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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

Ways to Help Ignite Students’ Intrinsic Desire for Writing Revision

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 05, 2021 16 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

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

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

In Part Three, Alexis Wiggins, Keisha Rembert, Alicia Kempin, Sara Holbrook, and Michael Salinger contributed their ideas.

Today, Tara Bogozan, Michelle Shory, Irina McGrath, Mary K. Tedrow, and Donna L. Shrum provide their suggestions.

“Turn reluctant student writers into enthusiastic editors”

Tara Bogozan is an English teacher and AVID Elective educator. She has taught both middle and high school in the Atlanta metro area for over 17 years. You can follow her @mrs_tbogo on Twitter:

Students who reluctantly revise often want to finish an assignment, receive a grade, and move on to the next task. When required, these reluctant writers might even go through the motions of revising a draft or peer-reviewing activities. How can teachers shift students from this grade-getting mindset to an intrinsic desire to want to revise their writing? Consider these strategies when attempting to turn reluctant student writers into enthusiastic editors.

Revising with Chunking and Timed Writing

Sometimes students are not actually reluctant writers but are overwhelmed writers. These students stare at their empty pages or constantly ask the teacher to read each sentence before they move on to the next. They fear mistakes and might not even turn in the completed assignment. One way to relieve anxiety and encourage revision is to chunk the task into smaller pieces and allot a certain amount of class time for each chunk. Chunking and timed-writing allows teachers time to give targeted feedback to more students. For example, at the beginning of a lengthy essay assignment, ask students to write their working thesis statements in four minutes. The students must write and revise their statements for the entire four minutes. As the students write and rewrite, the teacher rotates around the classroom and informally evaluates each student’s understanding of the task.

Chunking and timed writing is also helpful for the reteaching of specific skills, which provides students with a purpose for revising. For example, if I notice that the majority of the class is struggling with correctly using lead-ins for quotations, I can set a timer, have the students only edit and revise the lead-ins in their essays, and ask them to highlight or underline the changes that they made.

Revising with an Audience in Mind

If students know that a genuine audience will read or listen to their completed work, they will have a greater intrinsic motivation for revision. To allow for flexibility, I tell students within the first week of school that they are expected to present at least one written piece before the end of the grading period. If a student does not feel confident in a particular piece of writing or the topic makes them feel too vulnerable to share, their grades will not suffer. When a student presents his or her writing, the rest of the class is expected to write feedback on specific portions of the piece. I ask students to respond to only five of their peers, so that students give practical feedback, instead of rushed feedback to all of their classmates. As the semester progresses, other teachers, counselors, media specialists, or even other classes can also serve as a genuine audience for students’ arguments, speeches, and creative writing.

Revising during Digital Learning

The 2020-21 school year will undoubtedly present unique challenges, but teachers can utilize digital tools to encourage students to revise their work. Edji is one free digital tool for collaboration as well as revision. The Edji website allows teachers and students to upload a piece of writing to share and revise in real time. Teachers can share a piece of writing with the whole class or create small groups, and the “heat vision” function allows users to respond with questions, comments, or emojis.

Flipgrid, another free digital tool, provides students with a safe way to publish and share their writing. Students can share part or all of a writing assignment, and peers can provide feedback to their classmates with their own Flipgrid videos. Students can use the website or app to upload videos to share with the class using the teacher-provided code.

Both Edji and Flipgrid tools can be used during any part of the revision process, and they can be less intimidating for some students since it they are used asynchronously. Regardless of the strategy or learning format, establishing a clear purpose for revision and a genuine audience can encourage students to want to revise their writing.


Student motivation

Michelle Shory and Irina McGrath are Google Certified trainers and co-creators of ELL 2.0, a website that offers tools and resources for teachers of English-learners.

Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., works for the Kentucky department of education as an education recovery specialist. She is also a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and the University of Louisville and Indiana University Southeast adjunct who teaches ESL/ENL instruction as well as assessment, literature, and cultural and linguistic diversity courses.

Michelle Shory, Ed.S., is a district ESL instructional coach in the Jefferson County public schools, Louisville, Ky. She is passionate about literacy and helped establish Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Louisville:

Motivation is key to the successful completion of any task, including revisions. Researchers have identified several points that contribute to student motivation, including self-confidence in one’s ability as a student, as well as one’s intrinsic value for great work.

As for English-learners and the revision process, it is important to enhance their motivation and excite them to grow and improve. One way to accomplish this is by introducing ELs to editing stations led by “student experts.” When teachers create a supportive community of writers and draw upon students’ expertise, ELLs are more willing to revise their own work and offer feedback on their peers’ writing.

Another way to get students to want to revise their writing is by making the revision process stimulating. Color-coding is a great strategy that helps students visualize their writing and allows kids to have fun using brightly colored highlighters. Various colors should represent different literary items: For example, yellow is for plot, green is for details and descriptions, and orange is for dialogue and characters’ thoughts. Next, the teacher should share two writing samples—one that “does not meet” and another one that “meets” expectations—and work collaboratively with the students to color-code them and discuss which colors are in the good writing piece and which may be missing from the piece that does not meet expectations. Once familiar with how the strategy works and through enough practice, the students can apply the color-coding scheme to their own writing and revise their work accordingly.

A third method to instill motivation for revision is using reading to provide students with a new task that can promote new ideas in their own writing. The choice of reading can be anything—a short story, novel, etc. Switching back and forth between reading a story, analyzing the author’s craft, and then returning to their own writing can give students a fresh look at what is missing from their work.

Finally, a useful resource for teaching revisions in an innovative manner is Barry Lane’s book, Reviser’s Toolbox. The book provides a plethora of strategies and activities that make revisions fun and effective. Barry describes writing as “a horse race of information, the most important bits taking the lead, the least important falling to the rear and sometimes not even making it to the race.” Therefore, one of his strategies is “The Horserace of Meaning,” which helps students determine and prioritize meaningful bits of information in their writing.

Another successful strategy from the book is “Explode the Moment.” This strategy goes well with “The Horserace of Meaning” because it allows beginning writers to “get stuck” in the moment of an important event and use “their binoculars to zoom in with sights, sounds, smells, tastes.” Kids often enjoy this activity simply because it lets them take an event and bring it to life for readers.

Each of the methods presented here is a great starting point for teachers to excite their students for the revision process. Students may lack their own motivation to accomplish this task and may need help finding the fun in having a great finished product; if teachers can implement these strategies to make the assignment more enticing, they will ultimately assist the students in feeling more proud of their work.


Editing vs. revision

Mary K. Tedrow, an award-winning high school English teacher, now serves as the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and teaches at Shenandoah and Johns Hopkins Universities. Her book, Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across the Content Area, is available through Routledge:

The first step in motivating students to revise lies in creating immersive assignments where students assist in the design. This means building in a wide latitude of choice in topic, form, and audience. Making choices, like the ones needed for revision, is the intellectual work of writers, and any writing assignment should include space for student choice. A quick and easy way to build in choice is to ask students help develop a RAFT, Role Audience Form Topic sheet with potential writing ideas that align with instructional goals.

Before discussing motivation around revision, it is important to know what we are asking students to do when we ask them to revise. Often, we confuse editing with revision.

Editing involves close reads and markups that bring surface features into rhetorical alignment with an overall message. This means looking for lapses in punctuation, spelling, capitalization, or other conventions which detract from meaning. Though important for a well-crafted final product, attention to editing should be the last step in the writing process, well after the student has thoroughly considered and constructed a message. Editing can also be collaborative, with students reading and editing for each other. Or instructors can interrupt the last phase of writing with targeted lessons on conventions, allowing students time to revisit final drafts and self-correct.

Revision, however, means what its name implies: writers re-see their writing and may make broad structural changes, perhaps through reordering or eliminating passages, adding details, or entirely shifting the form.

Revision should be taught. The most gains occur when instruction is tied to a writing the student cares about. Because writing is a recursive, multifaceted, iterative process, it requires a great deal of energy on the part of the writer. Two factors will help motivate students to return to writing again and again: choice in topic and a valued audience—one which often recommends the form (editorial, personal letter, poem, etc.).

Another factor that encourages revision is time. This can be achieved by spacing out the time students have to create written products, interspersing lessons in revision as potential methods for restructuring. Providing time underscores the truth that writers rarely create a finished piece in a single draft and that rewrites are a norm. Additionally, most writers let writing rest in between drafts so they can return to the piece with new eyes. Often, merely some time away from a draft will make needed changes obvious.

In a revision lesson, teachers might choose to focus on good beginnings and ask students to experiment with two or three different openings for their self-selected piece. Student writers then decide which of the experiments might suit their purpose. A new beginning may lead to a natural reordering of the piece and therefore a full revision.

Later, a teacher might ask students to try the same topic in a different form—perhaps as a letter to a friend or as a poem or play. These alternate forms may produce new insights, new language, new details, or a more effective form, all of which might improve a draft.

Another encouragement for revision is to have students regularly share drafts with each other. Hearing possibilities inspires the adaptation of various techniques modeled by peers. During any writing process, teachers should also offer strong professional models where the class can discuss what they notice authors doing effectively. This prompts students to return to their writing with borrowed technique.

Formulaic writing or writing for one-and-done narrowly focused assignments does little to inspire the energy writers need for multiple iterations. Authentic assignments invest students in the writing process.

Consider capitalizing on writing situations that occur naturally in the classroom. Do you send a newsletter home? Let the students write it. Are students learning to read? Have them create their own books around topics of interest and place them in the classroom library. In the upper grades, pull in scholarship, contest, and college essays, or editorial writing for the local paper, cover letters, resumes—all intended for use in the real world. Rotate the job of class secretary and have individual students keep and report out on class minutes. Any time we offer a real audience for writing, the energy level will rise.

Revision lessons are offered as choices under consideration rather than as required additions. Ultimately, each student must decide if the experimental writings add to the effect they envision. Writing (or any compositional task) is about selecting and ordering elements so that drafts move closer to the writer’s goal. These steps—evaluating, selecting, and ordering—offer many opportunities to practice critical thinking.


“Revision occurs in tandem with the creation of their writing”

After teaching English for over 20 years, Donna L. Shrum is now teaching ancient history to freshmen in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She remains active in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and freelance writing for education and history magazines:

Wanting to revise begins when a piece of writing has personal value to the writer. If students want to create the writing in the first place, then you won’t be able to stop them from revising. We can require revision according to the definition we give students, but they will only desire to polish, improve, and bring sparkle to a piece if they are genuinely invested in creating something to which they will return with ownership.

Far too many schools resort to a “magic bullet” in order to raise standardized-writing scores: strictly structured formula writing neatly tied up in a straitjacket. That kind of “writing” requires all the effort a student can muster to produce, much less revise. It is aimed at meeting the checklist for the standardized test, not teaching students to express their thoughts and feelings. No one should be surprised when students don’t want to churn out this kind of writing, much less interact with it repeatedly to revise.

Early in the year, I introduce Betty Flowers’ different roles of the writer: madman, architect, carpenter, and judge. Students think a writer is someone who does it professionally, usually because they were born with a gift. Growing accustomed to thinking of themselves as writers and that writing isn’t a linear process invites them into the process rather than having it imposed upon them. They discover that revision occurs in tandem with the creation of their writing, not something that must occur after they have a complete rough draft in hand.

Once students care about a piece of writing, they will want to understand what revising is. Many confuse it with solely editing grammar and mechanics. Because reading and writing are intertwined, dissecting and discussing how to emulate mentor texts created by those who beautifully sculpt with words can inspire students to follow the blueprints of those authors.

Short exercises as a class and individually are safe experiences to allow students to dabble in writing and revising and to build their confidence. They are more apt to share their writing with the class when they grew it from a stem from an established author’s writing. One example is finding poetry whose structure loans itself to growing a new poem, such as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree": I will arise and go where and build what and what else will I have there? As they finished the first stanza, students debated word choices and made changes because they were engaged, not because they were told to revise.

Many books and articles offer ideas for revising. Reviser’s Toolbox by Barry Lane, Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher, A Writer Teaches Writing by Donald M. Murray, and Deep Revision by Meredith Sue Willis are classics that include revision as a recursive part of writing. I caution students who say that they never revise that they aren’t really writing if they aren’t revising. The real magic happens after they take the shapeless lump of clay they created in an initial draft and mold it into art.


Thanks to Tara, Michelle, Irina, Mary, and Donna 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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