Responding To Student Writing; Are You Doing It Right?

Teachers and tutors today spend a lot of their time during work on commenting or responding to student assignments and essays.  The question is, however, are we being helpful, and what is seen as constructive feedback for students? In this blog I’m going to review the thoughts of Nancy Sommers in “Responding to Student Writing“, and discuss some of (what I think) are the key points.

Nancy Sommers outlines at the beginning of her literature piece that one of the most important aspects of responding to a student’s writing is to help them become the reader rather than the writer.  The comments should be designed to allow the writer to criticize and proof read their work, to help them analyse if their writing is communicating their argument effectively or giving the desired effect or impact to the audience.  These comments should be the motive for the student revising their drafts in earnest.

As Nancy Sommers then begins to outline, the common issue with commenting on work (that I have personally witnessed numerous times as a student) is the issue of the teacher imposing what they want written on the writers work.  Instead of helpful suggestions or aiding the writer to understand the text from a readers point of view, they dictate where they want the text to be altered and how.  Rather than looking at the piece of work in it’s entirety, they take it apart and encourage them to chop and change as the teacher has commanded instead of allowing the writer to develop and review the essay as a whole.  Instead of offering concise and clear strategies and thoughts to students, teachers are often giving vague and confusing instructions for pupils to follow.  It becomes a horrible cycle of the teacher saying “jump”, and the pupils saying “how high, what direction, in what style, and would you like tea with that?”, without the student having any idea why they are making the changes and losing the purpose of what they were writing in the first place.

So what makes good constructive criticism? It is highlighted by Nancy Sommers that instead of searching for errors in the literature, we should instead focus on searching for breaks in logic, sentences that confuse us or places where information is simply missing.  We should be aiding the student to read over and alter their own work, to help them improve upon their own writing process and editing.  Through better thoughtful commenting, it is desired that the teacher reinforces the writers purpose in the essay and also supports their development within written work as a whole.

When training to become a writing mentor it is stressed that we are to help improve the writer, not the writing.  In this piece of literature Nancy Sommers really highlights the critical points as to why this is so important in our role, as well as how we can do it better and avoid the common pitfalls that numerous teachers seem to fall into.  It’s vital to divert your attention as a mentor from the surface errors (such as grammatical mistakes) of a piece of work and help your peers to evaluate their writing with their own purpose and thoughts in mind. As Nancy Sommers suggests, be mindful with your responses and help the writer develop with their own opinions in tact, for if we edit the essays for them, what good will that do the writer in the long haul?