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Teaching Opinion

Response: Provide Feedback on Writing That ‘Helps Students Tell Their Story’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 25, 2018 22 min read
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(This is the first post in a four-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

Teaching writing—and learning how to write—are not easy tasks for teachers or students. Educators giving feedback to students on what they write can have a big instructional impact—if done well. If done poorly, it can be a waste of time or even harmful.

This series will exploare the do’s and don’ts of giving students feedback on their writing.

We’ll start off today 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.

My contribution to this topic is an article I’ve previously written for the British Council headlined Four Ways To Give ELL Students Feedback on Their Writing. I use the same strategies with students who are proficient in English.

You might also want to explore previous columns appearing here on Writing Instruction.

Lastly, The Best Resources on Getting Students to “Buy-Into” Revision might be helpful.

Response From Anabel Gonzalez

Anabel Gonzalez is an instructional facilitator with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. She began her teaching career in 1996 and has previously served as a business education teacher, ESL teacher, and instructional technology trainer. Follow her on Twitter @amgonza:

Have you ever composed an email, only to realize after sending it that you’ve omitted a few words? I think much faster than I can write, and even though I try to carefully read over my messages before sending them, every once in awhile I will send emails that will require the reader to decipher my code.

When assessing writing assignments, there have been times when I have completely misinterpreted what my students were trying to say. Therefore, when assessing written work, I began to state my feedback in the form of questions rather than corrections. While I can usually figure out what a student is thinking when I encounter spelling, grammar, or syntax errors, there have been instances when I have completely missed their point, and my corrections have been inaccurate.

Good writing comes from good thinking. Before giving feedback or making corrections, it’s important to understand what the writers are thinking as they compose. But how will we know what they are thinking if we don’t ask? Here are some ways:

Student conferences

Individual conferences are certainly time-consuming, but they are so worthwhile. After reviewing the writing, schedule time with each student to discuss the work. Rather than telling students about their mistakes and how to fix them, ask them to share their thoughts as they wrote. When I taught English-learners, there were times when what I read was completely different from the message my students were trying to convey. So rather than fixing their mistakes, I asked, “Tell me what you’re thinking?” Regardless of the population you may serve, having face-to-face conversations with students and giving them a chance to voice their thoughts shifts the focus to the message rather than the mistakes.

Use Comments or Suggestions Feature

If scheduling a personal conference with every student is not realistic, use technology like Google Docs’ Comments or Suggesting features. Using the comments feature to insert questions, again, focuses on the message rather than the errors. If you do opt to make corrections, using the “Suggesting” feature forces students to review the edits and choose to accept or reject the change, giving them more ownership over their work.

Voice Recording

Voice feedback is more personal than written feedback, and it may be easier and faster than keying your comments. Furthermore, verbal input can help relay a message of care and concern rather than criticism. Voice comments are an option in Google Docs. And if your district allows teachers to connect with students via mobile-messaging apps like Voxer or WhatsApp, both student and parent can be included in the message. Including parents in the feedback will help keep families in the loop and add another layer of accountability.

I have found that most students have an aversion to writing. While most claim boredom or difficulty as the reason, in my experience, it’s their insecurity that gets the best of them. The writing process requires us to embrace failure, and for most of us, it’s emotionally draining. But by asking questions and helping students tell their story rather than just fixing their flaws, we can help them hone their skills and develop as writers, which is so crucial in this digital age.

Response From Sarah Woodard

Sarah Woodard is a national-board-certified teacher and a co-director of the Denver Writing Project. She’s taught students in grades 8-12 and currently teaches juniors and seniors at Collegiate Prep Academy in the Denver public schools:

As a proponent of writing-workshop pedagogy, I find that one of the most important ways I can help my students build capacity and confidence with their writing is to provide high-leverage and ongoing feedback throughout all stages of the writing process. I believe that providing feedback is imperative regardless of students’ age, grade level, language proficiency, etc. The majority of my students are English-language learners, and one of the most affirming aspects of research about teaching ELLs is that it aligns with the beliefs and practices about effective writing instruction that I’ve held, and strived to successfully implement, over the past 22 years. In Teaching L2 Composition: Purpose, Process, and Practice, Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock (2014) state that “both students and teachers feel that teacher feedback on writing is a critical, nonnegotiable aspect of writing instruction” (237). It is my responsibility to conference with students and provide them feedback at all points in the reading, writing, and learning processes in an effort to create a safe space for my students to take risks and grow as readers, writers, thinkers, and individuals.

When providing feedback, I like to take an approach that puts the student in the “driver’s seat.” I want to encourage my students to take ownership for their learning and guide the feedback and conferences. For example, I usually initiate the feedback cycle by having students talk about (or write about) where they are in the writing process, how they feel about their writing so far, and what they believe would best help them at this point in their writing process. I sometimes provide sentence stems and/or guiding questions to support students in articulating the types of feedback they believe will be most effective in helping them develop as writers:

  • So far I’m most proud of ______________ (these sentences, this paragraph, topic, evidence, etc.) because _____________.
  • One place I’d like help with is _________________ because ________________.
  • My next steps as a writer are ___________ and _____________ because ______________.

In addition to providing feedback as a teacher, I’ve long supported the role of peer response throughout the writing process. When reflecting on my practice over the past two decades, there are situations where the peer-response lessons/activities I’ve facilitated haven’t been the most beneficial or productive, but overall my students find value in taking time for peer response, and therefore, I make it a priority in our learning environment. Ferris and Hedgcock note that “even if students do not initially provide effective feedback to peers, they still benefit from reading one another’s papers and from the relationships and classroom community that grow through peer-review activities” (256). I find that, over time, students become more comfortable with providing and receiving feedback and therefore become more invested in peer response.

One way I like to prepare students for peer review is to think aloud and model the process with “a writing sample (ideally by a student unknown to the class)” with the same peer-review protocol the students will use to provide one another feedback (Ferris and Hedgcock 257). My students also find it valuable and enjoyable to practice providing feedback on my writing.

I continue to learn about the best ways to provide my students feedback about their writing in an effort to help them grow as writers. In my experience, giving feedback isn’t a “one-size fits all approach,” and I must continually reflect on my process and be responsive to the individual needs of my students. Above all, I hope that the feedback I provide will help my students become more independent and learn to advocate for themselves as they transition from high school to college.

Ferris, Dana R. and John S. Hedgcock. Teaching L2 Composition: Purpose, Process, and Practice., 3rd. Ed. Routledge, 2014.

Response From Kim Jaxon

Kim Jaxon, the director of the Northern California Writing Project, is an associate professor of English (Composition & Literacy) at California State University, Chico, where she studies literacies, particularly digital literacies, classroom design, and teacher education. Her most recent co-authored work, Composing Science: A Facilitator’s Guide to Writing in the Science Classroom (TC Press, Oct 2016), provides approaches for engaging students in writing about scientific ideas. She is also a featured contributor for the Digital Media & Learning Hub and was awarded the Teacher of Excellence-College Award by the California Association of Teachers of English in 2014. Follow her on twitter: @drjaxon Or via her website: http://www.kimjaxon.com/me:

The feedback we give to student writing should mirror approaches to giving and receiving feedback on writing outside of school contexts. I receive feedback in a variety of ways: in conversation in a hallway, in an email, in a handwritten note, on a Skype or Zoom call, in Google Docs, in a G+ community, and sometimes even in response to a tweet. I take a similar approach to student feedback, offering a range of formal and informal ways to talk about drafts and revisions. One central tenet I maintain across a range of approaches to feedback: The writer controls the drafting and revision process. I want students to know their ideas matter; students are the authors of their writing.

Almost all feedback I give starts with the writer’s intentions and goals for her draft. For this reason, I typically ask students to write a brief memo or author’s statement explaining where the draft is in the process, highlighting concerns they have about the draft, and sharing with the responder any ideas the writer may already have about revision. Students write these memos in a comment on a Google Doc, at the top of a draft, as a separate note, and sometimes in an email; where this memo lives depends on the kind of thing we are writing and the platform we are using. It would be highly unlikely that I would ask students to print a hard copy of a draft; a printer is much harder to come by than access to digital platforms such as Google Docs. I only receive a hard copy if that is the preference of the writer.

I always start feedback by reading these memos; I work to honor what the writer asked for in terms of feedback. I also know from my own drafting process that I can only work with a few revision ideas at a time, so I don’t worry about giving feedback on every aspect of a draft. I minimally mark up drafts (Haswell), particularly first drafts, and leave comments in Google Docs in the margins. Again, I want to honor the writer’s choices in the early drafting phase and I appreciate a messy, first draft. I invite students to write their own comments on their drafts, pointing the reader to “messy” spots they already know they’ll rework. My students often say things like, “I know these two ideas/paragraphs do not go together yet; I’m still working on a transition,” or “I know this conclusion is just a placeholder for now. ... I have not figured out how to end.” When we are ready for more extensive editing, I typically focus on patterns (recurring issues such as verb tense) and suggest editing changes to only the first page or paragraphs of a draft. Students, over time, look for their own patterns, something all of us learn to do as writers.

One advantage I find to using a composing platform like Google Docs is that I can easily see the revision history on a draft. This allows me to notice changes between drafts and is especially useful for commenting on co-authored documents, as I can see who made contributions to the draft. Students add to their memos after each revision, letting me and their peer responders know what changes they made to drafts and why. Updating the memos also values the writer’s intentions with the draft since they are invited to say why they did not make some of the suggested changes (just like I might respond to an editor).

One final note about feedback: Not all the feedback I give is addressed to a particular draft. Sometimes a piece of writing (a proposal, a memo, a reflection, a data-collection plan, a response to reading) moves ideas forward ,and so I comment on those ideas, pointing to potential next steps that are not necessarily about a particular piece of writing. And sometimes, I don’t give written feedback at all, knowing that if I give feedback on everything we write, then we’re not doing enough writing.

Response From Ralph Fletcher

Ralph Fletcher is a friend of writing teachers everywhere. He speaks at education conferences in the United States and abroad, helping teachers find wiser ways of teaching writing. Ralph is the beloved author of many best-selling teacher professional books, including The Writing Teacher’s Companion: Embracing Choice, Voice, Purpose & Play; Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide; Craft Lessons; What a Writer Needs, 2nd edition; Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices; and Breathing In, Breathing Out. Students know Ralph as the award-winning author of more than 20 books for children and young adults, including Fig Pudding; Flying Solo; Twilight Comes Twice; A Writer’s Notebook; Marshfield Dreams: When I Was a Kid; Also Known As Rowan Pohi; and Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know:

Much has been written about the writing conference. Here are a few principles that guide me when I’m responding to young writers.

    • I show the student that I’m interested. If you want to affect somebody, let them affect you first. When I sit down with a student, I want him or her to know I’m genuinely interested.

    • I put the student at the center of the writing conference—not the standard, anchor text, rubric, revision checklist, mini-lesson, craft lesson, or strategy of the day. The student must be central.

    • I spend the first part of the conference trying to understand the student, building my knowledge. I usually read the writing, but I also pay attention to body language, posture, energy, and tone of voice. Is the student engaged? If not, why not?

    • I try to get the student talking. I often begin: “How’s it going? How can I help you?” I try not to talk too much. It’s a bad sign if I’m out-talking the student.

    • I try to be a reader before a teacher. Writing is communication. I want the student to know that her words are reaching me. One of the ways to do that is to react as a human being. If the writing is funny, I laugh. If the student includes a fascinating fact, I might tell him: “Wow, I never knew that!”

    • I build on strengths. It’s not always easy, but I try hard to be positive. Praise seems to have gone out of style these days.That’s unfortunate. I want to find something the student has done well—a lively beginning, strong verb choice. With writers who haven’t developed a lot of skill, I may need to think small—find a strong verb or interesting word. My praise should be clear and unambiguous: “Great job. I love the verb you chose!”

    • I don’t want to overwhelm the student with a long list of suggestions. If it feels appropriate, I make one suggestion. Possibly (rarely) I’ll make two. Then I make my exit, maybe adding: “I’ll be interested in what you do with this.”

    • Squeeze it once and let it go.

      Experience has taught me that a student’s interest in a piece of writing has a shelf life with an expiration date—at some point they are sick of it! So I don’t try to get too much mileage out of every piece of writing. I teach the student one thing, have them play with it in their writing, and then let them go on to the next piece.

    • I’m wary of passive students. Many kids are perfectly willing to sit back and let me do all the work in a conference—read the piece, diagnose a problem, and suggest revisions. I do whatever I can to get the student involved. This starts with having the student self-assess. I often ask: “Where does the writing work? Where does the writing need work?” I have found that I may have to model this first in a mini-lesson using a piece of my own writing.

Here’s one thing I never forget: Writers break easily. I have to be gentle. I know the words I say in a conference will shape how they see themselves as writers. I believe that identity—yeah, I’m a writer—is one of the most important things we can foster in our students.

Response From Mary Beth Nicklaus

Mary Beth Nicklaus enjoys inspiring vulnerable teenagers to become enthusiastic lifelong readers, writers, and learners. She is currently a secondary-level school teacher and literacy specialist with the Wisconsin Rapids public schools in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.:

In my work as an ELA/reading teacher and literacy specialist grades 7-12, I use Google Docs and Google Drive when assigning writing projects and when giving feedback on student assignments.

I like this method because you can individualize it based upon your teaching style and each student’s personality and needs. I’ve used the comments to write feedback to be attended to after they’ve read it and I’ve also used comments in “real time” to interface with students during conferencing sessions. Sometimes I even mix the two in that I write comments and we get together later to address each comment and resolve it.

Using this in real time with students means using my computer to check in while students are in the midst of writing or after they have finished. I wait until they give me the go-ahead either way. If we are in a computer lab, I have them share their documents with me as I speak across the room with them. A more personal approach is for both of us to use a laptop and sit in close proximity while we go over the student’s writing.

Giving students feedback in real time on the drive provides depth and student engagement in the following ways:

  1. We are combining feedback based on the students’ needs. I highlight and ask questions, and they respond. I’ve used this to address a variety of needs.


  • Lack of capitalization (rampant in this age of texting)
  • ELL verb/subject work
  • Sentence syntax/structure
  • Sentence fragments /run-ons
  • Paragraph formation
  • Signal and transition words
  • Essay structure

I will also highlight in front of them and ask them to tell me why I highlighted. I’ve found this packs more staying power than having them do practice worksheets on which I’m trying to teach them mechanics.

  1. We collaborate and throw around ideas to make writing not only “correct” but more powerful.

    Students enjoy the feeling of being in league with the teacher. I may say, “I found this part a little awkward.” They will usually agree with me. Then we partner up and give each other ideas on how to fix wording. Some students even seem to get an adrenaline rush from creating particularly good lines of writing.

  2. I give them the option of doing our work together on the smartboard.

    A number of them will take me up on it. When a student uses the option of working with me on the smartboard, it then becomes an open discussion, and the rest of the class joins the conversation. Other students excitedly give their comments and ideas. We may also hear, “Hey, I like that. I’m going to do that in my paper.”

  3. Students take the hint and begin Google Drive interfacing to help each other. Students usually take it upon themselves to mimic the work I’ve done with them in order to help a friend. I’ve watched the “helper’s” writing grow along with his or her friends. I’ve also seen confidence level and communication thrive in both students.

Writing revision used to be the most painful part of teaching writing. But now ,students have become so empowered through this method of working with teacher feedback that many of them ask if they can use the smartboard to present their writing to the class when they are done. Using Google Drive to interface writing feedback in real time has added vibrancy and another dimension to the whole experience of teaching writing for both the students and me.

Response From Leah Wilson

Leah Wilson, a national-board-certified teacher, has taught English, English as a second language, philosophy, and theory of knowledge to students from grades 6-12 in England, the Bahamas, and several schools in the United States. She has served on the standard-setting panel and as a content-validation reviewer for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the International Baccalaureate Organization’s (IBO) Theory of Knowledge Curriculum Review Panel, and as an IBO examiner in Theory of Knowledge and English Literature. She’s also a proud union member formerly elected to represent Montgomery County public high school teachers as the chairwoman of the Montgomery County Education Association High School Council on Teaching and Learning and currently serves as the English department chairwoman at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.

I spent my first few years of teaching painstakingly writing voluminous comments on my students’ final drafts. Kids—and their parents—often complimented me on my hard work, telling me they had never received so much feedback on their writing. Nobody could deny I was giving it my all, but I was exhausted. And tired of writing the same thing on paper after paper. A significant number of students probably weren’t looking beyond the letter grade at the top of the page, and, though the quantity and (arguably) the quality, of the comments may have been high, did that feedback motivate students to revise their work? I don’t know! Without explicit, timely reflection on and analysis of the work the students did in response to my feedback, there’s no evidence to show whether my effort was worth it. When we work this way, teachers take on too much of the cognitive load, possibly for very little result and, perhaps, with a negative result, if students tie feedback inextricably together with grades.

Good feedback stimulates thought about writing and inspires improvements, whereas a final grade often has a stultifying effect; even if the grade is high, a letter or number grade evaluates the product but does not teach. The best way to give students feedback on their writing is to give it quickly, frequently, and formatively—on process pieces and early drafts.

My favorite way to give feedback now is electronically, throughout the writing process, because what I really want is for the students to learn to produce the best final draft they can, not to fumble along through the process on their own only to be punished or rewarded at the end for what they’ve completed. For me, the simplest way is to have students writing on a shared Google Doc. This way, I can make comments on a phrase, a paragraph, or a full draft, and require students to respond to my comment right there in the document, which encourages not only a dialogic relationship about the work, but a reflective attitude in the student, as well as helping students see themselves as writers with something to say and see teachers as a supportive audience eager to read their ideas.

Another great way to save teacher time and frame the writing and revision process as a conversation between writers and their audience is to record voice comments that students can listen to as they work. You can use Kaizena add-on for Google Apps, and many other platforms (Turnitin.com, Goobric, etc.) have a feature like this as well. Students will love hearing your voice, and recorded comments can be more efficient than one-on-one writing conferences with students during class (although “live” writing conferences are terrific, also, and I circulate around the room to talk about what students are writing as they write). By the time my students have completed a writing assignment and submitted a final draft, they will have had plenty of feedback and produced the best work they can. And, having seen their papers multiple times before the final draft due date, there are fewer surprises—for me and for the students—about the final score they earn. At that point, it is enough to highlight a rubric to show the score. Grading final drafts is not the same as giving feedback on student writing—whereas “grading” is likely summative, one-sided, solitary, and, often, thankless, providing feedback should be formative, collaborative, and inspiring. Good feedback is a two-way conversation between a writer and reader.

Thanks to Anabel, Sarah, Kim, Ralph, Mary Beth, and Leah 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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