Literacy

Using Find and Replace as a Writing Tool

This simple tool can highlight word and punctuation choices to help developing writers examine the mechanics of their writing.
A teacher and student discuss text on the student’s laptop screen.
©Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

Grammar rules and sentence structures are not simply definitions. They help writers craft written communication that can influence the thoughts and passions of any who read or listen to the words.

Crafting writing starts after the first draft is complete. This is true whether the composition is an outline or a manuscript—clarifying, developing, and elevating the work is what authors do before others see the words. Where this happens in schools, papers are likely to be of better quality because of the care taken to review and refine the work before it is turned in.

Grammar lessons can appear to be rote practice of rules that many students may find disconnected to their life. Besides nouns, verbs, and conjunctions, what else is needed? Having students explore all parts of speech through their writing can bring home the need to understand how to become a better writer.

The author’s craft can be difficult to learn if it’s mostly addressed through abstract explanations. Students need to explore the purpose and impact of wordsmithing in their own writing for an authentic audience if the writing rules are to be taken seriously, beyond beginner structures like the five-paragraph essay or the sandwich model for forming paragraphs.

But what if students could find and reflect on various aspects of their writing? What if there was a tool that was free, widely available in many programs, quick in application, and easy to use? Did I have you with “free”?

Find and Replace

A simple tool, Find and Replace, can aid teaching and coaching writing by guiding students through a deep reflection on their author’s craft. One technique is to replace a word with itself, in capital letters and surrounded by three asterisks: Find “apple” and replace it with “***APPLE***.” This strategy highlights a word to track either repetition throughout a piece of writing or multiple instances clumped together.

Teachers often show examples from authors’ passages and textbook practice sentences. These examples and others help show students what skills look like, but students also need to examine their own application of the skills in their own writing, where they demonstrate effective use or not.

Here are some uses for Find and Replace as a tool for reflection and revision, applied to both model texts and students’ own work:

  • For educational purposes, copy a portion of an article or other work, and use Find and Replace to study how the writing craft is used by other writers. Or use the Find tool in web browsers to highlight words and punctuation for whole class or group teaching and coaching.
  • Examine the use of punctuation and other related mechanics by the student writer.
  • When assigned parts of speech are to be incorporated into drafts, Find and Replace can be used to highlight the work for coaching by teachers, and critique discussions among students.
  • Explore word choice that impacts passive and active voice as used in a student writer’s work. Discuss where to make revisions and what sections should remain unchanged.
  • When students practice using figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism), have them use Find and Replace to highlight a key word that’s part of the figurative language, for feedback and reflection.

Once a skill is modeled by the teacher, students have Find and Replace in their toolkit, and learning outcomes are reinforced as they do their own searches based on the writing skill or mechanic. They save time as they search for word usage—such as rose used as a metaphor—or mechanics like comma placement. Students can bring their findings to the teacher or student critique group for feedback, and the task of thinking about writing skills shifts from the teacher to the students.

Fast vs. Slow Tech

Some might suggest that paper and pen can accomplish the same results, without the need for computers or tablets. True, these processes can be done without computers. There is value to holding and examining the document, practicing these skills manually. But when teachers look for ways to streamline activities to create a pool of time, Find and Replace speeds up the process. Have students input the punctuation or words and then look at the preview panel to see the highlighted text or click Replace All to return to full document view. If they find nothing to change, they can click Undo and repeat the process with a new punctuation mark or word.

One activity that I did with students was to examine their use of an author craft or mechanic in their documents. They had to find three places where they could do one of the following at least once:

  1. insert new content
  2. replace or rephrase wording to change the meaning
  3. cut words or phrases

The experiences had a positive impact on students writing. They understood the purpose of mechanics and author craft considerations better. Prior to computers, this activity would take so much time that its use was limited. Now it can be used frequently.

Using Find and Replace allows teachers and students to focus more on the author’s craft and mechanics in writing papers and presentations across the curriculum. Try it today with a draft of your writing or an article.