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Work Smarter: Commenting on Student Writing

Work Smarter Not Harder

When I was still teaching in the classroom, I would often bring home piles of student work to assess or grade.  I would sit comfortably on my couch, usually in my pajamas, with a cup of coffee on one side and a stack of papers on the other.  More likely than not, the TV played in the background.  Happily, I moved from one set of work to the next… until it came to student writing.  Ugh.  Making comments on student writing is so time consuming.

Here are 7 tips I hope will streamline the process for you:

1.  Turn off the TV.  Commenting on student writing takes a little more focus than grading other types of work.  Try to find a quiet place and focus.  Your attentiveness will make the task go quicker.

2.  Quickly skim through the entire pile to get a feel for the general strengths and weaknesses of the class.  This may seem counter intuitive since it is actually an extra step in the process.  However, this quick scan of the class’s writing will allow you to identify trends.  If you notice the entire class did not use paragraphs, jot yourself a note.  You won’t need to write “Remember to use paragraphs” on every single paper.  Likewise, if you notice the entire class wrote strong thesis statements, you won’t need to write “Great thesis statement” on every paper.  You can address such issues in class the next day.

3.  Comment with a rubric or checklist in front of you.  This will help you make productive comments which are directly tied to the assessment process.  Use language from the rubric in your comments.  Try to stay focused and not veer too wildly from the rubric.

Red Pen by Jenny Kaczorowski is licensed under CC by 2.0
Red Pen by Jenny Kaczorowski is licensed under CC by 2.0

4.  At some point in your life as a student, you were probably handed back an essay or paper covered in red ink.  Your heart probably sank.  Making 1 or 2 positive comments and 1 or 2 suggestions for improvement is enough.  Limit your comments to no more than that.

5.  Go digital.  Your students can submit their writing to you via Google Drive, and you can comment electronically.  This is much quicker and more efficient than writing comments by hand

6.  Remember, you do not need to read and comment on every student’s draft every time you assign a piece of writing.  Instead, give yourself permission to grab a sampling of the class set (a few developing writers, a few average writers, and a few sophisticated writers).  Flip through the drafts, see what you notice, and plan your instruction from there.  You can always address any glaring issues in 1:1 conferences.

7.  If you need to address spelling errors, use the minimal markings technique.  Place a check mark in the margin of the paper, indicating a line with a misspelled word.  This is not only more efficient for you, but it is also forces the student to manage their own editing process.  For more on minimal markings, click here to read Stacey’s post about the technique.

Please leave a comment below, and share your own tips for streamlining the process of commenting on student writing.

Remember to join us next Monday evening, November 10th, when we host a Twitter Chat about working smarter, not harder.  The chat will begin at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time.  Just search and tag #TWTBlog to participate.

Click on the image for more information about the Twitter Chat.
Click on the image for more information about the Twitter Chat.


Dana Murphy View All

Literacy Coach, Reader, Writer

8 thoughts on “Work Smarter: Commenting on Student Writing Leave a comment

  1. Thank you so much for helping me work smarter and not harder! I am a brand new teacher and so far grading my students writing has easily been the most time consuming task. I’m always looking for new ways that help me grade efficiently and productively at the same time. I agree with many of the other people who have commented here. Point #4 was a fantastic reminder about how our comments can not only help but hurt our students. Also, thank you for the minimal markings technique! Please keep sharing your thoughts on writing and teaching. As a new teacher we can use all the help we can get! It is greatly appreciated!


  2. I liked all of these ideas but thought 2, 5, 6 and 7 were very valuable. I liked #2, because you can read all the papers quickly and then come up with a lesson that will benefit the whole class. About going digital – I have subbed in a 6th and 5th grade class where the students are now using iPads or Chromes to write and turn in music. I think it sounds like a great idea! You don’t have paper everywhere or have to read their handwriting. It makes the process quicker and easier. I also hate correcting every spelling or punctuation mark, I think #7s idea of putting a check next to the paragraph that needs something adjusted is both beneficial for the teacher and the student.


  3. I agree so much with the importance of keeping comments to a minimum. I made that mistake so many times earlier in my teaching career – I would return papers covered in comments, but the truth is, I don’t think students actually learned much from those comments. I would become so frustrated when they didn’t revise according to my direction, but I think most of the time they didn’t understand my direction or they were way too overwhelmed to take next steps.


  4. I like the idea of glancing at everyone’s first, Dana, & like Tara, #4 is a great tip. If the paper is completely marked, then it’s your writing, not theirs. A one on one conference would help much more if the student needed that much help. Thanks for these!


  5. I used to tell students that I would focus on one area when grading a particular assignment. For example, I might only look for how well they supported main ideas on one assignment or in another one, I would only look for run-ons or fragments. This can be done with multiple drafts of the same writing assignment, by the way. Draft 1-main ideas, draft 2-sentence structure, etc…


  6. All are super tips, but #4 reminds me of something I read yesterday. Thought you might be interested in it (though I just posted it on the TWT FB page):

    I also think working in a digital format is so useful. Less piles on one’s desk and quicker feedback (if kids are online). I started using Google Docs with my students several years ago and it was incredible. Seeing as Google Docs have come a long way since then, I can only imagine how easy it makes life now.


  7. These are great tips, Dana! #4 is especially important to keep in mind, I think – and I’m speaking here as a (long ago) student and mother of three who has witnessed the power of that red marked paper.


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