How to Give Students Helpful Feedback on Writing
Tips for PreK-12 Writing Teachers
A young writer’s journey is a complex one, full of both self-discovery and academic growth. Learning to be a better writer can often be a deeply humbling and yet exciting experience for students. Strong writing skills are, of course, critical to success in upper grades, college, and career, so educators must be armed with the tools necessary to foster confident and competent writers. We’ve covered the foundations of research-based writing instruction on Inspired Ideas before, as well as the research behind reading-writing connections and the fundamentals of a strong elementary peer review program. Today, we’ll take a look at how teachers can provide students with helpful feedback on writing assignments.
Why is feedback important?
Becoming a better writer — or simply writing a draft of anything, at any skill level — is messy business! Constructing sentences, adhering to rules and conventions, and conveying meaning while making an argument or telling a story is both an art and a science, and students will need a great deal of one-on-one support in their journeys to find their “writer voice”. Feedback from teachers helps students identify their strengths and areas for growth, helps them engage in the metacognition required to evaluate their writing, and helps them embrace the growth mindset required to accept the iterative nature of the writing process.
However, not all feedback is inherently helpful. To make the most of the precious time you spend providing thoughtful feedback on student writing, we’ve gathered a few research-based tips.
Tips to Give Helpful Feedback at Any Grade
Be specific (and specifically positive).
Your feedback should always be as specific as possible to help students make meaningful revisions. Specificity helps make abstract concepts about writing more tangible for students to grasp. However, it’s also important to balance being explicit with being prescriptive — students should still do the intellectual work to act on your specific feedback in their revision.
Additionally, specificity isn’t just necessary for feedback on what needs work — research shows that writing improves when teachers provide specific positive feedback (Graham et al., 2015). “Great job” in reference to a line or a paragraph doesn’t tell the student what they did well or give them any indication of how to replicate and build on their skill in the future. “I like how you painted a picture in my mind with your vivid word choices” might give them a clearer sense of their strengths.
For ideas on how to give specific, positive feedback, check out this collection of tips and sentence starters from educators:
How to Give Positive Feedback on Student Writing
"Nice work." "Great job." "Powerful sentence." Even though I knew they wouldn't mean much to students, these vague and…
Provide guidance to achieve goals.
All writing goals should be appropriately challenging, and set within a student’s Zone of Proximal Development. Whether your students have writing goals that are set individually or at the class level, make sure your feedback returns to those goals and provides detailed guidance on how to achieve them (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).
For example, if your student is working on being more concise in their writing, reiterate that goal and identify specific areas where they could say more with less. Again, it’s important not to do the intellectual work for students. Instead, work to understand their intended meaning and provide suggestions or prompts for brevity. Specificity remains key when addressing goals, in both the feedback itself and the next steps students should take to address the feedback.
Strive to understand and empower your students’ ideas.
While procedural and technical elements of students’ writing are critical and deserve your attention when providing feedback, it’s also important to take the time to pause, evaluate, and truly work to gain an understanding of what your students are trying to convey with their writing — no matter how muddled or buried the “point” of their piece may currently be! Explain what you took from the writing, ask questions about their intent, and provide feedback that helps them more clearly and strongly articulate their ideas.
If you have the time and space to provide feedback orally, conferencing can be a great way to elevate students’ ideas. When interacting with students in feedback sessions, always strive to foster student agency by valuing their ideas. Some researchers suggest that teachers should serve as authentic audiences in feedback sessions, reacting to the writer’s ideas while guiding them toward opportunities for improvement (Freedman, 1987).
Instead of (or in addition to) feedback, give “feedforward.”
You may have already heard of the concept of “feedforward.” Essentially, the idea is that feedback focuses on a person’s performance in the past, whereas feedforward focuses on their opportunities for growth in the future. Educator and blogger Jennifer Gonzales applied the concept to education on her blog, Cult of Pedagogy, upon recognizing that when teachers give feedback to students (or, in some cases, other teachers), they don’t always see the results they were hoping for. In her blog, Jennifer uses writing instruction as an example for feedforward:
“Suppose my student is writing an essay. Instead of waiting until she is finished, then marking up all the errors and giving it a grade, I would read parts of the essay while she is writing it, point out things I’m noticing, and ask her questions to get her thinking about how she might improve it.” (Read more here).
To think of feedforward in another light, consider a formative assessment lens offered by Dr. Nancy Frey and Dr. Doug Fisher in their book, The Formative Assessment Action Plan. Dr. Frey and Dr. Fisher argue that these parts are critical to a cyclical formative assessment system:
- Feed-Up: Where Am I Going? In this phase, teachers help students understand goals and how they will be assessed.
- Feedback: How Am I Doing? During the writing process, teachers use formative assessment tools to track if students are on course to meet goals.
- Feed-Forward: Where Am I Going Next? Teachers used what they learned from formative assessment (or, the feedback stage) to adjust instruction moving forward (Frey & Fisher, 2011).
Both Jennifer Gonzales’s example and Dr. Frey and Dr. Fisher’s framework center around collaboration between student and teacher, finding growth opportunities, and adapting instruction based on needs.
For more writing instructional resources, see:
What’s Next for the Science of Reading: Focus on the Science of Writing
A Look at Reading-Writing Connections
Fun Educational Activities | McGraw Hill
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Freedman, S. W. (1987). Response to student writing. (№23). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id¼ED290148.
Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2011). The Formative Assessment Action Plan Practical Steps to more successful teaching and learning. ASCD.
Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Santangelo, T. (2015). Research-based writing practices and the common Core: Meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. The Elementary School Journal, 115(4), 498e522.https://doi.org/10.1086/681964.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81e112.https://doi.org/10.3102/003465430298487.