George Lucas Educational Foundation
Literacy

Assigning More Writing—With Less Grading

Check out four best practices for teaching writing that can help you improve student learning without creating a mountain of grading work.
A teacher marks student writing at his desk.
A teacher marks student writing at his desk.
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Writing is complicated. Depending on the study you read, strong writing requires a mastery of 28, 34, or 47 distinct skills. The fact that researchers can’t even agree on how many traits go into writing illustrates just how complicated it is.

That makes the teaching of writing really complicated—writing teachers need to understand this complex skill and find a way to pass it on to 140 or more students, each with his or her own blend of prior knowledge, writing ability, and motivation.

Faced with such a Herculean task, writing teachers need to be as efficient and effective as possible. The good news is that a number of best practices have emerged in recent years that allow writing teachers to significantly improve their practice without adding more hours to already overfilled days. Here are four of the most impactful.

Write More

Most writing researchers and teachers of note now advise that students should write between 30 and 60 minutes every day. The logic behind this is that nothing is more important for writing development than putting in the hours defining and refining one’s voice, organizing and reorganizing one’s thoughts, and learning how words spill out of one’s head and onto the page.

Many teachers want to add more writing but wonder where it would fit in their already packed curriculum. Writing doesn’t have to displace content—students usually learn content better and faster when they write about it. If they’re learning about the Spanish-American War, have them write a diary entry from Teddy Roosevelt. If they’re learning about the Allegory of the Cave, have them create their own allegorical world.

Writing about content allows students to simultaneously speed up both their building of knowledge and their growth as writers.

Grade Less

Many teachers shy away from adding more writing because they worry that more writing equals more responding to writing, but that doesn’t have to be true. In fact, for many types of writing it’s best practice for teachers to not even read student writing.

To show how students can gain through not getting feedback, high school teacher Dave Stuart Jr. lays out three reasons to write, developed after he read The Core Six: Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence With the Common Core.

Provisional writing, where students practice with new skills or explore tricky concepts, generally works best when no one else sees it, as that allows them to practice without worrying about others’ judgment. Provisional writing includes warm-up exercises, written exit tickets, and class notes.

Readable writing, where students focus on one or two specific writing traits—including things like in-class essays and short responses—usually calls for succinct feedback from the teacher on those specific traits. Many teachers respond in an in-depth fashion to all types of writing, provisional and readable included, but that amount of feedback should be reserved for polished, revised pieces.

By only responding when needed with the amount of feedback needed, teachers can add a lot more writing to their classes without increasing the size of the stacks of work they bring home.

Respond Smarter, Not Harder

Many teachers approach feedback on polished, final pieces by tattooing them with dozens, if not hundreds, of quickly scrawled comments and corrections. The problem with this has been laid out by Nancy Sommers of the Harvard Writing Project, who notes that a deluge of rapidly done comments often leads to the following:  

  • A terse, authoritative tone that can intimidate students.
  • Student confusion when trying to decipher quickly scrawled messages like “Be specific” or “Needs more clarity.”
  • Students getting so overwhelmed with the amount of criticism that they don’t learn any of the lessons well.

This potential for intimidating, confusing, or overwhelming students is why so many modern writing researchers argue that teachers should give fewer comments that have greater depth. The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors suggests a 2+1 approach, where the teacher focuses on giving deep feedback on two higher order concerns like organization or word choice and one repeated mechanical error.

Using this approach instead of marking every single error is one of the rare win-wins in teaching. The teacher wins because going deeper on a few topics generally takes less time than marking everything, and students win because they get clear, quality feedback that does a better job of teaching them the most important lessons.

Teach the Writing Process

A study by the Carnegie Corporation found that the teaching strategy that produced the largest student gains was teaching them how to engage in the writing process. The key word here is teaching, as teachers often ask students to have a writing process but rarely train them in what that means or how to do it well.

The same study found that the most effective way to instruct students in the writing process is the Self-Regulated Strategy Development method, where each stage is taught through providing a rationale to students for why it’s necessary along with clear models, scaffolded support, and regular opportunities to practice it. This method does require a sizable time commitment at the start of the class, but every second spent teaching it is quickly made up for by the rapidly accelerated student gains later.

Writing instruction will likely never be fast or easy, but these four techniques can help a teacher become more effective without increasing his or her workload.

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Maneh Abrahamyan's picture

Thank you for the informative article!I share your view especially regarding self-regulated strategy development. Writing requires preciceness and accuracy, therefore, students should work on themselves quite often after which teacher may respond and help the student with providing feedback, which by the way you mentioned quite accurately! It should not be neither too long nor too short, just to the point. When it comes to the grading system of writings, I personally find it irrelevant. Each person has his/her own thoughts and perceptions and teacher cannot force and regulate others to think the way he/she thinks. Students should have the unlimited opportunities to share their viewpoint and writing techniques.
Once again thanks for the article!

Amanda Berger's picture

Thank you for such a great article! I really find the information presented to be thought-provoking and insightful. I have seen other posts around writing discuss that students should get to define what exact stage of writing looks like to them. They state that the process can be messy and that helps to create meaning for the student. In a way, you are speaking to the same thing. Students should be very involved in the process with less red marking all over the students writing. The process should be worked through with smaller amounts of feedback. I think that is such a great concept. Do you think this applies to all grade levels and can be done with all learners?

-Amanda

Matthew M. Johnson's picture
Matthew M. Johnson
English Teacher and Writer

Thank you for taking the time to comment on it! I really appreciate it, and I'm glad that you found it useful! I also am in complete agreement with you when it comes to the important role that process plays. Just because we tell a student something or write it in the margins of a paper in red ink does not mean that the student then knows it. Instead, students must take each new lesson and do what we all must do to learn; they must process the idea and practice it before it will become a part of their writing. And while it is absolutely true that feedback is very important during some parts of this process, in in the other parts feedback does little good or can even act as a hindrance or distraction. And while I tend to shy away from generalizations, I do think that being mindful of both the process and the amount/timing of feedback is good teaching for any student k-12 and beyond!

Amanda Berger's picture

Matthew,

Thank you so much for your response. I appreciate you clarifying that it is good for all grade levels. Do you have an online program you would recommend or a site where there are great resources for Writing?

Thank you!

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