Friday, February 14, 2014

On Wearing Two Hats: Teaching & Responding to Writing

This morning I had the opportunity of engaging with quite an interesting and energetic group of bright individuals as part of our institute's training of newly-hired teachers. The goal was to discuss the teaching of writing to our EFL learners, what it is that an effective pre-writing lesson should entail, as well as ways of responding to students' writings. It was a hands-on session, with some initial discussion and brainstorming of lesson stages with a specific writing prompt in mind, which was then followed by their response to and correction of an authentic writing sample. The idea was to familiarize teachers with the kind of response to writing that we believe to be in keeping with the principle that writing is a recurrent process, non-linear in its creative nature, and the very expression of one's voice.
Roll up your sleeves and let's get down to business
Teachers worked in smaller groups and were asked to respond to and provide corrective feedback to a first draft sample of a five-paragraph essay written by an upper-intermediate level learner. Along with the sample, they received a copy of our correction and proofreading symbols, as well as a scoring rubric by means of which they'd grade that first draft. They immediately set out to accomplish the task, industriously reading the piece, red pens in hand, and... Stop. Wait a minute. Do you feel an urge to begin crossing out and underlining spelling mistakes and wrong verb tense use? You do, don't you?
Step away from the red pen
Before you unleash your full corrective-feedback-giving potential, put on a different hat. Be a reader. Respond to your students' content and ideas as a real person. Familiarize them with that sense of having an audience. We use language to communicate, be it in spoken or written form. Let them know that you are truly listening to them. Try to find at least a couple of aspects in their writing that are worth a compliment. Relate to their ideas, share a little about your own experience by commenting that maybe you once felt the same way as they did facing a certain situation in your own life, and that you know how wonderful or how difficult it must have been for them to go through it, as well. Empathize. Connect. Engage. 
Respect individual stylistic choices
It's always a challenge to provide corrective feedback without stifling the writer's voice. What I mean is, are you (over)correcting to the point of forcing the student to write as you would have if expressing a similar idea in written form? Of course there are instances of L1 interference that must be addressed, such as word order issues to name one, but we teachers walk a fine line between pointing our students in the right direction and simply imposing our own style on them. Keep an awareness of the fact that your students are experimenting with language (a foreign one, as a matter of fact), and that they are, knowingly or not, in their own quests to finding their voice. Cherish. Allow. Enable. 
Sounding curious as opposed to judgemental
Instead of saying something like "this paragraph is too short. Please develop your ideas here." how about offering something more in the lines of "I wonder if you could tell me more about this experience/situation." or even "how did you feel?" and "what did you do next?" The point is that by asking a simple question, you may elicit just the response you want from a student, instead of making a direct comment that might come across as judgemental, in that it is an affirmation made by you, the teacher, who is supposedly the knowledge authority on all subjects language-wise. Don't point fingers. Ask more questions. Provoke. Entice. Foster.
This set of guidelines sprang up from this group's engagement and reflections during our training session, so that gives you a pretty good idea of how lucky we are to have gathered such a great collection of curious and avid learner-teachers. Thank you all, Casa newbies, for inspiring me to write this piece.
Welcome aboard, guys!

Clarissa Bezerra


  1. Giving feedback to students is always a challenge. While teachers aim to improve their students’ language in terms of accuracy, it is also important to put some emphasis on content. Correcting mistakes is part of our job, but over-correcting might cause students to feel overwhelmed and lose interest in the whole process. So, what is it that we should do? There isn’t only one right answer, but in my experience, commenting on the content of what students have written has always gotten a good response. It’s the little things such as “wow, what a great story!” or “Did that really happen or are you making that up?” It creates a connection between the teacher and the student. After all, we are their readers.

    Also, if the writings are too short, we can ask questions to help them “remember” information that they didn’t write. For example, if they are writing about a memorable trip, you can ask questions like “Where did you stay?” or “How long were you there for?” or even “Did you travel with anybody else or did you go alone?” At the end of the day, showing empathy goes a long way when trying to get students to open up. It’s certainly better than the bluntness of “your writing is too short!”

    As for the specifics of it, we have to point out the grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation mistakes. However, if there are too many mistakes, the writing may look like a labyrinth of red marks. What we can do is point out the most important ones, and write a comment at the end, such as “When we start with the simple past, the whole story needs to follow the same tense,” or “when you are not sure about a word, look it up in a dictionary before you write it.”

    Finally, it’s all well and good to worry about correcting writings. Nevertheless, I truly believe that the prewriting phase is the most important one. It’s at that moment that we, as teachers, need to prepare them for what they will write. And that includes content and language. Take your time and prepare them well. Don’t rush. Make the time for prewriting activities. If we do a good job at this stage, there will certainly be fewer mistakes to be corrected later.

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  3. As a kid growing up alongside the popularization of the internet, I always learned a lot of English reading websites, blogs or forums. Even though that helped me acquire vocabulary and fluency, it made me get used to focus on meaning instead of form. When people are writing in a blog they won’t have an editor to check for possible mistakes so, as a reader, I would always understand what was being told or explained instead of how it was structured. I grew used to ignore any possible mistakes in structure as long as I could understand what the text was all about. Anytime a friend or peer asked me to read their essays and look for possible mistakes I would read, smile and say it was great. I was not doing that because I didn’t want to be rude and maybe it wasn’t even a matter of not having enough English knowledge, I just couldn’t look for mistakes. I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I do wish this could be discussed so that students can benefit from it.

  4. I have always seen writing as a challenge. It takes way more than creativity as it requires some good effort to express ideas accordingly in written form. As a teacher, I have to confess that I do enjoy correcting writings, not only because I find the task challenging, but also because I am curious.

    Once I read a quote by George R.R. Martin which said that “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” and it made me even more interested in reading my students’ writings. Not only can I live more lives, but it is also a chance to better understand who they are, what they believe and learn about the situations they have been through. =)

    Nevertheless, providing useful feedback in a simple, caring and clear way to help students refine their writing skills might be difficult at times. Finding the right balance between helping students achieve fine written expression, coherence and cohesion and good use of vocabulary without sounding too judgmental is a must and choosing to focus on something else but grammar mistakes is a wise decision, which might make students profit even more from the task of writing.

    Considering this, I found it really enlightening to come across this essay. Giving students feedback goes beyond red marking compositions and counting numbers in rubrics to get a score. I truly believe students might benefit a lot from comments and questions we write down on their compositions either to compliment them on their piece of writing, share similar experiences or ask questions which serve as a means to show interest and guide them to improve their drafts.

  5. Cláudio Fernandes11:18 PM

    Every time I have to correct a piece of writing, the first thing I bear in mind is that piece of paper is not only a collection of sentences and words. It`s obviously more than that. In that paper another person is describing his or her life experiences and knowledge. Hence, my first task whenever I am correcting an essay or paragraph is to get the point of that writing. What was that individual trying to show the readers with those lines? And after that, what can I do to help this person get that message across?
    Of course that is not a simple task and it has to be carried out with sensitivity. First, not to interfere on the writer`s ideas and end up making that your writing instead of someone else`s. Second, not to make the writer feel diminished by excessive feedback.
    What is more important for a writer of a second language? Complete grammar accuracy or a coherent and cohesive text with colorful vocabulary and ideas? I would vote for the second option. Grammar accuracy comes with the time and it is not the most important thing in the process of writing.

  6. Régia Fernanda12:31 PM

    Everything in Clarissa’s text is enlightening, but her advice for teachers to “put on a different hat: be a reader” before start giving feedback to students’ writings, in order to “respond to your students’ content and ideas as real person”, first step of the ECE (empathize, connect, engage) trilogy mentioned in her post, was important to remind me of how it is interesting to read other people’s experiences, opinions, etc., even if I have to provide the writer with a corrective feedback afterwards. This because I am always afraid of giving feedback and this hinders me from enjoying the text purely as a reader, which is essential if you want to relate to the writer’s ideas and be able to comment on aspects of his/her writing that are good enough to be appreciated. I am not a teacher, but I thing that following the easiest path of over correcting spelling and other mistakes of this nature is a temptation for a considerable number of teachers, not only to save time, but to avoid the challenge of finding ways to give feedback without making students lose their interest.

  7. Betsey W. Neal11:49 AM

    During the post-writing sequence, the teacher becomes a feedback provider. The type of feedback will depend upon what kind of writing task the students have undertaken (creative or communicative, for example). But either way, we must take into great consideration the actual person who has written the piece we are reading, even more so, perhaps, than the actual words in front of us. Written words can be erased and changed by the student, but the teacher’s articulated word is hard to take back. And, as stated by Clarissa, writing is not a linear process. Yes, I fully agree. No one sits down and spits out a beautifully composed, structurally homogenous, grammatically correct piece of writing in one fell swoop. Writing is an adventure; a wonderful roller coaster ride into perceptual inner bliss. We brainstorm, we draft, we revise, do touch ups and sometimes, even go back and repeat the entire pre-writing and writing process all over again if we’ve lost our way, so to speak.
    Writing is a work of art. And, like any personal creation, writing expresses one’s own perception. Plus, all souls are unique, therefore, writing styles will come in all shapes and sizes! Thus, as teachers, we must be careful not to harm that individual essence, but rather help the creativity blossom and grow and move through ordered, fluent chaos controlled by our feedback. The teacher’s role lends itself to helping the student find his/her voice, which is why I love Clarissa’s “step away from the red pen” comment.
    First and foremost teachers are real people too (believe it or not!) and so should view the content as would any reader. Therefore, I agree that we must be readers of the verse before being commentators and critics of prose! Also, focus on the positive before rendering one’s critique. Take Clarissa’s clever advice: find a positive aspect in the writing, be it content or style, and connect and compliment. Ideally, the feedback process involves student and teacher working in tandem; each feeding off each other’s panache. So, remember, don’t squash your student’s voice; enable them to speak and write more fluently by providing guidance and feedback in appropriate doses of constructive criticism through positive feedback.

  8. I remember reading in another blog that students value thoughtful feedback that engages them in dialogue with a reader making an effort to understand what they have to say. Besides that, when teachers approach students' texts with the "reader hat" instead of the "grader" one, they are encouraging student writing as an act of communication instead of a plain exercise in meeting instructor expectations,
    Finally, as Andre Netto pointed out, the prewriting phase is fundamental. When students determine what they want to achieve with that production, they will probably have a more fluid text, pinpointing essential information for the comprehension and decreasing the amount of mistakes that would have to be corrected. In addition, discussing the content will lead to stronger writing and consideration of what was learned.

  9. While reading the blog, it came to my mind that I as a teacher tend to correct every mistake I see, it is so spontaneous. But sometimes what I need is to put my pen down and try to understand what my students want to say, just like Clarice said that teachers should emphaticize, connect, and engage. We as teachers try to engage with our students in class all the time, we try to stablish a great rapport; however we forget to try to understand what they want to express on a piece of paper. Her tips made me re-think about how I should correct my students’ writing.

  10. Read the text as a reader first, not as a teacher. Empathize, connect and engage. That was the part that caught my attention the most during the training session, because I had never stopped to look at a student´s text this way before. I have always taken my red pen and started crossing out wrong words and pointing out grammar mistakes. And when I read Clarissa´s text, again, that was the part the caught my attention the most, because I have to remember that every day! Also, to respect the student´s stylistic choices sounded so right to me; after all, the student has to feel comfortable to write. There are grammar rules that must be followed, of course, but each person has his/her own writing style. And then, to point out the parts that need to be improved without being threatening or judgmental is also a great way of helping the student, because the result is going to be much more natural.

  11. Renata Santos7:59 PM

    I could not agree more with everything I have just read. We really should put a different hat and step away from the red pen when we have a sudent´s piece of writing in our hands. It is so spontaneous to correct every mistake we see like Vivian said. The point is that we have to exercise to be readers at this moment and try to empathize with the student´s text first. It is also extremely important to find something in their writing that deserve a compliment because it can be really demotivating to have your work all marked in red. Respecting the writer´s style is also relevant and instead of simply imposing ours, as teachers, we should guide them in the right direction.Giving feedback is never easy and it is always a challenge for every teacher.

  12. I remember being in this training with her and how her words resonated with me. I think a couple of days before, I had just finished grading a bunch of teens 4 compositions and being frustrated with them. I grabbed the red pen with anger! When Friday came along and we had the session with Clarissa, I remember her smile and her reminding me that the people that write are that... People! It made me feel so bad about my previous grading experience and I promised myself never to grade-in-anger ever again!

  13. I took that training session and every time I am supposed to correct a piece of writing, I remember that day. Everything you said is so true, and I totally agree with you. We need to read everything first, because that piece of writing was written to be read, so let’s read it, right? I’ve noticed that when we sometimes skip that reading part, we may find ourselves correcting things in a wrong way. We may misunderstand the student, think he meant something, correct it and realize later on that the student actually meant something else. At that moment, we have a lot of red lines and doodles all over the student’s work. It is so great to stop for a minute and consider that, because I had never thought about that from this perspective. Great technique! ;)

  14. Clarissa, I really enjoyed reading your ideas about responding to students’ content, making compliments, and being a true reader.
    Writing is not an easy task. Nobody gets it right the first time and, according to Harmer, the role of the teacher is to be a motivator, 'creating the right conditions for the generation of ideas, persuading them (the students) of the usefulness of the activity, and encouraging
    them to make as much effort as possible for maximum benefit’. I have learned to take all that into consideration when assessing my
    students’ writings. Once one of my students asked me if, even though he had so many purple marks (I never use the red pen), I really
    believed he had done a good job (as I stated in his paper). My answer was that as long as he kept trying his best, I would always be longing
    more for his interesting and thought-provoking writings, and those purple marks were only part of the process of bringing him closer to a
    great final writing. He was pleased and I got even better writings after that! Lucky me!!!

  15. I don't know what happened, I wrote here but my post doesn't appear.
    Reposting: This sessions was very important for me since I didn't have experience correcting compositions. What helped me the most was the idea of provoking and fostering. Asking my students to tell me more about something they wrote not only shows my interest in what they have to say, but it also sounds way less threatening and non-grade related. Once they feel comfortable enough to talk about something, writing becomes just a matter of practice.

  16. There are many approaches to commenting on student writing, and they differ in terms of the effect they have on students and the time they take faculty. In the ideal case, commenting on students’ writing offers constructive feedback.Students can be easily overwhelmed by too many comments. Moreover, they may not be able to distinguish high-priority comments from lower-priority comments, and hence they spend their revision time on the quick, detail-level fixes without addressing more important structural problems. So, instead of making extensive margin comments, focus on comments that address one or two issues in the piece of writing. Note that focusing on one or two issues does not mean that we have to accept poor grammar, sentence structure, etc.; by simply pointing these out to students and giving them the responsibility for finding and correcting problems, they are encouraged to do more self-assessment while writing.

  17. By reading Clarissa’s post I could clearly see that before correcting students’ essays teachers should think about a positive way to do it. It called my attention when she wrote these key words: empathize, connect, engage, cherish, allow, enable, provoke, entice and foster. Most of the time teachers worried about the grammar, the format, and also complain about what students wrote. This causes a negative impact on students, and it usually works as a block when students have to do another piece of writing. In my opinion, writing is one of the most difficult skills because it involves all the other skills. Teachers should be prepared to value students’ effort during their writing and not only their mistakes. It is not easier to be a corrector as well as give positive feedback considering that teachers are prepared to correct students. What we can do to make the correction positive is follow some examples given in the post. Teachers, can put themselves in students’ shoes while correcting their essays in order to elicit their mistakes, and also give suggestions without criticizing them. This way I believe that teachers could increase students’ confidence as well as help them to improve their writing skill.

  18. It´s nice to put more heart into our corrections, many students open up in their written productions and sometimes we are so worried with the task that we overlook that there is a person behind the correction. We have to remember to put down our shiny red pens and truly READ the text not as teachers but as readers, there are very few opportunities in which we can inspire our students so let´s make the most of it.

  19. While I was reading Clarissa’s text, I remembered my last TDC reflective writing in which I could identify all these techniques through my piece of writing. It was a great experience because writing is always a challenge to me. I usually do not like my texts, and I spend a long time trying to put the ideas together. The most interesting part is that when the teacher asked me the simple questions about the subject and encouraged me to write about my point of view, since I do not have experience as a teacher, I felt pleased to revise the text and to try to make it better. As an English learner, I think that corrective feedback is essential, especially because the teacher knows the students’ needs and is able to show them, in a positive way, how they can improve their learning process in order to develop their skills as EFL learners.

  20. While I was reading Clarissa’s text, I remembered my last TDC reflective writing in which I could identify all these techniques through my piece of writing. It was a great experience because writing is always a challenge to me. I usually do not like my texts, and I spend a long time trying to put the ideas together. The most interesting part is that when the teacher asked me the simple questions about the subject and encouraged me to write about my point of view, since I do not have experience as a teacher, I felt pleased to revise the text and to try to make it better. As an English learner, I think that corrective feedback is essential, especially because the teacher knows the students’ needs and is able to show them, in a positive way, how they can improve their learning process in order to develop their skills as EFL learners.

  21. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a similar session about writing with you, Clarissa. In fact, it changed my point of view and inspired me to shift from a teacher to a critical reader. As teachers, we are used to correcting students’ mistakes and I do not believe this is wrong. Correction is extremely necessary and it is part of our role. However, it should not be the objective and/or the starting point. According to Jeremy Harmer, the teacher’s aims should be:
    1. Motivate your students in order to create supportive conditions for them to produce language.
    2. Mediate and support your students. Be there for them. They must be aware that they can count on your help whenever there is need for advice and suggestions.
    3. Provide feedback. Respond to your students’ writings in a positive and constructive way. Do not overcorrect your students. Remember, their main goal is communication and not perfection.

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  23. I do agree we have to stay away from the red pen when first reading a composition. Correcting our students is truly important and they need this feedback to move further in the language. However, we should have in mind that our students put some effort in that writing and that was the best they could do at the moment. Instead of just correcting poor grammar or judging ideas, we should take a moment to read and appreciate what our students have to say and maybe change the way we see them.

    Samara Silva

  24. This is a really interesting text, It really is food for thought.
    In spite off the rubrics and the proofreading symbols, giving feedback to writing pieces is an exercise of empathy and mediation to us teachers. It is one of those moments when we must truly get to know our students, be interested in them, because writing is so personal, even when the subject is not. Every critique needs to be held carefully, for if the student feels judged and not good enough, we are hindering their prospect of getting better and trying harder. We need to be interested and respectful, every feedback is personalized, every feedback will be written to that particular student in that particular moment. That is why giving feedback to texts is so time-consuming, there is no script, there is no stamp and there shouldn't be red pens.One thing I wish we had more time to do is to teach the students themselves to give feedback. They would not only be more critical of their own work, but we could also ask them to give feedback to each other. That would prevent us from stifling them with our own style, to begin with.

  25. Clarissa,

    I think your text enlightens a very important role for the teacher when dealing with students’ writing pieces; we should take a more humanistic approach when correcting their work. When producing it, students put effort on what they wrote and to give them just a technical feedback would be to stiffen their creativity by sending an implicit message that the content is not relevant. Contrariwise, when we analyse further grammar and actually start to pay attention to what they want to say we can make them feel proud of what they have written. Likewise, they also will start getting the taste of what impacts they can cause in the reader – having audience changes the way we write and express ourselves. Thus, they we will end up feeling as humans being heard not as potential grammar-errors makers.


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