I learned about the red pen effect in graduate school and made sure to use any other color when I wrote on my students’ work. I thought I was doing right by my students when I wrote on their work with blue, green, or purple pens. But I wasn’t. In fact, I eventually realized I was harming my students more than helping them.
I don’t recall exactly who caused my epiphany to stop marking up my students’ writing papers with my edits and comments, but I must’ve heard it wasn’t helpful to kids at a conference or PD session sometime in 2014 or 2015 because I distinctly remember when I stopped doing it myself. Back in 2015, I volunteered to assist by teaching writing once a week in my daughter’s preschool class. As someone who is more of an “upper elementary person,” I knew I would need to have some way of capturing the stories and information the kids were crafting so their teachers would know what they were working on when I wasn’t in the classroom. Few of the kids were actually writing words so I captured their stories by writing down what they said on sticky notes rather than writing directly on the papers where they drew their stories. At the time, I asserted, “I don’t write directly on their papers since it is my hope they’ll go back and add the words themselves once they’re ready.”
And now I believe if I’m the person writing down what I think a child should write, then I remove lots of that child’s agency. Children must believe in themselves as writers. Plus, writing on a child’s work-in-progress implies they cannot do the work themselves. This leads to learned helplessness. (Click here or here for more on this concept.) Finally, when someone else writes on a child’s work-in-progress, the words are no longer the writer’s words alone.
I request that the teachers I consult with refrain from writing directly on students’ work. I do this for the reasons I’ve asserted above, but also for a personal reason. My daughter, who has Dyslexia and requires extended time to compose writing, has been on the receiving end of some of her past teachers telling her what to write. I noticed learned helplessness by the time I homeschooled her last year. Sometimes Isabelle didn’t think what she had to say was good enough. Often, she didn’t think she was able to write something herself because she couldn’t remember it exactly as she practiced it. In addition, Isabelle thought I could say something better than she could. I realized, early in her fifth grade homeschool year, that I needed to empower her to do all of her own writing. There were complaints of “just tell me what to write,” as well as some tears. I remained steadfast because I know that:
By the middle of the school year, Isabelle had published writing in a variety of genres. By April, she started a blog, which she’s continued to write on this summer. While I am willing to engage in oral rehearsal with her and help her edit any works in progress, I do not write for Isabelle. As I prepare to send Isabelle back to in-person school this year, I think empowering her to realize that she can write independently is one of the greatest gifts I gave to her last year. Every young writer needs to have agency!
I have a strong inclination against scribing for students unless it is written into their IEP as an accomodation. I’ve come to understand that when writing is too daunting for a child, I can encourage them to create pictures, engage in oral rehearsal, and/or use assistive technology as alternatives to scribing.
There are other ways to provide support or feedback to students without writing on their work:
ANALOG WRITING: There are several ways we can leave the tracks of our teaching behind when students are writing with pen and paper.
- Sticky Notes – Writing on sticky notes are less intrusive than writing on a child’s paper when a student needs help spelling a word or phrase they spoke orally.
- Photocopies – Duplicating a child’s work-in-progress allows you to jot on that paper as you confer with the child. Remind the student they will need to transfer whatever is on the photocopy to their work-in-progress themselves.
- Tangible Artifacts – Leave behind the tracks of your teaching with reminders or sketches written on small slips of paper. (This can be In addition to providing a child with a mini-chart.)
DIGITAL WRITING: Here are a few ways to respond if students are composing on a device.
- Notes in the Learning Management System: Leave a written or audio note for the child so they can hear your tips or feedback.
- Comments in the Margins: Use the comment feature in Google Docs to leave tips, strategies, or ideas so students can revisit the things we discussed after we have finished conferring about their writing.
I have an exception to this “rule” since it falls under the realm of editing. Mark Overmeyer helped me realize elementary students listen to each other and often introduce errors when they’re editing each other’s work. It’s important for teachers to help students edit their work. While I believe kids should make all of the corrections themselves, there are a couple of ways that I “break” my no-writing-on-student-work rule.
- ANALOG WRITING: I’ve used Jim Vopat’s Minimal Marking Technique, which I discovered in Micro Lessons for Writing (Heinemann, 2007). Rather than correcting a student’s errors, I guide them to the errors, line by line, by placing a checkmark in the margin. They’re responsible for finding the error(s) on that line and making corrections. If they cannot find all of their errors, one can sit beside the student and help them identify the errors. That said, the student is holding the pen and is making the edits themself.
- DIGITAL WRITING: I like to sit beside a student to make suggested edits. While I do the typing (since most elementary students are not proficient typists), the student has to return to the document to accept or reject every suggested edit that’s been discussed.
Through the years, we’ve all encountered students whose learned helplessness prevents them from thriving as writers. I’ve come to understand that the solution is vesting students with agency, rather than limiting their voice and choice by taking the pen. If we wish for young writers to see themselves as authors, then we must grant them the freedom to write for themselves. Please join me in giving the gift of independence from teacher markings on works-in-progress to your students this year – and always.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Writing. Many thanks to Corwin Literacy for donating a copy for one reader.
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