Spicing Up Revision

With the New York City sun glinting through the windows of the large annex room of Riverside Chapel, I patiently sat and watched the other teachers gather their belongings and shuffle toward the exit.  The presenter in front, having just finished his session, stood bent over a worn leather briefcase, packing up some papers.  I stood up and approached him.  “Carl?” I quipped.  Looking up, Carl made eye contact with me. “Oh, hi there,” he said.  I continued, “During your session today you mentioned a little about your revision process…could I ask you a quick question?” Since this man was none other than teacher/writer/speaker Carl Anderson, I thought I’d make the most of this opportunity to ask my question.  “Yes, of course,” he responded.  I explained to Carl that as a middle school literacy coach I had become aware of teachers using the comments function on Google docs to “confer” with writers.  I wondered what he thought of this practice.  “Well,” he began, “it’s fine…as long as the writer already knows how to do whatever you’re asking.  But if they don’t already know how to do it, they need you to teach them how.”  Carl went on to explain that while writing his most recent book, A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences, his editor had sometimes been able to just tell him to do something– like remove x amount of words (the equivalent of a Google comment).  But she had also had to teach him things he didn’t know.  For example, she couldn’t just tell him, “Make this part sound like a handbook.”  Since he hadn’t written a handbook before, teaching– and conferring– was required.

Returning home from the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project Reunion in New York City later that day, I thought a lot about what Carl had taught; especially as it related to revision.  As a classroom teacher, I certainly remembered telling some of my writers things like, “Add more detail,” or “Be more descriptive.”  While these phrases were well-meaning, I would not exactly consider them…well, very specific or concrete strategies my writers could already employ independently.  As I look back now, I can see now that more specificity– more teaching— was likely needed.


During the revision phase of the writing process, I find that many writers will often ‘tinker’ rather than really revise for meaning.  Perhaps you’ve see similar behaviors in your middle school writers?  For example, during revision, writers might change a word here and there and call that “revising.” It’s difficult for them to think, “What am I really trying to say?”  As teachers, we strive (and struggle at times) to impart the idea to our writers that revising is so much more than tinkering!  We want our students to think bigger when it comes to revision.  We want them to understand that revision is about rethinking, reworking, rewriting perhaps whole sections– or even an entire piece!– of writing. 

Because the question of “What am I really trying to say?” drives all writers.

The Revision Game

Earlier on that same Saturday, I had attended a workshop session on revision led by writer and staff developer Pablo Wolfe.  During his workshop, Pablo expertly suggested a few helpful tips on ways we might teach middle school writers to become more independent and purposeful. I wrote about some of those tips here.

In addition, Pablo offered a small template for conversation (in a conference or small group) that I’ve paraphrased below:

  • TEACHER:  “What do you want your reader to feel or think?”  Teacher elicits answer from student.

  • TEACHER:  “Now, how will you do that?”

In whatever way teachers choose to hold this conversation with writers, the purpose here is that it can provide kids a revision goal for the day. Once they have an idea of how they will rethink, rework, or rewrite a section or piece to answer the questions above, writers can forge ahead with a goal for meaningful revision in mind.

As a follow-up to support writers, Pablo also suggested that teachers consider adding a game-like feature to students’ revision work: He called it “The Revision Game” (see image here):

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 5.25.48 AM

These cards (which include argumentative and informational writing) can be found by clicking here.  Pablo suggested cutting the cards out and allowing students to select randomly. This “game” can provide an avenue or goal toward revision work!  But we must remember what Carl Anderson said: “… if they don’t already know how to do it, they need you to teach them how.”   For example, if a student draws a card that says, “You could try adding  dialogue that helps us understand the character better,” and the student doesn’t know how to do that… this may not be helpful.  So another way to utilize these cards might be in a more heavily scaffolded way, with teachers demonstrating and or explaining with an example from a mentor text or teacher-created text.

Many of you may just be getting started with school, while others find themselves already several days or weeks into the new academic year.  I’m hoping this post provides a couple of possibilities to add to your teaching toolkit as you look ahead to the coming days or weeks. Some of your writers might benefit from some fresh ideas around revising!