feedback · independent writing · inspiration · Looking Back and Moving Forward Blog Series · student engagement · Student ownership · writing workshop

Our Most Powerful Tool- Our Words: Looking Back And Moving Forward

I still remember my college freshman writing professor — 37 years later — calling me into his office to discuss my final paper. As I walked toward his desk, he flicked his wrist in my direction, allowing my paper to float toward me. Narrowly looking up he said, “You have a quality voice, but your writing is littered with grammatical errors.”

As a teacher of writing, I value the necessity of writing not only in language arts but also in all academic areas — and in life. I push against the scars this professor left on me and hold onto the one nugget he gave me, “You have a quality voice.” Despite the wounds of his negativity I write to protect my students from experience like mine. Students who are intimidated by writing are at a devastating disadvantage.

In Visible Learning For Literacy, Fisher, Frey, and Hattie, explain “When feedback is delivered in such that it is timely, specific, understandable, and actionable students assimilate the language used by their teacher into their self-talk. (2016, 100)” These words stopped me. When our words become the self-talk of our students, they become the most influential tool we have as teachers. Our words, can avow students strengths and provide a specific path for growth. How we respond to students matters. Each time I put pen to paper, my fingers to a keyboard, or a marker to a chart, I remember the damaging words that are now my self-talk.

Deliver Feedback

Fisher, Frey, and Hattie conclude chapter one, explaining students are most receptive and likely to respond to feedback when it relates to a challenge they’re facing. When we give students feedback on something they are skilled in, they are likely to ignore the feedback and disregard it as unnecessary. In contrast, when students need the information to complete a task and further learning, they will pick up the feedback.

As we offer our students words to grow we need to consider the time they need to process, understand, and apply the learning. Allowing students this time enables them to take ownership of the skill(s). If we are providing our students with suggestions for growth at the end of a unit, as my professor did, students have no opportunity to use the feedback, in turn making our words worthless and forgotten.

I find students’ reactions are as individual as snowflakes. Some students use the information right away and move on too quickly, leaving new learning behind. Adding a period, then a capital letter, and then repeating this same mistake in the next sentence. The message a student holds onto is a result of our language and the message we send with our words.  For example; When we ask a student a question (to prompt them to find the answer) the student reflects on previous learning and solves the problem independently. Students grow in confidence and grow to be independent learners. Simply telling a student the answer doesn’t allow the student to problem solve and sends the message we don’t believe they can do it, or, we are too busy to help.

Time The Message

When we provide feedback to our students is another critical factor to consider.  Tasks with one right answer, such as reading a sight word, feedback is most effective when the students are in the midst of the challenge. Work that requires time to process new learning and then meld with background knowledge, feedback is best given at the point when the student is beginning to apply the practice.

In Visible Learning For Literacy, the authors share the example of a student who is practicing sight words by reading the words from flashcards. When a student misreads the word, the teacher immediately provides the student with the correct response and continues the flashcards. In work situations when the student needs time to consider what they already know and then blend this new information with their prior knowledge, such as in writing about reading, the feedback is best given at the point of application. This pause in sharing feedback gives the students time to think about how the new learning changes what they already know.

Know Your Students

Striking a balance of when we offer our writers feedback requires we know our students as learners and as social-emotional beings. Watching over a writer’s shoulder as the student writes may provide one student with the support they need to take a risk. Another student may see this as a lack of trust and impending failure. Knowing children and how they process new information, what they need to feel confident, and how they connect their schema to new learning is what will guide our feedback. Feedback shared as often as is appropriate and when it makes the most difference to the student is the most effective.

Choose Purposeful Feedback

As we prepare to confer with our writers we must decide what is the most potent feedback to move the writer forward? We need to consider the developmental writing level what is within the control of the learner. We can all recall a time when we have been overwhelmed with too much information. When choosing feedback, a question we should be asking ourselves each time is;

What information has the most influence to move the writer at this point?

For example, when a kindergarten student writes,

    mymetingplasisthemalbx” for, “My meeting place is the mailbox.

We need to determine what skill will most move the writer to the next level. We can all agree conventional spelling is an essential skill. But, correcting the spelling isn’t the most purposeful feedback we can offer. Spelling will help this piece, but our feedback needs to reach past the writing and move the writer. Assisting the writer to notice and remedy the lack of spacing between words will support the student in this piece and future writing.

Be Specific

For our students to pick up and apply feedback, they need a clear understanding of what it is they need to do and how to do what it is we are suggesting. Young writers are left wondering what they should do when they receive vague feedback. They may misuse the input or disregard the information altogether.

To ensure students have the opportunity to grow as a result of our feedback, we need to show the students precisely what it is they need to develop their writing. Mentor texts provide writers with clear examples of the work we are suggesting. When writers can see the work they are trying to do, it is easier for them to apply these techniques to their work.


Despite the scars I carry today as a writer, I write. I write to teach educators and writers what it takes to be a writer. Pushing myself against my fears and my doubts matters because it helps me to feel what many of our students feel. I want more for our writers, your writers, my writers, the world’s writers: I want these writers to write with purpose, confidence, and joy.


Giveaway Information: Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. Thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book. If you have an international address, then Stenhouse will send you an eBook of Day by Day.)
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10 thoughts on “Our Most Powerful Tool- Our Words: Looking Back And Moving Forward

  1. I had a similar experience from a an English professor who picked up on the fact that, because English was not my first language, my syntax was off. He pointed out to me that although my writing was good, it didn’t sound as “rich” as my ideas were. He gave me a few examples by taking a sentence from my writing and showing me how to rewrite it in a more interesting way. He did this for a few sentences and a light bulb went off in my head. No one had ever done that for me before. At first, I was embarrassed and walked out of his office with my head down but excited about what I had just learned. To this day, as an elementary school principal, I use that feedback whether I’m writing an article, a card, a newsletter, and even a difficult email. Beyond my own writing, I’ve realized the power of feedback and it’s been an area I study from all angles and from all levels of my work. This article validates my thinking and reminds me of the power of feedback when working with teachers, students, and even parents. Thank you.


  2. Providing students with the feedback that they need in the moment can be a challenge. No one likes to hear about their weaknesses, so starting out with a compliment to let our students know that we do see something that they are succeeding at is such a positive way to establish trust.


  3. Timely, targeted and useful! Your post and what I am striving to be mindful of when working with my little writers. Thank you spot on post!


  4. Learning to leave specific but limited feedback was powerful for me. My students had some many things they needed to work on but obviously needed a realistic and manageable focus.


  5. Conferring with writers is still a challenge for me. This year I really worked on being more deliberate with my feedback and trying to choose the teaching point that would most influence the writer and have the greatest impact. I found it helpful this year to become familiar with the progressions so I could have a clear sense of where students were along the continuum and where it made sense to go next.


  6. As hard as I work on giving meaningful feedback, I think have so much to learn. This article reminded me about the importance of generalizing feedback so the learner can use it in the future. I’m getting better at this. I was also reminded about the importance of providing feedback which the learner finds useful. I’ve been working on listening and asking questions during conferences so that I can give give learners more of what they need.


  7. Know your students and time the message, so powerful! When I read your all of the TWT blogs I always take something away that I can use to not only support my writers but students across the curriculum and their lives. Thank you!


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