adults in the classroom · writing workshop

Do not write on that paper!

I knew I had written a post before about why I feel so strongly against adults writing on students’ work in progress, and when I went looking for it, I was surprised that it was four years ago. Coincidentally, it was a post I wrote as a Slice of Life on March 21, 2014–almost four years to the day!

On or around that day, I stood in front of paraprofessionals and talked to them about ways to work with their striving writers. Despite their surprise and questions and hypothetical situations, my response stayed the same.

Do not write on students’ works in progress.

Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. It teaches students that they can’t write themselves. Learned helplessness is so much easier to teach than confidence and independence. As soon as a child believes they can’t do something themselves, they don’t do that thing by themselves. They don’t even try, and we need them to try.
  2. It sends the message that spelling, neatness, and legibility matter more than ideas. Nine times out of ten, the issue is about how to spell a word. While I do care about spelling, I care more about providing pathways for ideas, information, and opinions to get out to the world.
  3. It teaches them that someone else has the answers or the ability to do it better than they do, and for many of those children, the thought turns into why should I try?

Perhaps an even bigger reason why struck me when I heard the reaction of a young writer as she reflected on how a teacher had written on her paper.

“Those words weren’t mine anymore,” she said. “No one should write my words except me.”

Yes. Now more than ever, we need to teach our students that their words matter, and that their words belong to them, and that their words are a privilege and a right.

I know how hard it is to resist the urge to write down the correct word for a student so that you can read it later, and I know how persuasive a child can be about getting adults to scribe or type for them, so here are a few ideas for handling those challenging situations:

  • Fall in love with the word could. What could that have said? How could you write that word? How could that sentence go? What could you have meant?
  • Don’t get bogged down by a child’s inability to read their own writing. The more you care about it, the more they’ll care about it. Again, the word could is your friend.
  • Emphasize the process and not the product. If the words are too difficult, think about re-introducing the power of pictures. If a child isn’t ready to read their own writing, maybe they can experience more success drawing and telling or explaining their pictures.
  • Create a list of “goal words” that the child can reference within their work space so that the go-to resource is not an adult. When a child asks you how to spell a word, have a response that goes something like this: “What strategies do you have for spelling a word you’re not sure of?” Teach that response to every adult that works in the room.
  • Keep sticky notes on hand. If you must write a word for a child, you can write the word on a note less intrusively than on the child’s paper.

We want struggling writers to believe that what they think is important and what they say is important, so important that we want to capture it in a more permanent form. We want them to believe that the process of writing, at whatever stage they are in, is within their grasp.

People don’t like to have their projects taken over, they don’t like to feel incompetent, they don’t like to feel like their work is never good enough, or that they need help in order to do it right.  People, children included, want to feel independent and empowered, at any age and level, and we should be striving to provide tools that meet them at whatever level they are to be independent and build skills.

13 thoughts on “Do not write on that paper!

  1. I find myself teaching both student and teachers this. My students know I will have a conversation, make some suggestions, but the final work is theirs. That learned helpnessness is a lot to overcome, but once they do, neither of you will ever go back.


  2. One of my students came in one day and let me know she was really mad at her dad. I asked what he did and she said he wrote ALL OVER her story and turned it into his story and she really liked HER story, NOT HIS! I had to chuckle but it was a great reminder for me, also.

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  3. Way way back, I wrote on students’ papers. And then I wondered why their writing didn’t get better. So, I went to Jim Vopat’s minimal marking technique and that helped a lot. However, as I evolved more (so now we’re going back five years instead of 10-14), I realized that writing on students’ writing was not the way to go. So I stopped. Completely. I won’t even write on my own child’s writing — no matter what. That’s what sticky notes are for.

    As I’ve already told you privately, I’m thrilled you wrote this post. Thanks for all of the tips too!

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  4. When I worked in the writing lab at my previous institution, they told us not to write on the students’ drafts–that the students should make their own notes on their own paper. I always forget that when they come to office hours, so thank you for the reminder of why it’s important to do it that way.

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  5. I love too, the timeliness of this reminder. That more and more we are seeing in real time how important the voices of even the youngest of our students matter…and how important we make sure all of our best intentions are indeed fostering within them a sense of agency.

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  6. Mel,
    Your post speaks to my heart. I will always remember the day my kindergarten daughter requested I remove her writing from the refrigerator. “Mommy, I didn’t do it right. See!” All the while pointing to the way her teacher wrote mailbox over her malbx. That was the day I retired my correcting pen.

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  7. Melanie, I’m going to forward this blog through the staff. all in love with the word could. What could that have said? How could you write that word? How could that sentence go? What could you have meant? Absolutely. This is so important. Just a little change of words and our message gives the power to the students.

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  8. Perfect timing as we head into the final quarter of the year. And this “People don’t like to have their projects taken over,” is the number one reason why not to write on student’s work. They look down and see that other writing and stop. Done. Finished. So over completing it.

    Thanks for the helpful ways to handle helping without taking over! More post its and the power of “could” are my faves.

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