizes good writers. Youths are also positioned as language-knowers, and skills in languages other than English are used as resources. In these interactions, students want to revise. They also want to talk about their revisions.

What might be the implications of this for teaching in today’s classrooms whether face to face or virtual?

In both instructional settings, revision of written work should be focused on sharpening our communicative intent by imagining the communicative expectations and needs of the reader.

In addition, this revision should be a collaborative process. As we move to virtual classrooms, in particular, there are new (often untapped) opportunities for connecting with audiences outside of the classroom. Rather than attempt to recontextualize into students’ homes ways of teaching, knowing, and being valued at school, we might now engage our students in writing for new audiences—families and communities. Indeed, revising a text for these audiences, whether in English or in a language other than English, makes the task of revision authentic. For parents and caregivers from groups who have been minoritized in U.S. schools (e.g., people of color or speakers of a language other than English), centering revision around communication with others in the home best taps culturally resonant ways of teaching already present in students’ homes.

[1] Tse, L. (1996). Language brokering in linguistic minority communities: The case of Chinese-and Vietnamese-American students. Bilingual research journal, 20(3-4), 485-498.

[2] Orellana, M. F., & Reynolds, J. F. (2008). Cultural modeling: Leveraging bilingual skills for school paraphrasing tasks. Reading Research Quarterly, 43(1), 48-65.

[3] Cole, M. W., David, S. S., & Jiménez, R. T. (2016). Collaborative translation: Negotiating student investment in culturally responsive pedagogy. Language Arts, 93(6), 430-443.


“Writing goals”

Alexandra Frelinghuysen graduated from Skidmore College in 2009 with a B.A. in English and Spanish. After receiving her M.A. in secondary English education from Teachers College, Columbia University, she joined The Windward School in September 2012. She currently teaches 7thand 8th grade language arts:

If I’m being honest, I’m not sure anyone wants to revise their writing. As someone who loved writing in school, I dreaded seeing my teacher’s blue or green or (gasp!) red pen all over an essay I thought had been my best work yet. It felt like a punch to the gut, and I remember thinking, “How do I even begin to fix this? Or should I just start over?”

As a teacher of students with language-based learning disabilities, it goes without saying that writing a first draft can be incredibly laborious for many of them, so the last thing they want to do is revise their work. However, it is an important component of the writing process—the last step before one can turn in a final draft. That being said, I am not looking for perfect final drafts. Rather than demanding a letter-perfect final draft, I find that establishing a goal-oriented revising method encourages students to take part in the process.

To establish goals for my students, I administer a writing sample as a diagnostic tool at the beginning of the year. Upon reviewing each sample, I set three to five specific and achievable writing goals for each student. (Depending upon student ability, these goals can range from simple to complex: correct punctuation and capitalization, recognizing run-on sentences or fragments, incorporating transitions, drafting an introduction, etc.)

I follow up the writing sample by meeting individually with students to review and explain these goals. It is paramount that students understand the goals they are being asked to achieve. (I recall a teacher who repeatedly told me to stop using the passive voice without ever explaining what the passive voice was, and it got to the point that I was too embarrassed to ask what she meant.) Instead of telling students they need to “vary their language” or “improve clarity” (other phrases I remember seeing written on my own papers), setting clearly defined goals gives students something to work toward.

The purpose of setting these goals becomes even more important when it comes time for me to review a student’s essay. As opposed to marking every single error on the page, I try to keep the student’s goals in mind. For instance, as I read the essay of a student who needs to incorporate transitions, I look to see if the child is doing this. If he or she is, I give specific positive feedback. If not, I simply write “add transition.” As goals are achieved, new goals that involve more nuanced aspects of writing can be set.

For students who require more support during the revision process or for shorter pieces like single paragraphs, I like to create a revise-and-edit checklist for each child. I number the sentences and make a checklist with no more than 10 simple instructions, such as “add a comma in sentence 2” or “combine sentences 4 and 5.” Students feel a sense of accomplishment as they check off each completed revision.

It is easy to regard the revising process as a chore, something that must be done before the writing assignment can be marked as complete. However, students are more invested in the process if they are working to master specific skills. More importantly, achieving these goals contributes to a growth mindset, allowing students to see that they can improve their writing abilities. In doing so, revising becomes less a tedious task and more an essential learning experience.


Thanks to Matthew, Joy, Emily, Robert, Holland, and Alexandra 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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