When I used to ask my students to revise or edit their writing (and I was mistaken back then to believe those were the same thing), the response was either a groan or a glazing over of the eyes. My students felt nervous about and resisted editing because they didn’t know how to make their work better. I had no tools to teach what I now understand to be the meatiest components of the writing process.
Through research and professional development, I came to understand that although different researchers have slight variations on the essential phases of writing, key elements were consistent in every literacy expert’s model. Jennifer Serravallo, for instance, describes the writing process in The Writing Strategies Book as follows: generating and collecting ideas, choosing an idea, rehearsing (talk or sketch), drafting, revising, editing, and finally publishing. Ruth Culham recommends similar steps in 6 + 1 Traits of Writing, describing the process as prewriting, drafting, sharing, revising, editing, and publishing.
After studying these models, I realized I wasn’t distinguishing between revising and editing. Editing is in fact all about improving how writing looks, whereas revising is all about improving how writing sounds. This means that when we edit, we look at spelling and punctuation. When we revise, we look at organization, sentence fluency, and word choice. It’s the revision element that students ultimately didn’t understand. I also wasn't giving my students enough opportunity to publish their work, which made the revision and editing process feel redundant and inauthentic. Here are three ways I transformed how I taught the revision process.
1. Focus on Writing Traits
Students don’t know where to start with revision, so it is imperative that educators break the revision phase into small achievable chunks. To do this, I use Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey’s gradual release of responsibility (GRR) instructional framework. This approach is never more useful than when teaching students to revise their writing.
First and foremost, to break the onerous task of revision into more manageable chunks, the teacher should identify a writing trait to focus on. Culham identifies ideas, organization, voice, word choice, and sentence fluency as “revision traits.” Narrowing the focus to one of these when teaching students to revise is essential in helping them to succeed.
2. Model the Writing Process
In my year 2/3 class (second- and third-grade students in the United States), I chose to focus on the ideas trait. We had already spent considerable time brainstorming ideas for narrative writing, and my students had many possibilities for writing a narrative piece. Following John Hattie’s high impact teaching strategies (HITS) of explicit teaching, I modeled a narrative that lacked depth. I took a simple student text and simplified it even further. I wrote the bare bones of the story, ensuring that the organization was correct (introduction of characters, problem, resolution, and ending), but the nouns were plain and there were no adjectives or detail.
In the past, if a student had presented such a story, I would have accepted it, knowing that they’d followed a narrative structure. In my mind, I would have thought it was boring, but I had no tools to provide feedback to help them improve. Now with my knowledge of the writing traits and the phases of writing, I was ready to help my students expand on their ideas.
I began with the introduction of my modeled story and pointed out to my students that although I had a main character identified, they knew nothing about her personality or the setting of the story. I used sticky notes and the think-aloud strategy to show my students how I would change parts of my sentences, or even add in sentences that gave my character more depth or led my readers to understand the setting. I was showing my students that a messy first draft was normal.
The next paragraph was also basic, and now it was time to move into the “we do” part of the GRR model. I read the paragraph aloud and asked for the students’ input into what details might be missing. With their questions about where and what was happening, I again modeled inserting and exchanging words to give more depth to the story. We also used sticky notes to add entire sentences. By now the students were very engaged.
Then it was time to hand over the reins. I asked my students to go back to their tables with a partner and read their introductory paragraph to each other. They worked together to improve just this one paragraph with sticky notes and colored pencils at their disposal. Riss Leung of the Oz Lit Teacher blog says “progress not perfection,” so I was extremely satisfied to see that each student had been successful in making at least one small change to improve their writing piece.
3. Hold Writing Conferences
Alongside the HITS of explicit teaching and worked examples, feedback through writing conferences was another invaluable tool that helped my students get over the line from feeling overwhelmed and uninspired to excited and knowledgeable about the revision phase.
During the one-to-one writing conferences, I read their story with them, using an admiring lens to praise them for anything that worked well or sounded good. I chose one point that could improve the story and coach them through revising this one point. For example, I asked one student, “As the reader, I wish I knew more about this resolution. Can you add more about the adventure your character had at this point in the story?”
Now when I ask my students how they feel about revising their writing, I rejoice to hear that they feel confident to reread their writing and proud that they have created something interesting. With carefully planned lessons, revising writing can be engaging and rewarding for both the teacher and the students. It means that students are ready and confident to publish their work, and we can all be satisfied that their published pieces demonstrate progress from their first drafts.