“Do you need an apostrophe before the s if you’re not showing possession?”
“How come you didn’t capitalize the letter i in I’m?”
“I didn’t notice any end punctuation. Was this all supposed to be one sentence?”
These are some of the cringe-worthy things I found myself asking Isabelle, my third-grader, during the first few days we were writing together during quarantine-schooling. As someone who reminds teachers to “teach the writer, not the writing,” I was doing a poor job of teaching the writer beside me during those first few days of at-home instruction. Thankfully, my teacher-side came in and gave the mom-side of me a slap on the wrist for focusing on misspellings, incorrect capitalization, and forgotten punctuation.
I reflected on the error of my ways and paid closer attention to the kinds of mistakes Isabelle was making. I noticed she was aware of her errors after I pointed them out, but was making the same errors repeatedly because she didn’t have a list of things to focus on. Therefore, I started thinking about the kinds of things my child could use reminders to fix-up so her writing would be easier to read.
Working with My Child
In late March, I worked with Isabelle to create a personal editing checklist so she could fix up her writing at the end of each day’s notebooking session. I taught Isabelle how to go through every step of her checklist so as to examine her writing through that lens. After she finished editing a piece for one item, she moved onto the next. After a few days, I noticed it only took a couple of minutes for Isabelle to fix-up her writing so it was more readable.
We tweaked Isabelle’s personal editing checklist when we transitioned to a poetry unit of study since I noticed Isabelle needed to think more about line breaks and had mastered things like capitalizing the letter I (e.g., I, I’m, I’ve). NOTE: We’ve used Amy Ludwig Vanderwater’s Keeping a Notebook National Poetry Month Roll the Dice Chats.
As the days passed, I realized I was guiding Isabelle a bit too much through the “editing minute” so I created a handwritten digital bookmark for her to use before each day’s poem got typed up.
Implementing Personal Editing Checklists with Your Students
Some districts have more structured writing instruction than others. While some teachers are still teaching robust units of study, other districts are assigning one writing piece each week. Regardless of what kind of writing kids are doing, it is useful for them to get in the habit of engaging in an “editing minute” before they walk away from their writing.
Check out Beth Moore’s post, “Three Ways to Introduce Personal Editing Checklists in Writing Workshop,” for ways you could introduce personal editing checklists to your students. Instead of pulling alongside a student for an individual conference on launching a checklist, you might meet with a student for a video call to create an editing checklist. Similarly, you could record a whole-class minilesson on creating a personal editing checklist for your students, which can be shared asynchronously or when everyone is gathered for a synchronous writing workshop minilesson.
Here’s an example, from Melanie Meehan, of how you might present personal editing checklists to your students.
Rolling-Out Personal Editing Checklists with Caregivers
Every child has different learning capacities. Caregivers know how much they and their child can handle right now. If caregivers are interested in helping their child to create a personal editing checklist, you might suggest focusing on a handful of things. For instance, instead of asking beginning writers to master all capitalization rules, you might encourage them to have their child focus on capitalizing the word I, the first letters of sentences, and names of people. It’s okay to let it slide if they don’t capitalize the name of a town or the local supermarket.
Next, you might provide caregivers with a few steps to help them develop a personal editing checklist – like the ones I created with Isabelle – alongside their child.
While the most effective checklist will be one a child creates for themselves, I believe it’s fine for a caregiver to “hold the pen” if they’re creating a checklist alongside a child. Some children might enjoy creating their own checklist while others will find it an arduous task. Right now, I think it’s more important for a child to get in the habit of engaging in an “editing minute” rather than taking the time to self-create a tool.
If you’re turning this work over to caregivers to do with their child at-home, then it is important to have caregivers understand the things going on a personal editing checklist should be within a child’s Zone of Proximal Development. Students should be able to catch and fix-up their errors by themselves in about a minute. This matters because we don’t want children to return to school looking for their teacher to spell words letter-by-letter. Rather, we want children to emerge from this with agency, confidence, and independence. If children are being told they don’t know how to capitalize, spell, and punctuate, then this cycle will manifest once they return to school. Or worse, they might return and not write as much for fear of taking risks.
Children’s writing should be readable, not perfect. What matters most is that children are engaging in the act of putting words on the page or on a screen. It’s crucial to help kids internalize, remember, and transfer skills. Therefore, the time we take to teach young writers to edit their writing now is time well-spent since taking the time to fix-up becomes increasingly important as kids travel through the grades. It becomes even more critical to self-edit as one enters the workforce where many people are expected to respond to multiple emails daily and craft polished presentations.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent over a decade working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grade K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).