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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Not All Feedback Is Created Equal’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 03, 2018 25 min read
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(This is the last post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to give students feedback on their writing?

Part One began with responses from Anabel Gonzalez, Sarah Woodard, Kim Jaxon, Ralph Fletcher, Mary Beth Nicklaus, and Leah Wilson. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Anabel, Sarah, and Kim on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Susan M. Brookhart, Cheryl Mizerny, Amy Benjamin, Kate Wolfe Maxlow, Karen Sanzo, Andrew Miller, David Campos, and Kathleen Fad shared their commentaries.

In Part Three, it was time for Regie Routman, Paul Solarz, David Hochheiser, Kathy T. Glass, Catherine Beck, and Keith McCarroll to offer their wisdom.

Today, the final post in the series includes answers from Stacey Shubitz, Carol Pelletier Radford, Melanie Ward, Tasha Thomas, Dawn Mitchell, Jen Schwanke, and Donna L. Shrum. I also share comments from readers.

Response From Stacey Shubitz

Stacey Shubitz is an independent literacy consultant, an adjunct professor, and a former elementary school teacher. She’s the author Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts and the co-author of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. Her forthcoming book, Welcome to Writing Workshop, will be available from Stenhouse Publishers in early 2019. She blogs at Two Writing Teachers and can be found on Twitter @sshubitz:

After spending hours providing line-by-line feedback on student writing, I’ve come to believe I misused hours of my life I will never get back. First, when we spend hours providing feedback to students about their writing, we become editors (at best) who are helping kids to make a single piece of writing better. And that’s if and only if they take our suggestions. Second, when we provide written feedback on a student’s writing, our markings become mandates (again, for kids who take our suggestions). Students may copy over our suggestions on their new draft without understanding why they’re making changes. Third, by providing line edits and/or paragraphs of feedback at the end of each student’s writing, we run the risk of them ignoring some or all of our suggestions and doing what they want. Finally, providing feedback to every student, on every draft, all year long is not sustainable. We lose sleep and valuable time we can spend preparing for highly individualized instruction.

I believe one of the most meaningful ways to provide feedback to students happens when we confer. Holding regular writing conferences helps us meet the needs of students in an individualized way. Each writing conference starts with a phrase such as “How’s it going?” or “What are you working on as writer?” When students are taught how to answer these questions (in advance), they provide us with responses that give us insight into their strengths and challenges as writers. We research each student by asking questions and by reading a portion of his writing during a writing conference.

Students’ writing toolboxes grow with weekly writing conferences. Every time we meet with a student, we compliment each writer on one thing they’re doing well. We offer specific praise that names something the child has done well (since they often don’t realize what they’ve done so beautifully) as a writer. Instead of saying, “Good job adding details to your writing,” we offer specific praise—several sentences, in fact—so the child can replicate whatever it was they did well. By responding in a genuine and specific manner, we also build rapport with young writers since we’re boosting confidence while providing positive feedback.

Next, we teach the student one new strategy to help him not only improve the piece of writing he’s working on that day, but with a strategy that will help him any time he’s doing that type of writing in the future. We demonstrate or provide an explanation with example of the new strategy to show, rather than tell, the student how to accomplish the strategy. We provide time for the student to practice the strategy before we end the conference so we can link what we’ve taught to his ongoing work as a writer.

I’m not saying it’s pointless to read students’ drafts. However, we don’t need to read every student’s draft—multiple times—during each unit of study we teach. Instead of reading and providing feedback on every student’s draft every time a “draft is due,” we can pick focal children every drafting cycle whose drafts we read. (In order to ensure all students’ drafts are read, we can create a class-at-a-glance grid to keep track of whose drafts we read during a unit of study. This kind of tool helps us distribute our reading time equitably amongst students.) Looking at a cross-section of a class’s writing should be sufficient to help us understand the majority of students as writers at a point in time, which can help us drive our instruction.

Response From Carol Pelletier Radford

Carol Pelletier Radford, EdD, brings more than 40 years of experience to education as a teacher and teacher educator. Practical teaching strategies are available in Carol’s two books: Mentoring in Action: Guiding, Sharing, And Reflecting With Novice Teachers and The First Years Matter: Becoming an Effective Teacher. Visit MentoringinAction.com to learn about her online courses, books, and free resources:

Student writing was always a challenge for me as a teacher. Do I correct grammar? Do I just look at the ideas? Do I grade creativity? How do I assess a student’s potential for success as a writer? Students in my classes often didn’t want to write because they didn’t want all those red marks on their papers. So they played it safe and wrote very little and tried to make it perfect. My goal was to get my students to think creatively and to not be afraid to write down their ideas.

Here are three tried and true ideas I used in my classroom that can be adapted in yours.

  1. HONOR STUDENT WRITING—I never wrote my comments on a student’s paper. I honored their work and would write my comments on a separate sheet. I would read the paper and then place a number beside each paragraph. I would explain what showed up in that paragraph next to the number on a separate piece of paper. For example; Par.1. I like the way you developed your character in this paragraph. I notice the use of the word “their” is incorrect in Sentence 2. Please refer to your book on Page 22 to use the correct homonym here.

  2. READ WRITING ALOUD—I often had my students record their writing and then listen to their stories before they handed them in to me. They noted their own mistakes when they read aloud and corrected them before handing their papers in! I remember the first time I listened to a student read her story. I don’t think I had ever heard her voice in class. Hearing the story out loud added so much to the written word. We would take turns playing the audio versions to the entire class. The students loved listening to these oral stories from their classmates.

  3. GIVE VERBAL FEEDBACK—Students would hand in an audio of their writing in addition to their written paper (we were using tapes at the time—now it would be a smart device recording). My feedback was given verbally so they could listen to my comments. Every student in class had their own tape. Now, of course, this can all be done with smart devices. So much easier! I used a format for assessing each student: 1) one thing that stood out for me in your writing, 2) an area that I thought could be more developed, 3) a compliment for you as a writer, and 4) was optional: grammar or some writing issues that I might recommend be corrected.

My goal as a teacher was to get the students to write! Including the audio recording in the writing process not only encouraged my students to write more, it was more fun and it improved their writing!

I invite you to try these strategies and hear your students’ voices.

Response From Melanie Ward

For 16 years, Melanie Ward has taught middle and high school music in schools across the globe, from New Zealand to the United Kingdom to Switzerland. She recently completed a Master of Arts in Education, which included research into students’ perceptions of effective teacher feedback:

Feedback to students can take many forms. Whilst feedback is considered by many researchers to improve student achievement, others claim that 38 percent of interventions actually decrease performance. So what are the best ways to give feedback that enhance student learning? The following summary is gleaned from a review of feedback literature:

Two much-supported feedback models recommend feedback that describes: the goal (‘Where am I going?’), the student’s current level of performance (‘How am I going?’), and a recipe of action for closing the gap between the two (‘Where to next?’). These models imply that effective feedback functions developmentally and formatively, rather than evaluatively and summatively. So how can teachers promote formative feedback?

One approach is to consider the negative impact of giving summative grades alongside potentially formative comments. Approaches such as delayed grades or comments only are possible ways of maximizing feedback’s formative potential. Grades can function formatively, but only if students understand the criteria that they represent.

Whether this feedback should be immediate or delayed is debatable. A perhaps-more significant issue of feedback timing is whether students are given time to read or action feedback. Teachers cannot expect that students will do this at home but must plan sufficient class time for students to act upon feedback received.

Whilst one might assume that lengthy feedback helps students, some researchers warn that merely increasing the amount can be misleading. Others disagree on the formative value of specific versus general feedback. Useful guidance is to focus on two or three main “teachable moments,”, and the Goldilocks principle of “not too narrow, not too broad, but just right.”

Finally is the importance of feedback clarity and honesty. After all, students can only use feedback developmentally if it is understood. Feedback must use student-friendly language (especially for ELL students), and be legible and free of “warm fuzzies” that mask the truth.

Not all feedback is created equal. Unless feedback is understood and used by students, and functions formatively to close the gap between their current level and the goal status, it is unlikely to have a positive impact on their learning.

Response From Tasha Thomas & Dawn Mitchell

Tasha Thomas is the director of the Spartanburg Writing Project and Senior Instructor of Composition and Adolescent Literature at USC Upstate in Spartanburg, S.C. Tasha also coordinates professional-development partnerships with local schools in the Upstate, an annual conference, a summer institute for educators, and a summer writing camp for students. Connect with Tasha on twitter @tthomasuscu.

In addition to her work with the Spartanburg Writing Project, Dawn Mitchell serves in instructional services in Spartanburg District 6, where she leads the induction and mentoring program as well as provides professional development in literacy and in project based learning. Dawn is also an adjunct instructor at Furman University, where she currently serves as a university supervisor and teacher mentor. Connect with Dawn on twitter @dawnjmitchell:

Write On! Stop Wasting Time With Feedback, Instead Focus on Feedforward With Kaizana

Tasha and I have worked at the Spartanburg Writing Project, an affiliate of the National Writing Project, and for over 16 years, we have spent our summer institute graduate course with teachers exploring ways to provide students and teachers with feedback that grows both the writer and the writing. In our very first summer institute together, we found Nancie Atwell’s advice from In the Middle (1989) to ring true. She said students need three components to grow as writers: time, ownership, and response.

Feedback should be timely and meaningful and should provide opportunities for immediate and continuous application. We know that these three components are important for all aspects of writing workshop, but they are all three important in the context of providing feedback as well. Students need time to do the best they can on their first draft. Then they need response and options for how to make it better. Most of all, they need more time to take the suggestions given and give them a go in the revision process. Throughout the past several years, we have worked to reframe our feedback into a model that provides response throughout the process. This model is referred to as feedforward. We want to share this concept with you in the context of writing workshop, along with one of our tried and true strategies, TAG!, and our favorite tech tool we love for giving feedforward to students, Kaizena.

The Concept of Feedforward

Have you ever stayed up late at night grading essays, taking time to provide students with individual feedback only to find that they rarely read it? If any questions were asked, were they about the grade and not the comments? Having experienced this myself, I determined that providing feedback after a grade was complete wasn’t effective because it wasn’t embedded in a task, it didn’t provide opportunities for students to do it more effectively, and it didn’t build on what was going well. Students knew the grade was set and many times either disregarded the feedback for improvement because they already received the grade they desired or interpreted the feedback as negative and personal instead of a tool to promote growth. This type of feedback given on work previously done rarely transferred to my students’ future work, making the time invested and the process used ineffective. Based on these conclusions, I decided to move away from a feedback model and toward a feedforward model.

When teachers work to provide students with feedback that is embedded in the process of the work, students then have the opportunity to immediately apply the strategies and suggestions given to see improvement. In reading Patty McGee’s newest text, Feedback That Moves Writers, she explains that feedback that is powerful is grounded in what the student’s strengths and weaknesses are, focused on targeted goals to improve the task at hand, and is explicit in naming strengths and next steps for the student. (McGee, 2017). With the power of these three components, feedforward has the opportunity to immediately impact both the writer and their writing.

TAG! Tell, Ask, Give Your Students Better Feedback

TAG is a feedback strategy we learned of through our work with the National Writing Project about five years ago. This tool is especially helpful when you want to give the most direct, efficient feedback for improving student work.

Essentially, the acronym stands for TELL, ASK, GIVE. You may follow these directives with any details, but we choose the following:

  • TELL the writer what you like about the writing;
  • ASK the writer a few questions to clarify and expand the writing;
  • GIVE me some specific, sound advice for improving the writing.

Of course, each element should be as specific and direct as possible, citing examples from the writing to support comments and suggestions.

What’s great about TAG is that it is direct and brief. In fact, you just need a square Post-It note in most cases. Further, TAG provides a flexible framework for peer response. In fact, within peer pairs and groups, we often ask students to include three elements per imperative. For example, they must first cite three things they enjoyed about the writing, then ask three specific questions to help the writer clarify and/or expand the content of the piece.

Finally, students must give three specific ways in which the piece could be improved. For example, if the writing seems to veer off-topic, the writer may need to focus more on organization and relevance. Of course, three supporting details is an arbitrary number and could be adapted. When I use this tool with early-childhood and emerging writers, I just ask for one detail for each element of TAG.

The advice element of this strategy is perhaps the most important part in fitting the feedforward model. Often, we as teachers and students as peer responders tend to focus on the surface elements of a piece, when we should be focused more on the more meaningful elements such as content, flow, and voice. TAG reminds us to give constructive feedback rather than just correcting errors and mechanics.

In addition to written comments and live conversations about the writing, we believe audio and video feedback can be more effective methods for validating student work and motivating students to improve it. We sometimes ask peer responders to record their TAG feedback using an iPad, laptop, or cellphone, then email it to the teacher and the writer. This way, the feedback is faster to create and there are tangible “tracks” of the learning. Likewise, as teachers, we often record audio feedback to give students a better feel for what we want to see through the revision process. This will be discussed in more detail below.

Another great option for garnering feedforward using TAG is to create a TAG bulletin board right outside your classroom, inviting passers by to provide advice and commentary. Simply attach student writing, along with a supply of Post-It notes and a few pencils. Add an instruction sheet explaining the acronym, including specific instructions for being positive and constructive. And voila! You have authentic feedback for writers from a wider audience!

Tell, Ask, Give is one of many strategies you might utilize for encouraging and instructing writers. But it’s ease, efficiency, and effectiveness make it one of the best!

Digitizing Feedforward Using Kaizena

For the past four years, Tasha has been using the web platform, Kaizena, to manage peer response and provide individual writing feedback for student work in composition courses. This tool is incredibly versatile and provides several options for making sure students understand and implement feedback in constructive ways to improve their writing.

There are two ways to access Kaizena. The first is to install the Google add-on app found here. This allows you to use Kaizena’s tools within Google Documents, which is perfect if you are a Google Classrooms teacher.

Fear not! If you don’t employ Google tools in your classroom, you can simply create an account on the original Kaizena platform found here. This website allows you to create “Groups” to organize different classes or sections, and it gives you a discreet code for each group so students can “JOIN” their respective group. This feature is completely customizable for your instructional style and methods.

Once you have your Groups in order, students are able to request feedback from you by uploading a WORD document or a PDF. They can also access individual Google Drive files from directly within the Kaizena platform, provided they allow permission. In addition, as the instructor, you are able to create “Conversations” within each large group, providing for Peer Response pairs and groups. As the administrator, you can control which students see which feedback, and comment on whether the advice students give one another is actually effective. Conversations are ongoing, allowing students to upload revised versions of their writing, to ask questions, and to request additional feedback.

Once students upload their writing, there are several options for giving suggestions. First, there are four different highlighters for color-coding. For example, we always use yellow for grammatical and spelling errors, green to mark positive elements of the work, and blue to mark areas that need work. Once a section has been highlighted, you simply type in a comment in the left margin.

You also have the option to REPLY to previously posted comments, which is what we do most often as a way of monitoring and adjusting peer feedback. In addition to making custom comments on the writing, you can build a bank of skills and lessons to insert within each piece of writing. For example, if you notice that several students struggle with subject/verb agreement issues, you can create a skill that walks them through the proper process. We like to create lessons related to Author’s Craft elements we study.

The final, and MOST HELPFUL, tool available in Kaizena is the ability to insert audio comments. By allowing Kaizena permission to access your computer’s microphone, you can insert voice feedback at any point within the writing. This is especially useful, as mentioned above, because students often misunderstand or simply overlook typed comments. They also interpret the TONE of written comments as being overly critical.

By recording your own voice, you help the student gain a better understanding of what he or she needs to improve, while reinforcing and validating his or her confidence as a writer. Our own best practice for utilizing voice comments is at the end of the writing. We make sure to limit recordings to two minutes, first giving a few positive notes about the work, then focusing on NO MORE THAN THREE areas that need improvement.

Whether using digital tools or traditional ones, feedforward must be as specific as possible and should be given in a constructive tone, as if you are a reader who enjoyed the writing and wants to see it become even more effective. The best way to encourage student writing is with individual face-to-face conferences, but aside from this, voice recordings are especially effective and save TONS of time!

There are so many useful tools built into this versatile and engaging platform. And the BEST part? All these incredible feedforward tools are, of course, completely free! Spend some time exploring Kaizena, trying out TAG, and making the concept of feedforward part of your teaching practice this coming school year. ou will be glad you did as you watch your students and their writing grow.

Works Cited

Atwell, N. (1987). In the Middle. Heinemann.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. doi:10.3102/003465430298487

McGee, P. (2017). Feedback That Moves Writers Forward. Corwin Press.

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke has served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and middle school levels for 20 years. She has established her voice in school leadership by contributing frequently to literacy and leadership publications and has presented at multiple conferences at the state and national level. She is the author of the book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD:

Years ago, when I was in high school, a friend of mine took a $10 bet to write, “I bet the teacher doesn’t even read these” - smack in the middle of an English paper. When the papers came back, she was $10 richer, and the teacher had lost all credibility; the only response on the paper was a scrawled, “Great work and, Remember name & date!”

Noteworthy here is that there were two opportunities lost. The most obvious, of course, is the student didn’t get better as a writer. But it was also a lost chance for the teacher to reinforce a connection between writer and reader by showing interest in her students through meaningful feedback.

Said differently, feedback isn’t only about making students better writers. It’s also about the conversation between writer and reader. It’s about a teacher sparking a genuine understanding for a student—"Why is this writing important? What are we really trying to do here? Are we focused on content, process, mechanics, or all three? What does your writing say about you?”

Addressing these pivotal questions can be done through meaningful talk. A conversation with a student is more effective than notes in the margin—especially if the notes don’t address any instructional insight.

It’s not possible to confer with every writer every time. Of course it’s not. Sometimes, the most efficient way to give feedback is with notes in the margin, highlighted passages, or Post-it notes. Whenever possible, though—several times a semester, perhaps—it should be a goal to meet with students about their writing to rephrase passages, reword sentences, edit for mechanics, or just consider the purpose behind a piece of writing.

There are hundreds of ways to launch a discussion about writing, and obviously, the student’s interests, abilities, and engagement will determine how to open the conference. However, keeping in mind the dual outcomes of writing conferences, here are a few conversation starters to consider:

What started your thinking about this piece of writing?

How did you find the process? Did the writing flow, or was it jumpy and disjointed?

I’d like to share a couple areas on which we can focus when I teach you some new writing tricks.

Tell me what you meant by this part of your piece.

I think I know what you were trying to say, but if you tell me again, we’ll find a way to write it.

Read this aloud to me and see if it sounds like you’d hoped.

Pretend someone else wrote this. What would you tell them to make it better?

What would you do differently if I asked you to write this again?

How did you feel about this prompt or topic? What would you have preferred to write?

How do you feel about your work on this piece of writing?

Back in high school, a group of us laughed ourselves silly when my friend proved our teacher didn’t really read our papers. But there was a lot of disillusionment and disappointment, too. All that work! The effort put into writing as we’d been told;and it didn’t matter to our teacher. It’s been decades, and it still stings a little.

I understand, now, that the teacher was probably just tired and busy. But had she just talked to us about our writing, two positive benefits would have occurred for us as writers: We would have known she was interested in what we had to say—and how we chose to say it.

Response From Donna L. Shrum

Donna L. Shrum is a writer, researcher, and educator in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Her specialty areas are history, language arts, and technology:

Reading, red-marking, and slapping on a grade before the student recycles the essay is pointless and outdated. Research shows our labor writing comments is pointless if a grade is on the assignment. In fact, a grade impedes progress.

Instead, let students know their goal in writing is proficient- or mastery-level writing, not just completion. Students need to know that their skill is important, not a grade, so feedback from the teacher and peers should be constant through the process. I also want my students to use any tools at their disposal, so I ask them to not only run it through spellcheck, but also Grammarly and hemingwayapp.com. They can also create a word cloud from the essay to see which words are overused.

When they’ve put their essay through the wringer, they turn it in with the understanding it’s still in the rough-draft stage. I give more feedback in Kaizena, Google Doc comments, and Google Classroom. The best feedback comes during individual conferences in which I can discuss the piece of writing with the student and understand their thinking.

The most productive comments highlight areas of struggle and weakness. After seeing a few pieces of writing, you’ll identify that particular student’s individual area of focus. Earlier comments in the writing process carry more weight with the student, so those should focus on content, not mechanics. Spelling and grammar are editing issues best left until the final stages of writing.

The most valuable feedback is suggestive and clear. Students feel they no longer control the essay when it’s peppered with directive comments (e.g., Replace that word). Upon completion, provide a few reflective questions for the student to review how the student reached success, and, if you must have a grade, let the student put it on.

Responses From Readers

Jennifer Ann Aquino:

I ask them to *show* and not [just] tell. To stay away from platitudes. To be very specific. And to opine.

The goal of my work with students who are writing is to help them express who they are and to do this in genuine, thoughtful ways. So, if they are just telling me about themselves or giving overarching statements (“I am a caring person.” “I want to strive to be my best in the future.”) I tell them that for the reader these statements can come across as insincere, not genuine, flat or meaningless ... UNLESS they can show it and be specific.

Thanks to Stacey, Carol, Melanie, Tasha, Dawn, Jen, and Donna, and to readers, 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.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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