Techniques for Responding to Student Writing

When commenting on students’ writing, you might be offering response in hand-written notes on a draft or using Word’s Insert Comments or Track Changes features or through some other means, either low-tech or high-tech. A helpful distinction is to think of two kinds of response: summary response, or commentary that sums up your feedback to a writer’s draft, and in-text comments, or the feedback that you place throughout the draft. Whichever type you are offering, the goal is to help students learn and revise.

What follows are several strategies for both summary response and in-text comments:

  • Summary Response—Make it personal: It might seem simple enough, but try to start your overall response by addressing the writer by name. This “personal” touch has meaning for the writer as it conveys sincerity and acknowledgment of the student as a writer. And who of us doesn’t pay more attention to what we read when it starts with addressing us by name?
  • Summary Response—Start with the positive: No matter how much of a mess a student’s paper might be, it is important to begin your response with anything he or she did well. If a goal is to have writers learn from your comments, an initial focus on what works allows for a smoother transition to what needs work. Leading with what writers did well, whether it be a strong sense of purpose, a vivid detail, or a focused controlling sentence, allows messages of concern to be more readily accepted and translated into improvement.
  • Summary & In-Text Response—Stop at Three: You don’t have to ask very many writers to find someone who’s had the experience of getting back a draft that was “bleeding” in red ink. Some instructor’s imperative to be comprehensive in their response often can end up overwhelming and intimidating writers. Three is a useful number to keep in mind: Focus on three areas of concern in the writer’s paper or three specific suggestions for revision. More than that won’t necessarily be productive.
  • Summary Response—Think Big to Little: When offering summary response, start with higher-order concerns first and then to move to later-order concerns or, in other words, talk about general issues first and then focus on specifics in the text. Keep in mind that you are responding to both sets of issues here, but that you want to foreground these “big” concerns of focus, detail, evidence, and structure, before you respond to how the sentences were put together.
  • In-Text Response—Respond as a Reader: It is easy to read anyone’s writing with a pen or cursor ready to correct those grammar errors, cut out those excess words, or offer alternative phrasings. This act of editing can be effective in small doses (for instance, one or two paragraphs) as a way of modeling one way to rewrite the sentences, and thus clarify local meaning or improve style, but in large doses it is largely ineffective if you want the student to learn to improve his or her own writing (and it largely leaves student writers dispirited and unmotivated). Instead, respond to the writer’s draft as a reader, and that means primarily asking questions or indicating something that works well or some things that need clarification: “I don’t know what you mean here.” “I expected you to tell me your focus at this point.” “Great detail!” “What do you mean by this?” “What happened next?” “I needed a transition between these two ideas.”

*Adapted from Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner. The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring, 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2003.