What does it take to teach writing?

I’ve heard that English teachers can reduce the time they spend marking papers, but I haven’t figured out how to do that.  Even the essential shift from evaluating to providing feedback hasn’t reduced the amount of time I spend looking at student work. If anything I found that the time increased because students started valuing the comments on their papers, so they ask for feedback more frequently. More feedback= more time. Yes, writing conferences work, and I love them; however,  if I can’t get to everyone in 75 minutes, I write my comments down instead. So there are multiple points in the year where I would feel like this:

Through John  Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other NecessitiesI learned about the CCCC (Conference on College Composition and Communication) Executive Committee’s position statement about the Principles for Post-Secondary Teaching of WritingWarner highlights Principle 11 which includes this description of the workloads of writing teachers: “No more than 20 students should be permitted in any writing class. Ideally, classes should be limited to 15. Remedial or developmental sections should be limited to a maximum of 15 students. No English faculty members should teach more than 60 writing students a term.”  I spit out my tea when I read this.

I know this is a position on college instruction, and I know that it’s not going to happen, but that didn’t stop me from daydreaming about what I could do to support my students’ writing if I only had 60 of them per semester. I could give multiple rounds of feedback. I could conference weekly with students about their writing (and maybe their reading!). I could read everything they write and respond with thoughtful, practical feedback consistently in both print and conversation. I could study books about writing instruction and use what I learn to move my students’ writing forward. I could treat “every piece of writing [as] a custom job” (Warner 29).

He makes the point that “[t]eaching writing is a lot like coaching. There are many things you can communicate to the entire team at once, but at some point, you need to work one-on-one on the specific difficulties each player is having”(116).  After all, when I look at student work, the goal is first and foremost to help the writer not that one specific piece of writing, so being a copy editor is pointless for me and harmful to the writer.  My time is better spent thinking about what can I say to this student that will help them grow as a writer. Then I need to plan the mini-lesson that may accompany that conversation.

This whole question about what it takes to be an effective writing instructor came about as I helped a deeply reflective colleague, Seema Narula, mark culminating essays and projects. In fact, this post was supposed to be about the experience I had while evaluating so closely with  Seema, but I was distracted by watching the volume of her work and the amount of time she spent moving her students forward, including a couple of individual writing conferences that went after school for over an hour. The students who took advantage of that personalized conference time showed great development as writers and thinkers, but there is no way that a teacher could spend that kind of time with every student on one piece of writing.

What struck me about Seema’s process was that the entire time, she kept thinking about her practice. Even though she had only a few days to turn around all these papers, even though students would soon submit their exams, and even though she was preparing for reading conferences, she turned the whole thing into a learning experience. We spent a couple of preps together where we marked a maximum of two papers each in 75 minutes. Two. This is because the task wasn’t about just grading papers. We talked about the student growth over the semester, possible changes to our teaching, and even how to word our comments. And this is important too. Teachers need time to think and grow as writing instructors. If we become machine-like and systematic in our evaluations, it de-centers the learner.

My reflection about this has come about at exam time, but this isn’t a once in a semester thing.  I’ve come to the belief that if we are going to help student writers improve, they need to write more often in as many genres as possible. The writing pieces need not all make it to the final draft, but students do need to write, and they need someone to read what they write so that they can develop their writing voices. We also need to throw out all our lessons about formulaic writing. This is not writing; it’s a test-taking strategy which can be taught on its own, but it does not deserve the amount of time we spend on it because it doesn’t create better writers. It creates compliance.

I don’t have all the answers about how to do this with more than sixty students or even with sixty.  I’m still learning from the amazing teachers I’ve met who are able to put this into practice, but the work of an effective writing teacher is necessary and worthwhile. Managing writing workshops and student writers will come up in future posts, but first I had to write about the sheer commitment it takes to dedicate yourself to your student writers. Thanks, Seema.


Grade Me!

I’ve always identified with Lisa Simpson in this scene.  When I was younger, my sense of self and self-esteem came from the grades I received in school. However, I do not remember a single lesson that I learned from an ‘A’.  In fact, I vividly remember a moment at the beginning of grade 11 when I failed an English diagnostic test.  The teacher showed me my mark reluctantly (probably because she realized two weeks into the course that my grades were clearly tied to my self-worth), but she also explained that what I wrote had no organization or structure. She said that one of my goals for the year should be to learn how to write an essay.  I pestered my parents to buy me a book about how to write an essay, and I asked some older students to give me their notes so I could see the requirements for grade 13.  My motivation was the grade, but the feedback is what helped me to learn.

Fast forward to my second-year university French class, a class that I enjoyed but found very challenging. After finals, I looked up my grade: B+. I dropped French. I told myself that it was out of fear of losing my scholarship (an exaggeration), but really it was about the tension between learning and achieving.  Learning wasn’t enough for me at that point, and as a consequence- I speak only one language.

I have to admit that this tension has found its way into my parenting and teaching. My husband, an elementary teacher, often reminds me that school is not a competition.  I know that in my head, but my instinct is to look to grades as an affirmation of my parenting skills.

In fact, I receive a lot of reports on my progress in my personal and professional life: my Fitbit, my blog stats, my teacher performance appraisal, my weekly Grammarly report (which I love by the way),  and my AQ course (I’m four weeks in and still no grade!). I have all this reporting on my life, but for the past year and a half, I’ve been free of thinking about final evaluations at school. I assess student work all the time, but my role usually consists of giving feedback and planning next steps with teachers. I’ve noticed that in this evaluation-free zone, my learning has accelerated quickly. I know that part of it is because I’ve been granted a lot of learning opportunities, but I think the more significant factor is that I don’t think about report cards; I think about teaching and learning. My curiosity about how the brain works and how students retain and retrieve information has to lead me to do more research and ask more questions than at any other point in my career.

So now I’m at the point where I see the value in practice over evaluation, feedback over a grade, but I’m nervous about how students and parents will respond.

Thank goodness for colleagues who can push your thinking. Yesterday, I spoke with a teacher who has become a valuable critical friend. I worked as a literacy coach in Toby VanHarten’s class last year where he started to implement writing portfolios in his ENG 2P course. I am supposed to be the “coach,” but most of the time he helps me think through my learning. This year he has fully implemented a writing portfolio program with his students where the emphasis is on feedback, not on an evaluation.

I had so many questions for him:

Is the amount of feedback you have to give time-consuming?

How do you keep track of it all?

Are there any students who are refusing to write?

Are they responding to your feedback?

How are you getting them to write without grading everything?

Should students be able to predict their marks?

When do you actually grade things?

Aren’t you afraid that you will get slammed with marking at mid-term?

He patiently spent his entire prep (sorry Toby) answering my questions about how he tracks and organizes his students’ portfolio writing. Most of his answers revolved around the idea that when teachers value student learning and growth and live it through their practice by spending time on feedback and conferencing and less time on grading, students embrace the challenges set before them. For so long the evaluation part of my job has taken up so much space that the learning was sometimes secondary.  Students know this about school.  The system has taught them to obsess over their grades with little time for reflection on their learning. We have to model valuing education over evaluation in our daily language and classroom practice.

When I return to my classroom in  September,  I’ll be trying to let the Lisa Simpson in me go. For now, I’ll have to settle for helping other teachers through their reflections on evaluation, and learn from those teachers who are actively working to keep the learning front and center.

Giving Feedback that Students Can Use

My last few posts have been about conferencing with students, so I thought I would follow them with how learning to categorize my feedback helped me increase the effectiveness of my feedback and my conferences.

Two years ago I had the opportunity to attend  Ministry-HWDSB collaborative sessions called Closing the Gap. These sessions were led by Jenni Donohoo and Brian Weishar (I recommend following them both on twitter). The sessions focused on supporting students as they write to develop a main idea with supporting details. The workshops were essential for my learning around teacher collaboration (more about this in a future post), and for rethinking how I give students feedback.

During one session, Brian shared a transcript of a conversation that he had with one of his students. You can see the sample student work and the transcript here. What I noticed from looking at the transcript was that Brian asked questions and limited the amount of advice he gave. The student did most of the taking and the thinking.

This was not true of my conferences. Usually, I would talk, and the student would just nod. I advised at a lightning pace and then moved on to the next student. I was in too much of a rush to let the student think about their own work.

I’ve started to change the way I talk to students during conferences. A couple of weeks ago, I was conferencing with students about their news articles. Each student had a checklist of success criteria in front of them, and they were assessing their work. Under the success criteria, it listed writing in short paragraphs as one of the characteristics of the news article form. As I circulated the class, I could see that a student had checked off the box that he had short paragraphs, but when I looked at his work, it was all in one paragraph. In the past I’ve just said, “You need to divide this into paragraphs,” but this time I said “I can see you checked off the box for writing in short paragraphs. Can you show me where your different paragraphs start?” At which point, the student pointed to all of their different sentences.

At that moment, I realized how unhelpful my advice had been for previous students. This student had a knowledge gap, and he wasn’t the only one. I’ve asked multiple students that question in the last few weeks, and I’ve found that this misconception that a sentence is a paragraph is quite widespread. But the good news is- I can teach this! I can fill in this knowledge gap for this student, and he will be able to apply this new knowledge to his writing in other areas.

I wish I could go back to all of my previous students, and start asking them about their work, rather than telling them what to do. My suggestion to divide work into paragraphs contained an assumption about the student’s knowledge. Some would argue that I should be able to assume that a grade ten student knows what a paragraph is, but my assumption was at odds with the evidence that I had in front of me. Just because I believe a student should know something, doesn’t mean that they do.

Jenni and Brian also taught me about Hattie and Temperley’s categories for feedback.  I’ve listed some resources for this at the end of my post, but essentially the idea is to divide your feedback into three categories: task, process, and self-regulation.  Thinking about feedback in this way has allowed me to focus my feedback for students so that they do the thinking that matters for where they are in their learning.

When to use Task, Process, and Self-Regulation Feedback


The example that I used above of the student who thought sentences were paragraphs is an example of a student who needs task feedback. Now that I’ve realized that he doesn’t know what a paragraph is, my instruction with him needs to help him build an understanding of what a paragraph is and why he would use one. When I’m teaching reading strategies, I would also be sure to talk to this student about the purpose of paragraphs in the texts we read. I can teach the task of paragraphing in two ways: through writing and through reading like a writer.


Process feedback should be given to students who have a degree of proficiency. For example, today I worked with a student who was writing to his parents to convince them to let him stay out past 10 o’clock. After using a success criteria checklist, he noticed that all of his paragraphs sounded the same at the beginning. I asked him how he could revise his work to vary his wording, and we had a conversation about the types of transition words that he might use to replace the phrase he kept repeating. When it is time for process feedback, I would also suggest that students use the RADaR strategy that Kelly Gallagher highlights in his book, Write Like This: Replace, Add, Delete and Reorder. The RADaR system gives students a method for their editing, and it also gives them language to use as they talk about their revision process.


Self-Regulation feedback is for the student that has shown proficiency. This week I’ve been working students who are polishing an essay, while also preparing for an on-demand essay that will happen later in the week. There was a student who wrote, revised, and polished her essay quickly. Instead of saying  “Great job. Keep up the good work” like I used to, I asked her how she was going to approach writing the on-demand essay. This lead to a conversation about the difference between on-demand and polished writing and which strategies she could use for both types of writing.

I’ve found the category of self-regulation feedback helps me to encourage growth in the writers who, quite honestly, would not receive a lot of individual teaching because they have met the expectations of the task. However, if I can teach them to think about how their writing skills can be transferred to other forms, their learning can continue rather than stop because of their success on this one task.

Thinking in these categories forced me to consider what each student needed at that moment in their writing process. Framing the feedback as a question also allowed me to uncover misconceptions and knowledge gaps that I could then address on the spot or in a future lesson. I have a purpose and focus when I sit down to write feedback or conference now, which makes the process much more meaningful for students and me.

Other Resources

The Power of Feedback by John Hattie and Helen Timperley

Promoting Metacognitive Awareness by Jenni Donohoo