4 Strategies for Teaching Students How to Revise

February 22, 2016

I’m a fan of the writing workshop. That means I also write with my students, and I allow plenty of time for students to conference with me and with each other. I also provide models of what good writing looks like—and lots of them.

Here’s what the classroom writing process looks like:

  • Brainstorming (Think About It)
  • Drafting (Getting It Down)
  • Revising (Making It Better)
  • Editing (Making It Right)
  • Publishing (Sharing It)

At the beginning of the writing process, I have had students write silently. For it to be successful, in my experience, students need plenty of topics handy (self-generated, or a list of topics, questions, and prompts provided). Silent writing is a wonderful, focused activity for the brainstorming and drafting stage of the writing process. I also think it's important that the teacher write during this time, as well (model, model, model).

However, when it comes to revising, and later editing, I think peer interaction is necessary. Students need to, for example, “rehearse” words, phrases, introductions, and thesis statements with each other during the revision stage.

Strategy 1: Providing Models

This is the number one strategy for a reason. Whatever we want kids to do in their writing, we have to provide models for them. Want them to create zippy titles for that essay? Show them zippy titles, and talk about ways they can forage for title ideas from within their paragraphs. For example, it could be a few words that hint or foreshadow at what’s to come in a narrative, or for that literary analysis paper, it could be one word that describes the mood of a character or of the story.

During revision time, I like to use anonymous student papers from other class periods (or past years) on the document camera with the whole class—one that has similar clunkiness or vague generalities I see in current papers of students (e.g., repetition, lack of descriptive or supportive sentences, or lack of complex sentence structures).

We revise the example together. Students will share out things to add, delete, and rearrange. As they share, the teacher can make those changes. This is powerful stuff, and always confirms for me that the writing process needs to be a social act.

So how do students know what to add, delete, or rearrange? Again, using models (those that are exemplary and those that need some repair) helps young writers see and learn what good writing looks like.

Strategy 2: Adding Details

Encourage your students to add details to their narrative writing. For example, students can insert imagery, emotions, dialogue, and voice. In a narrative essay, present them with a sentence like “She was so tired,” and have them re-create it using imagery: “Her eyelids drooped as she dragged her tired feet behind her.” Show some models of dialogue, and ask students to find in their own narrations where they explain. Might adding dialogue brighten the story? Tell them to try it.

For nonfiction, expository writing, students can insert facts, statistics, examples, and quotes from experts. Use a student essay example where there is a claim made without any evidence to follow: “Most people don’t think Trump would make a good president.” Talk about the different kinds of evidence they can use to support the claim and then have them search for evidence: “According to a poll given to U.S. voters in January 2016, only one out of 15 Americans would vote for Trump.”

Students should do this together with the same example or model and find a variety of types of evidence to back the claim (a statistic, a quote from a politician, etc.). This collectively demonstrates to them how to do this, allows them to practice together, and provides an opportunity for them to teach each other.

Strategy 3: Deleting the Unnecessary

Provide students with a narrative or expository essay where there is some redundancy of a topic or repetition of words. As a group, decide to combine ideas that are redundant or remove one altogether. For repetitive words, ask students to look through the thesaurus and choose synonyms to consider. Nice is a word students may use repetitively. They delete the three extra uses of it and replace those with pleasant, kind, caring.

Show students another essay, or two or three, where the writer goes off topic. Ask them to find similar places in their own writing and make note to remove or rewrite those sections.

Strategy 4: Rearranging for Clarity and Effect

In that argumentative essay or short story, maybe the ending is a better beginning? Show students text examples where the writer begins with the end or the middle of the story (for narrative), or, for argumentative, where a writer begins with the devastating results of a policy or environmental disaster, then moves to persuade readers in the rest of the essay.

Would the narrative story be better if written chronologically? Or should the claims and evidence follow in an order related to the most important point, or should you save the best point and evidence until the end?

Show your students models of different ways to organize narrative, informational, and argumentative essays. You may even wish to provide scissors and ask them to cut up a draft and mix around the order to see how it reads.

Honoring the Revision Stage

We teachers sometimes combine revising and editing—and this confuses our students. Revision is making it better, and editing is making it correct. Sure, some editing (cleaning up grammar and conventions) might occur during the revision stage, and that’s great. But as my colleague Jane Hancock says, the revision stage is about tightening, brightening, and sharpening the writing.

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  • Literacy
  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies

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