Teaching Writing or Editing Writing?

Instead of being their editor, teach students the craft of writing through ongoing feedback, freedom to experiment, self-editing skills, strengthening content and ideas, and encouraging reflection.

February 19, 2016
Photo credit: lettera27 via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Editing student writing typically takes a few minutes and a red pen. Teaching writing requires hard work, and even though many teachers assign writing, few actually teach the art of writing. The writing process is time consuming and often messy, so it's no wonder that many teachers becomes editors by default. How can teachers be sure that they're teaching students how to write and not simply editing writing assignments?

1. Ongoing Feedback

Teachers should offer feedback throughout the entire writing process and not just on the final product. If writing is done correctly, the majority of the work happens long before the final copy is submitted. When a teacher only offers feedback on the final paper, the window to teach and shape writing has passed, since the student has moved onto the next assignment. Instead, check on student work at the beginning and in the middle of the process. Kaizena (a Google add-on that allows for voice comments on a document) or Google Docs are both great ways to have one-on-one conversations throughout the process. Issues concerning the overall focus, specific content, or organization can be caught early, giving students a chance to finish the paper with clarity.

2. Freedom to Experiment

Teachers should allow students to find their writing voice and develop a personal style through experimentation. Since personal style is unique to each individual, this element of writing may be the most difficult to teach. Mentor texts are a great resource for exposing students to different styles and voices. When reading, have students record sentences from a text which they find interesting, and have them review these before writing. Students can choose two or three sentences from their list to mimic in their own writing. Trying out new sentences is like trying on new clothes -- some items work, while others won't. I ask students to experiment with at least three sentences in an essay by trying a different syntax pattern, rhetorical device, or possibly use punctuation for effect. Students will either highlight or star the "risk" sentences to let me know they are working on their personal style or voice, and I will not take points off if these sentences don't work. Students should be allowed to experiment with personal style without the worry of hurting their grade.

3. Self-Editing Skills

Teachers should not be concerned about marking every grammatical mistake, but rather teach students to self-edit as they write. Correct conventions are an important component of written communication, but very rarely does an essay with every error marked cause a student to become a better writer. Students must learn to self-edit. They can catch many mistakes simply by taking the time to read their paper aloud. Not only does reading aloud add an auditory element to writing, but the process has the added benefit of slowing the reader down long enough to think about the content as well. Providing a simple checklist of common grade-level errors is another way to give students who are not confident in self-editing the support they need to begin taking ownership of the editing process. In addition, teachers can educate students on how to use digital tools such as Grammarly, SAS Writing Reviser, or word processing features to ensure a grammatically correct paper.

4. Strengthening Content and Ideas

Teachers should offer feedback on students' content and ideas, as these are the most important element of writing, and developing them should be the focus of feedback. Consider giving a Glow comment (something really great about the content) and Grow comment (a piece of constructive criticism) with each paper. A Glow comment might be something like:

  • The hook in your introduction was very enticing.
  • Your second body paragraph offered a persuasive argument.

A Grow comment could include:

  • Your conclusion included new information.
  • Your third body paragraph did not have any concrete evidence.

Students can review Glow and Grow comments immediately before the next writing assignment in order to repeat what they did well and grow in their areas of weakness.

5. Student Reflection

Teachers should offer students a chance to reflect on their writing. Students should learn to think about themselves as writers, and one of the best ways to do this is having them reflect on their writing. Ask them to turn in a reflective paragraph with their written work assessing what they liked about it and why, as well as parts of the work that they felt might be weak. Students may also want to reflect on what part of the writing process seemed the most difficult and why. Not only does this help them own their writing, it also offers the teacher a chance to see the work through the students' eyes, which can help tailor feedback to specific concerns and needs.

Writing is hard work; teaching writing may be even harder work. The reward of teaching writing and not just editing papers, however, is each student who writes competently and confidently. And that's something to write home about!

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Critical Thinking
  • Student Voice
  • Teaching Strategies
  • English Language Arts

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