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Responding to Student Writing — and Writers

How your comments on student essays can nurture stronger, more focused, and more determined writers
Responding to Student Writing — and Writers

If you ask any college instructor or high school English teacher which part of her job is the most time-consuming, says Nancy Sommers, you’ll hear the same answer across the board: “Responding to my students’ writing.” “Reading my students’ writing.” “Grading my students’ writing.”

“Responding to students’ writing takes more time, thought, and energy than any other aspect of teaching,” says Sommers, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the former director of Harvard’s Expository Writing Program, and the founder of the Harvard Writing Project. Sommers has been researching teacher response to writing for decades. “If teaching involves leaps of faith,” she says, “responding is one of the greatest leaps because we have so little direct evidence of what students actually do with our comments, of why they find some useful and others not.”

“Responding to students’ writing takes more time, thought, and energy than any other aspect of teaching... We have so little direct evidence of what students actually do with our comments, of why they find some useful and others not.”

Her key advice? A teacher’s response to a student’s work can play a leading role in the student’s development as a writer — but to leverage that potential, a teacher needs to understand where and how much to comment, and how to engage the student in the feedback process.

When Comments Don’t Help

Teachers’ comments are supposed to show students where they have communicated their arguments well, and where they need to revise. But two common mistakes can prevent these lessons from hitting home: 

  • Comments often give students contradictory messages. When a teacher both corrects the grammar in a sentence and asks the student to develop the idea further, the writer may be confused about which suggestion to respond to: If she corrects the grammar, then the sentence should be “finished,” but if she changes the sentence, then the grammar corrections may no longer apply.
  • Too often, a teacher’s comments are not specific to the paper at hand. When “vague,” “frag,” “weak argument,” or the classic “be specific!” pepper a page, a student can easily misunderstand and disregard what her teacher is trying to say — especially when she sees the same general comments sprinkled throughout her classmate’s paper.

In both of these cases, the student is left wondering what the teacher wants her to change, rather than focusing on her own argument in the essay. Why should the student bother to stay engaged?

Getting it Write: Six Ways to Teach through Comments

To avoid these issues — and to stave off comment overload — Sommers suggests that teachers begin by asking themselves, “What do I want my students to learn, and how will my comments help them learn?” A teacher can write seventeen comments on a short draft, but a student probably won’t learn seventeen different lessons. Sommers advises teachers to:

  1. Differentiate comments on drafts from those on final essays.
    • On rough drafts, comments should honestly assess where the draft is now and offer encouragement of where it could go. This is the time for teachers to push students to strengthen and possibly reframe or reorganize their arguments.
    • On final drafts, comments should assess the strengths and weakness of the paper, but focus on transferrable lessons for future papers, as in, “In your next paper, you might want to try…” or “Before writing your next paper, ask yourself….”
  2. Give grammar lessons their own time and space. Fixing every comma and changing each instance of passive voice just isn’t the most effective way to teach grammar, says Sommers. It can also divert students’ attention from larger issues in their writing, while adding hours of grading for the teachers. Rather than correcting every error, teachers can:
    • Look for patterns of grammatical mistakes and note them in the margin or in end comments.
    • Have students maintain “editing logs” where they keep track of their mistakes.
    • Provide short lessons on common errors seen across the class.
    • Give students short writing assignments where they focus on specific grammatical and rhetorical moves.
  3. Create a partnership with students across the drafts. Feedback is most impactful for students when it’s part of a dialogue about their work, not a one-way street. When they hand in drafts, ask students to write a “Dear Reader” letter, in which they ask for feedback in specific areas and discuss their writing challenges. Or ask them to write short responses to teacher comments, explaining how they plan to use the feedback in their next draft.
  1. Extend these writing-based partnerships by having a class-wide conversation about commenting. Too many students, says Sommers, don’t understand that comments are offered to help them learn. At the beginning of the semester, teachers should clearly explain their purposes for commenting on students’ essays and what type of feedback they’ll be offering.
  1. Establish a class language for comments. The comments students most understand on their papers employ the familiar language of classroom instruction. “When comments evoke a network of associations for students and suggest specific strategies, students more successfully use teachers’ comments to guide revision,” Sommers says.
  1. Be encouraging. For first-year college students especially, Sommers explains, “feedback is monumental — their most personal, most intimate, and direct interaction with their college writing culture.” While providing honest assessments, teachers also have to remember to validate students as academic thinkers. Teachers should always highlight papers’ strengths and, more importantly, push the writers toward deeper thinking.

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