Commenting on Student Writing

Commenting on student writing is an art you will develop as a writing teacher.

Stuck or confused about commenting on students writing? Yep.

So, you have to grade papers—specifically, writing. Your students wrote a paper, and you want to give them feedback.

You then think, simultaneously and in a jumbled order: I don’t want to crush them, overwhelm them, or hurt their feelings. Do I mark every grammatical error? Did I adequately cover this? Am I helping with my feedback? Do I just keep commenting?!

Ten years into teaching, I have a groove when commenting on student writing. I don’t have a list for commenting on student writing, but I have more of a process. This is it.

Grading student writing - commenting on student writing?! Here is what to say and how to prepare students for receiving feedback.

Preemptive commenting

Writing is a process, and it is more than the series of prewriting, drafting, and such. It is that, but writing includes exploration, frustration, and exuberance. Prepare students for that. Conveying one’s ideas is difficult. Learning how to successfully do so is a tough process. As the teacher, reassure students that you are there to help them with their learning process, all of it.

I use station work to model, circulate, and help students with their editing and revising process. I don’t hand students a checklist, but instead I ask direct questions for students to locate in papers. Students must work together and since they are in stations, I can intervene and help when students are confused or off task. I provide feedback, other students do, and I encourage the writer to provide feedback for their own paper. The commenting on papers becomes part of the process.

During writing, they will practice and collaborate. The feedback your provide students is merely part of the process. You’re traveling a road with students, guiding them along the way. Set up students to find your comments more helpful and less final. Stress that your comments are part of the learning process.

The more I explain that any feedback is merely part of writing, students not only become more agreeable to what I say, but they also are more likely to read the feedback.

Submit one sentence…

After students have a draft, I ask them to provide me with a sentence that they dislike. I typically have them digitally send them to me, and I provide feedback. Then, I ask students to apply the feedback to similar sentences.

One sentence? Yes. Students are less overwhelmed than if I graded an entire rough draft. Plus, this gives them the work, not me.

Also! I have interacted with each student, identified student-specific problems, and found class-specific problems. This leads to differentiated feedback.

Another take on the “one sentence” is for students to provide the class with their one sentence. Then, we work on correcting it together.

The other way I have structured the “one sentence” is for students to write their trouble sentence on a sticky note or piece of paper. I then ask other students to contribute. This really helps the feedback become a classroom effort. You can arrange the sticky notes in different sections of the classroom and get students moving.

“You have an opportunity”

The best wording for commenting on student writing? Point out where they have an opportunity for improvement.

You have a real opportunity to add stronger verbs, to focus your topic, to strengthen your transitions.

I don’t circle or underline every mistake, but rather I narrow down what students have an opportunity to correct. Mark up the entire paper? Students shut down. That approach might be necessary with some papers (scholarship applications), but with papers where students are honing their writing skills, a complete mark-down probably will not garner the results you want.

You want students to know you read their writing and took it seriously. You want to improve their writing and set them up for future success. Set the tone for accepting feedback, provide feedback as students write, and focus on their opportunities for growth.

I’d love to read how other teachers structure their feedback on student writing. Are your approaches similar or completely different?

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