A Few Reasons to Stop Writing on Student Work

Each summer I teach several courses related to literacy instruction. I often begin by asking the teachers participating in the course to think of times when they felt successful as readers or writers, and times when they felt unsuccessful. Without fail, every time I’ve had this conversation, a large number of teachers say that they vividly remember the negative experience of seeing a teacher’s writing all over something they had worked hard on.

Chances are, you have had this experience as well. For some of you, you thrived as a result of a teacher’s marking on your paper. For others, you were devastated. And for yet others, you didn’t notice if your papers had marking on them or not.

Even if you were somebody who enjoyed your teachers’ written comments or corrections on your papers, there are some solid reasons to consider not writing on your students’ work.

Reason #1: Research on Independence and Transfer

When speaking about independence and transfer, researcher and expert teacher Grant Wiggins used to use an analogy of soccer drills versus actual soccer games. He often used the example of how when he was a soccer coach, for the longest time the hard work his players did during drills wasn’t transferring to the actual game. He realized that his players needed more practice with the real thing, so he started including more scrimmages and matches as part of their practice–and they got better.

Imagine a soccer coach who pulls a player out and then steps into the game themselves to score the winning goal. Yes, the players may see a fine example of how to score a goal–but how will that transfer to the next game?

When an adult steps in to write on a student’s paper for them, the example that students then see may be correct, but how will they reproduce a similar result the next time the same situation or problem arises again?

How will students learn to write independently do it if they don’t practice it–independently?

Reason #2: Classroom Time & Resource Management

Early on in my career I taught first grade. Back then, it was common practice for my colleagues and I to take home all the writing our kids had produced during the week, and make little notes on every single story over the weekend. These were first graders, so the most we would write was a simple sentence–with the idea that they would then be able to read what we wrote (by the way – they couldn’t, so many of the notes went unseen). I kept this up, despite the obvious problems, because it was expected. I didn’t want to be the only teacher who wasn’t writing notes.

Back then, work that went on display in the hallway, especially, needed to have my corrections on it. I felt I hadn’t been doing my job if student work was too messy or misspelled. Again, back then, my job as a writing teacher was very different – making sure my students’ work had capitals at the beginning, and end punctuation at the end of every sentence was top priority. Whether students had done this work on their own, or I had done it for them didn’t seem to matter much.

When I changed schools and started teaching fifth grade, I figured I’d do the same thing. Very quickly I realized that this was a huge mistake. I had thirty fifth graders–and they wrote a lot. After a few months of attempting to read and comment on every single notebook entry and draft I gave up. It was simply too much.

I switched to attempting to read and comment on every student’s notebook and drafts on a rotating basis. It was still too much! Plus, nobody was reading the comments. By the time they got their work back, those entries and drafts were ancient history. Not only that, because it felt like drudgery to face into those stacks on the weekends, a lot of my comments were canned, saying the same things to different kids again and again. I told myself they would never notice — but I’m sure they did.

I was spending far too much time trying to get a written comment onto every kid’s piece of work–and not enough time actually communicating with kids about their work in an effective way.

Reason #3: Research on Effective Feedback

Decades of researchers have told us time and time again that feedback is one of our most powerful tools as teachers. Effective feedback is a very large part of effective teaching.

One-one conferring with students can be a highly effective way to deliver meaningful, transferable feedback. Here’s a clip from John Hattie’s site, Visible Learning. If you are unfamiliar with Hattie’s work, what you need to know is that his team of researchers has combed through approximately 1200 meta-studies (in other words about 50,000 individual studies) to extract what factors have the most meaningful effect on learning. Feedback has an effect size of .70, meaning it has a high impact on learning.

Conferring – having a conversation – with students is far more effective in terms of management, time, resources, and much more sustainable – and enjoyable. In larger classes with older students, I sometime “confer” via the chat function of whatever platform we’re using, or a I run a more structured schedule of formal conferences, but in general, the writing workshop provides more than enough time for me to touch base with each student at least once a week – often far more frequently.

Modeling or writing a dictation on separate paper is another option, rather than simply marking or writing on a student’s paper for them. The simple switch from writing on the student’s paper, to modeling on a separate piece of paper changes everything. The modeling becomes an example that the student can then emulate – or transfer- into their own writing. Instead of doing work for the student, the teacher is providing an example to follow, and then stepping back to allow the student to give it a try–even if they make a mistake while doing it.

A good soccer coach knows and trusts the players will learn from experience–so does a great writing teacher. Setting yourself free from marking on every piece of writing, and finding alternatives to marking on student’s work will help you turn things over to students, and begin a new chapter in your teaching.