QUESTION, RATIONALE and CONTEXT
My research question developed as I spent uncountable
numbers of hours responding to students’ formal
writing assignments. As I “graded” my students’
high stakes writing assignments, I often wondered
whether I was wasting not only my time, but the
students’ time as well. I questioned whether the
comments I wrote in response to the students’ work
assisted them in improving not only their writing,
but also their attitudes and confidence about writing
I found that many other teachers asked the same
questions. Linda Christensen, a high school Language
Arts Coordinator for Portland Public Schools, raised
similar issues in an article titled, “The Politics
of Correction,” recently published in The National
Writing Project Quarterly Newsletter (Fall 2003).
She stated, “So how do we both nurture students
in their writing and help them learn the language
of power? We start by telling them what they’re
doing right. All too often teachers scar students’
esteem about themselves as writers by wielding their
pens in the margins with, “You’re wrong. Wrong again.
Ten points off for that comma splice. Where is the
past tense?” These had been the same thoughts that
I struggled with as I tried to write comments on
It is no secret that teaching writing is one of
the areas that teachers find the most difficult.
Recent research conducted by The National College
Board and the National Commission on Writing in
America’s Schools and Colleges resulted in a report
titled, “The Neglected R: The Need for a Writing
Revolution,” which was published in April 2003.
One of the major problems outlined in the report
is finding time. “Writing is a prisoner of time.
Learning how to present one’s thoughts on paper
requires time. The sheer scope of the skill required
for effective writing is daunting. The mechanics
of grammar and punctuation, usage, developing a
‘voice’ and a feel for the audience, mastering the
distinctions between expository, narrative, and
persuasive writing (and the types of evidence required
to make each convincing)—the list is lengthy. These
skills cannot be picked up from a few minutes here
and a few minutes there, all stolen form more ‘important’
subjects (20). I needed to think about how to respond
to, how much, and how often.
These were not the only questions that arose.
I also wondered about assessment. In light of the
recent increase of publicity surrounding standardized
tests and assessments, I wanted to provide more
meaningful, helpful, and authentic feedback to my
students about their writing. As per the Neglected
R, “As everyone understands, student performance
and growth in writing are difficult to measure,
for many reasons…Writing assessment is a genuine
challenge” (21). I began to see my comments on my
students’ work as a form of development and I knew
that I needed to think about what would be most
helpful to them as beginning writers.
DATA COLLECTION TOOLS
- Student Surveys
- Parent Surveys
- Student Reading Journals
- Student Work
- Student Interviews
I selected the above tools in order to gain the
most breadth when collecting data. I wanted gather
feedback from parents as well as students, hence
both the student and parent surveys. In addition,
I used the student reading journals as well as both
parent and student emails as they sometimes offered
“unsolicited” insight into how the students’ feelings
and attitudes toward writing developed and shifted
as the year progressed. I used the student work
as evidence upon which to reflect how the students’
writing shifted or stayed the same as the school
year progressed. Finally, I interviewed students
in very casual and often unprompted situations.
I did not want students to simply respond in a way
that they felt “would satisfy” the responses I sought.
Thus, I often allowed these interviews to develop
organically out of a previous conversation or during
SUMMARY OF DATA
For the most part the data shows that in, those
surveys on which students used a numerical rating
system, students found the comments on their writing
useful, encouraging, honest, fair, and sufficient.
This information was useful in attempting to grasp
a general sense of how my comments affected their
writing as well as their attitudes toward my comments.
However, I gathered much more telling data from
their responses to the open-ended questions on the
surveys. Many students desired more specific comments
on their writing. They made some of the following
- Give us back our drafts so we know what to change.
- If she would give us a grade based on the draft
what would it be? This
would let us know where we stand, and we can use
your constructive criticism to reach our goals.
- I think you should always comment on it, otherwise
I don’t know what to do and sometimes that makes
me not do it.
- For Ms. Rygalski to explain more her comments.
Sometimes I don’t understand what she is trying
to do to make my story better.
- There are too many after a while and it gets
hard after a while to keep track of all of the
- Be more specific with comments. Give examples.
- Instead of saying “expand on this,” tell me
how I can expand.
Despite the fact that I gave a parent survey to
each of my ninty-seven eighth grade students to
take home, I only received seventeen back. Of the
seventeen returned, only twelve of the surveys had
the numerical ratings completed. For the most part,
these were positive. Most parents seemed satisfied
with the written feedback and comments their students
received on their writing. The parents offered more
constructive feedback in the open-ended responses.
Some of them included:
- So far, all the comments are very helpful but
maybe some examples can be given to whatever changes
you make or in any comments.
- I think to add grammar, spelling, sentence
structure should be incorporated in the writing.
- Maybe more feedback could be given about genre
or specific strategies and less on content.
- I saw some comments early in the year and thought
they were academically helpful and personally
In examining and analyzing different samples of
student work from the beginning of the year until
the end, many students demonstrated improvement
in several areas including:
- Sentence structure
- Sophisticated vocabulary
INDIVIDUAL STUDENT INTERVIEWS
I conducted several informal interviews with students
at the end of the school year. Many of these interviews
developed organically out of a conversation about
writing in general. Most importantly, I wanted to
find out how the students thinking and their attitude
about writing shifted if at all from the beginning
of the school year to the end. Some of their responses
included the following:
- I am now more in tune with what I want to write
and how to express my feelings
- I feel I am better organized
- The comments showed that you read our essays
and paid attention to what we wrote
- Seeing that you commented so much on everyone’s
papers showed that you really read all of our
essays and that you paid attention to what we
wrote and we couldn’t ‘B.S’ because we knew you
Other Sources of Data
Throughout the year I occasionally came across
student’ and parents’ feedback to my comments about
their writing. This data was unsolicited, but I
believe it is equally important to the overall research.
? (email from parent) “Thank you for copying __________’s
essay for me. Of course, I was proud of his work.
But I was also greatly impressed by your comments,
which provided such clear feedback and gentle guidance,
indicating what _____________ would need to do to
reach the next level. I am beginning to believe
that he will, too! All the more because you hold
him responsible and require him to be accountable,
so he knows that your praise is genuine.”
? (a student’s reading journal) “I have to thank
Ms. Rygalski! She taught us tips and tricks. She
also helps us a lot with essays. I’ve learned about
active and passive voice. I have to admit that now
I want my essays fully active.”
The data collected suggests that there are multiple
steps that can be implemented at several levels
(student, teacher, administration, parent/guardian)
to increase the efficiency as well as the usefulness
and helpfulness of teachers’ comments on students’
work. On the surface the data points to the students’
general satisfaction with the comments written on
their work. However, when analyzed with a more critical
stance, the data suggests that there is a great
deal of room for improvement in responding to student
work. Given the feedback from students and parents
that I need to be more effective and precise in
my comments on their writing, I plan to revise my
I plan to create a method for response that allows
for greater dialogue between the teacher and the
students when discussing a student’s respective
piece of writing. As a teacher that has spent countless
hours responding to students’ formal writing assignments,
I feel that it is important to develop a more efficient
system for responding to students’ work. I believe
a more efficient system is necessary to prevent
burnout and simple exhaustion. I plan to address
more of the students’ writing needs, questions,
and revisions during class time, where the two actors,
teachers and students, can discuss and write together.
Furthermore, I think that teachers across disciplines
and curriculums need to work together to create
a writing response system that will allow teachers
to respond constructively, but in a more time efficient
manner. The data suggests that students need encouragement.
Students’ attitudes and confidence can be scarred
easily if they constantly face too much criticism
on writing that they worked tremendously hard to
complete. Students do not want to read statements
such as “You need to put more effort into this.”
They especially do not want to receive this same
feedback from five different teachers. I believe
that if teachers in different disciplines notice
that a student consistently makes the same error
or mishap in their writing, there must be communication
between the teachers so that the student can work
on improving this part of their writing process
and move on to something else. I am firmly convinced
that when teachers respond to students’ writing,
they need to focus on two areas: the positive aspects
of the work as well as the constructive criticism
that will help improve the work, in all of the respective
Finally, I think it is essential that students
have some voice in the type of feedback they receive.
This empowers the students and allows them to have
some control over their endeavor as a learner. I
believe that students must be able to sit with their
respective teachers in a writing conference and
discuss what type of advice or feedback they need
based on their individual strengths and weakness
as well as the requirements of the individual writing
The individual conferences will allow the teacher
to further explain and substantiate why they might
have written on a student’s paper, “Expand on this.”
This comment might be necessary, however when meeting
one-on-one, the teacher can “really” explain what
specifically needs to be expanded upon. The comment
suggest that something is working in the writing,
but simply stating this on the students work does
not help the student recognize what is working and
in fact might impede their desire to continue to
expand on what is already working in the piece.
However, a writing conference would help facilitate
this information. This is the honest and real feedback
that writing experts, Nancy Atwell, Donald Graves,
and Tom Romano call for.
- Teachers and students need to work together
to create a safe and caring school community where
students feel comfortable to discuss their writing
and take risks with their writing.
- Students need time to meet one-on-one, or in
small groups, with their teachers to discuss their
writing and their writing goals.
- Students need positive praise as well as constructive
criticism to support their improvement as writers.
- Teachers across grade levels and disciplines
need to collaborate to create writing standards
and guidelines, which will facilitate more consistency
in expectations for student writing.
- Teachers need time built into their schedules
during which they can conference with students
about heir individual needs.
- Teachers need training that provides guidelines
on how to comment effectively on students’ writing
in a way that encourages and motivates the students
to pursue improvement in their writing.
- Teachers need to encourage students while they
are in the writing process in order to help the
students maintain a positive attitude toward writing
as well as themselves as writers.
- Schools need to increase parent/guardian involvement
by clearly communicating expectations for students’
writing across disciplines as well as create meaningful
ways parents can assist students while they write
- Teachers and students need time to work collaboratively
toward achieving the student’s individual writing
goals based on their individual needs.
- Principals and staff developers need to provide
professional development that allows teachers
to learn “best practices” surrounding responding
to students’ writing, across all disciplines and