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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Sometimes the Best Student Writing Feedback Is Encouragement to Keep Going’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 02, 2018 22 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

Today, it’s time for Regie Routman, Paul Solarz, David Hochheiser, Kathy T. Glass, Catherine Beck, and Keith McCarroll to offer their wisdom.

Response From Regie Routman

Regie Routman works in diverse, underperforming schools and districts as a literacy leader, mentor teacher, and coach. Her latest book is Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners (2018, Stenhouse). For full information on Regie’s publications, professional-development offerings, and blogs, see www.regieroutman.org as well as @regieroutman on Twitter and Facebook:

First of all, the “best” way to give students writing feedback depends on the student—what that student’s intentions are, how motivated the student is, what that student wants in the way of feedback, and what that student most needs at this moment to move the writing forward. Sometimes the best feedback might just be affirmation of efforts or encouragement to keep going. Our feedback mindset needs to be one of “seeing potential,” which keeps our minds and hearts open and notices strengths before shortfalls rather than “needing improvement,” which often compels some prescribed revision.

Ensure that whatever feedback we give—oral or written—the result is that the writer is left with the will and the energy to go on writing. Writers of all ages and backgrounds are fragile. Unlike reading, where the printed page provides some support, the writer usually faces a blank page or screen, which can be daunting. Two crucial beliefs and principles guide all my feedback language and actions: 1. Ensure writers write for readers and 2. Put the writer before the writing.

  1. Ensure writers write for readers.

Having students write for real-world audiences and purposes—with some choice built into the topic, format, and manner of publication—is a game changer. Once student writing is centered on connecting to authentic readers—beyond test prep, formula writing, the teacher, and the bulletin board—to, for example, connecting curriculum to research and advocacy on issues students care about, students take feedback seriously. When I write books and blogs for educators, which are always on topics I deeply care about, I am not relying on a rubric with strict criteria for my content; I am thinking about my readers—how to engage them, sustain their attention, persuade them, and clearly communicate my message. I do rely on feedback from others and self-feedback for improving my writing and, importantly, the “best” feedback prioritizes content before editing. I learned that lesson early.

Many years ago, when I gave trusted colleagues a chapter draft from a book I was writing and asked for specific feedback on the content, those that had been red-penciled throughout their schooling automatically corrected every grammar, spelling, and punctuation error. I not only found those marks distracting; I then felt compelled to shift my immediate focus to “correctness,” which drained my energy and took away my concentration on meaningful content. Of course, once the content is in good form, we turn our attention to editing. I let students know: “Editing is about showing respect for the reader by ensuring all elements are correct.” If students care about their readers, they take editing responsibility and our feedback on editing seriously.

  1. Put the writer before the writing.

Focusing on the writer before the writing is likely the most significant factor shaping effective feedback. That is, in order to give feedback that is beneficial to the writer—whether orally in a one-on-one conference, public conference, or in writing—we have to “see” our students, know who they are, and treat them kindly. Giving and receiving effective feedback also depends on a trusting, collaborative classroom culture where students feel known, valued, and safe enough to take learning risks. It also depends on teachers aiming to make students self-determining writers who eventually self-direct their own writing and move beyond dependence on teacher expectations and feedback.

Use the content and reflective questions that follow to make it more likely that our feedback to students-as-writers is kind, actionable, respectful, useful, and doable.


What is the student’s body language conveying—openness and excitement or fear and anxiety? How am I contributing to the student’s stance on receiving feedback? Have I created a safe space for this writer to allow vulnerability?

Find out:

Who is this student as a person, thinker, and as a writer? What are his/her strengths, interests, passion?


What are this student’s intentions as a writer? How can I support his/her efforts? What’s the most important thing I can do/say right now to move him forward as a writer? What kind of feedback might I like to receive if I was the writer?


Is our first feedback statement at least one positive remark connected to what the student has done well or attempted to do? Even when we make suggestions, is our feedback language favoring, “You might think about, consider, try ...” over, “You should, you need to, you must. ...”


Are we giving students choices—within a reasonable structure—whenever possible, in format, topic, organization, and so on? Are we providing sustained time daily to write? Are we recognizing students’ efforts in our feedback language and actions? Is the majority of our feedback dedicated to meaningful communication to a reader?

Feedback is all about the language we use and the messages we convey. The “best” feedback can hold the promise of increasing students’ engagement, resilience, hope, sense of agency, and even their self-esteem. Ill-chosen feedback has the capacity to turn a student off to writing, perhaps for the whole school year or longer. So it’s crucial we see and use feedback judiciously, cautiously, and gently. We want students to feel, “I may not be able to do this yet, but with interesting and relevant topics and readers I care about—and by applying my full efforts and receiving appropriate support—I can become a writer.”

Response From Paul Solarz

Paul Solarz has been teaching 5th grade at Westgate Elementary School in Arlington Heights, Ill., since 1999. His book, Learn Like a PIRATE: Empower Your Students to Collaborate, Lead, and Succeed, provides ways to make your classroom more student-centered, while ensuring students become self-sufficient leaders:

Every 5th grade student of mine meets with me every third writing period for a few minutes to go over their current writing piece. I spend a few minutes reading their Google Doc while they’re working. Then, I interrupt them to go over some suggestions. Some of these suggestions will be given verbally, and I will ask my student to make the changes as I watch. Other suggestions will be done by me in the Google Doc while they watch on their computer. Some of the suggestions will be entered as “Comments” that students will “Resolve” when they’re finished making the suggested changes. Either way, students get immediate feedback on their writing and personalized attention to their needs.

When I miss a student or two because the period flew by too quickly, I keep their Google Doc open in my browser, and it becomes homework for me. Although it’s not my favorite way to give feedback, sometimes it’s my only option! This is when I will insert comments, make small changes myself, and put them in “red” so students see them next time, and I’ve even toyed with using the Kaizena app for voice and video comments that can be saved and used for multiple students! Check it out!

One final way I ensure that my students receive feedback is by enlisting their peers! Before each new writing piece, I assign each of my students a writing partner. Each partner shares their Google Doc with me and their partner and is required to give “Quality Boosters” at least once per week. Quality Boosters are small bits of constructive feedback that students give each other in order to help everyone continue to “boost the quality” of their work! After all, our goal in our classroom is to always try to be better today than we were yesterday, and we know that takes lots of effort and feedback to make it happen!

In order to give their writing partner a Quality Booster, the student will spend a few minutes reading through their partner’s newest story, taking time to find “Glows” and “Grows.” Our favorite format for Quality Boosters is to sandwich a Grow between two Glows because it makes the person that we’re giving constructive feedback to feel like they have quality writing skills! We do all of this out loud and in-person rather than through Commenting to avoid misunderstandings and to ensure that suggestions are put into practice.

The main purpose of all of this is ensuring that each student gets quality feedback in a reasonable amount of time so they can improve their writing.

Response From David Hochheiser

For the past 18 years, David Hochheiser has served the communities of rural, suburban, and urban schools districts in Maine, New York, and Massachusetts as an English teacher, content coordinator, adjunct professor, assistant principal, and school committee member. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidHochheiser:

Writing is a process, always. In fact, in writing this piece, I’ve now scrapped the first three versions because they either strayed off topic or weren’t coming across as anything with which anyone would want to engage. It’s just too easy to write too much about teaching writing, so I will just say this about helping students improve: Students need the opportunity to write a lot, in a lot of different contexts, for a variety of audiences, and they need to get useful feedback along the way in a timely manner.

Neither practice nor feedback alone will do nearly as much good for students’ skills as they do together. So, without getting too preachy, I implore all schools to get students writing as much as is reasonable (I don’t buy into using PE time, for example, to write about athleticism or nutrition) and to get all teachers to leave some level of formative/actionable and realistic feedback on the writing. No one assignment is going to perfect a student’s writing, but every note can become part of the process. While it’s hopefully obvious that there is a ton of instruction that leads up to and follows up on writing pieces, this is only going to focus on what’s needed for great feedback.

Students need to know what the acceptable standards for writing anything in particular are. We need to expose students to exemplary pieces of genres we’re teaching and share other pieces that are great examples of various editing needs. Understanding the language that a teacher will ultimately use when giving feedback is critical to students being able to use the language, so classes should use these exemplars to create “product descriptors,” items that help students understand: “We are writing _______, which contains these components ___________ that are best described as ___________.” They can use these to practice giving feedback to themselves and peers. It, in fact, makes for a great class opener to have a piece of writing under a document camera with students writing feedback based on descriptors the class has come up with. Doing so will simultaneously expose them to extensive amounts of writing and help them master editing language, which may require some sentence starters, so be prepared.

All of the feedback given to students on their writing needs to be timely enough so that it feels like a conversation. If we take a week to give back papers, the students will likely have moved on from the essay, and they will have a sense of: “This thing ... still???” when they see it, so get things back to them quickly. Second, I want to take the expressions “Good job,” “I like this,” “This could be better,” “Fix this,” and anything else like those out of all teachers’ vocabularies because they’re worthless as feedback. If we want students to do something about their writing, the feedback we give has to be instructive. It has to prompt them to do something specific; whether it’s about changing wording, reorganizing thoughts, adding textual evidence, increasing sentence structure variety, staying on topic, or using paragraphs more appropriately, all of these will point your students to something real on which they can work.

Finally, I always suggest stealing a page from John Collins and his idea around Focus Correction Areas and keeping feedback realistic by not expecting students to fix everything in a paper. Give them discrete tasks and allow them multiple small victories on their way to publish-ready pieces. It’s OK if you give them one task for the content and one for the grammar, but I’d advise against much more than that. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have high expectations for student writing; it’s just that we have to be patient about getting there.

As I said earlier, it’s ultimately important for students to have a lot of opportunities to write for a wide variety of people on a variety of topics. If we get multiple teachers in a grade level on board, students can work on their writing in all classes. Historians, scientists, sociologists, authors, and engineers all write at work as I’m sure many, many more professions do. We need to get on board with helping kids understand this reality, set up goals for themselves, and improve their writing, piece by piece, throughout the school day.

Response From Kathy T. Glass

Kathy Glass, a former teacher, is a national presenter and hands-on trainer for K-12 audiences in areas affecting curriculum and instruction. She is the author of many books including her most recent one written with Robert Marzano, The New Art and Science of Teaching Writing (Solution Tree, ASCD, 2018). Website: www.kathyglassconsulting.com; email: kathy@kathyglassconsulting.com; twitter: @glasskathyt:

Feedback is a critical aspect of teaching writing in all stages of the writing process, but particularly during the revision stage. Not only do teachers provide input, but they also orchestrate situations in which others do so, as well, such as classmates, peers within the school, writers in a digital community, parents, or guardians. When students receive comments and suggestions on what to do to improve their writing—and when they are also taught how to incorporate salient points—it supports them in producing their best work possible. Incorporate the following aspects of feedback to deliver a strong instructional writing program.

Clear Criteria

It is essential that students are clearly aware of the writing task as well as the criteria against which their work will be assessed via a rubric and writing checklist. In fact, teachers should share these expectations early in a unit so students are keenly aware of what they are working towards. For example, if students are asked to write an informational essay to demonstrate understanding of a significant historical event, they should know at the beginning of the unit what this paper will entail. Same principle applies to any task such as writing a story. If students read various short stories and are expected to write one, teachers introduce the summative assessment upfront so students have the task in mind as they read literature and participate in lessons around various skills.

To target effective feedback, teachers use the student checklist and rubric as instructional tools so students know what areas of their writing need attention. In this way, feedback is criteria-based. They must be familiar with what they aim to achieve, so that they use the feedback to guide and direct them in moving forward. For instance, criteria items on an analytic rubric for an informational paper’s introduction include beginning with context, a hook to engage readers, and a thesis statement. Therefore, comments for feedback revolve around these aspects of the paper.

Model How to Give Feedback

Peers must be taught how to give feedback so it is effective. If they give weak or misguided comments to their classmates, it can derail a writing project and be an exercise in futility. Rather, teachers model how to give comments using anonymous student-writing samples or even appropriate published samples and think out loud to make their thought process transparent. For example, a teacher might say, “An item on the writing rubric states that this story needs to include imagery for characters and setting. When I read, I’m going to be mindful where sensory details are present. I’m also going to look for areas where they are absent, and using them would enhance the story.” The teacher then reads the story aloud and stops in places where there is strong imagery and models the types of comments that can be made in the margin or on a separate sheet. During the think aloud, the teacher also makes clear where imagery appears to be missing and suggestions for how to add it. (See this link “Resources for Student and Published Writing Samples” from The New Art and Science of Teaching Writing, Glass, Marzano, 2018).

Venue for Giving and Receiving Feedback

Students can receive feedback in face-to-face meetings with teachers and classmates. Additionally, they can take advantage of electronic and digital options, such as using an audio-capability tool, participating in an online writing community with members of a public or controlled private group, or communicating via Skype or Google Hangouts.

When teachers give comments, they conduct short conferences and circulate around the room to connect with each student. One class period is typically not enough time, so it can be extended over a few days. Teachers can also collect students’ papers and take more time outside of the class period to give more thorough comments that guide revision.

When conferencing, teachers ask students to indicate on a rubric or checklist areas in their papers that they need the most help to focus their attention. In doing so, it targets the discussion. Students can also self-assess and give and receive peer input through a revision sheet like the one in this link for an Argumentation Revision Sheet. After students receive feedback, they work on their papers, and teachers can cycle back to check on their progress. Teachers should also be mindful to take note of students who are confused about specific feedback and reteach skills, as needed, to support students in making necessary revisions.

Constructive and Timely Feedback

Constructive and timely feedback can meaningfully impact and improve students’ work as they collect input, review it, and make discriminating revisions based on these comments. Using the language of the writing checklist or rubric, teachers and classmates can give concrete comments like ,"When I read this paper, it seemed choppy because it lacked transitions. I suggest reviewing the paper and adding words and phrases that link ideas so that it flows.”

Even in papers that seem in need of a great deal of work, there is typically something to point to that is positive. Therefore, begin giving input with a strength in students’ writing, such as, “It is clear you can develop a character well since I can pinpoint areas in your story that provide evidence for your protagonist’s sense of compassion.”

After citing a strength, reviewers mention what needs attention since students must clearly understand where they need to improve and ways to get there. This is done in a respectful manner so as not to denigrate students’ work. For example, a reviewer can state: “I suggest using the same concrete details you used for your protagonist to develop your antagonist so the reader gets a sense of the conflict between the two.” Or, “You clearly have events that you include in your story to describe the action. It’s difficult to follow them in a logical order, so I suggest using transitions and writing what happens in an order that makes more sense.”

When offering feedback, it must be given in a timely fashion throughout the writing process so students can receive and implement it immediately. If teachers give input too late or facilitate a peer-reviewing session long after students have written their drafts or after they turn in their final piece, it lacks applicability.

Students as Decisionmakers

Students need to know that they ultimately determine whether to include specific feedback peers or others share. It is their paper, and although others give input, student writers might feel they do not want to incorporate all that they collect. The caveat, though, is that the rubric provides the criteria, so direct students to this instrument as well as a student checklist so they can ascertain the efficacy of the comments and make choices about how to revise based on clear expectations.

Feedback is multifaceted and executed in a variety of ways by different reviewers—the writer (self-assessment), classmates, peers outside the classroom, parents, and others—either within the classroom, outside of it, or in electronic communities. With timely, explicit feedback based on the criteria aligned to a writing task, students have the tools to improve their work throughout the writing process.

Response From Catherine Beck & Keith McCarroll

Catherine Beck is the director of schools for Cheatham County, Tenn. She is the author of Easy and Effective Professional Development, and Leading Learning for ELL Students.

Keith McCarroll is the supervisor of literacy for Cheatham County, Tenn.:

Writing Is a Process

Feedback, just like writing, is an ongoing process. Our feedback shouldn’t ever be on just the final draft of a paper. Students must see that one of the most important things to understand about writing is that it is truly a process. Our feedback needs to be on rough, after rough, draft. Students should understand that when they read our feedback, it is not justification for the grade that was given, but to improve their next draft of the piece. Stephen King, in his book On Writing says, “By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” The feedback we give should not discourage but encourage our students to take a piece that may not necessarily be ready for publication YET and make it better. So, how do we do it?

Students Must Know the Expectations

The first step is to let our students in on the secret. If our students have not been supplied with a rubric before their writing assignment, they are already being handicapped. Not only should we let our students in on what we are going to be focused upon when giving feedback, but the rubric also should be developed with our writers in mind. In other words, the rubric needs to be written WITH the students in THEIR words. It’s been my experience that when students are simply handed a rubric they will 1) Put it in their folder and never look at again, or 2) Read it and put it in their folder and never look at it again, if they understand it or not. Either way, chances are that the feedback that we supply that is based on the rubric will make little to no sense. Feedback that makes no sense will not be read and certainly will not be considered when revision begins.


There are students in every classroom that need a lot of work when it comes to writing, but if we try to solve all of their issues at once, both we and the student become overwhelmed in grading, as well as, revising a piece. When thinking about providing feedback, I always think about the Acronym KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Instead of trying to provide feedback on all things in a piece, choose a part of the rubric that you would like your class, or perhaps each student, to focus upon. The pact made between you and the class will then be, “The feedback that I provide will ONLY be focused on the chosen piece of the rubric.” This will help to focus your feedback into smaller, doable parts, as well as, help to make providing feedback easier and less time consuming because your focus will be on only part of the rubric.


Finally, it is imperative to have exemplars for students to see when you are teaching writing. When you can conference with a student and can discuss a particular aspect of writing you are focusing on, it can be helpful to have the exemplar to show when giving feedback. A strong feedback conference might look like this:

“As we are focusing on writing strong hooks to begin our writing, I would like for you to add more descriptive words to your first paragraph. Let’s look at how Author A begins his first paragraph in this particular story. ...”

Giving feedback can take time as you conference with each student individually, but it is imperative to do ,and the payoff will be grand.

Thanks to Regie, Paul, David, Kathy, Catherine, and Keith 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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