Whose job is it to edit students’ compositions?

Gary Chadwell, Featured Blogger

By Gary Chadwell, Consultant and Author, Collins Education Associates

Few of us would hesitate before answering the question above. It is the students’ responsibility to edit their own work. That is what we say, and that is what we want. But, I wonder if we aren’t sending a different message to our students through our actions. One of the reasons I say this is the answer I get from students to a question I have asked them hundreds of times: “Why is it a good idea to skip lines when we write?”

The Collins Writing Program encourages skip-a-line writing to make drafts easier to read and easier to revise or edit, so I ask the question because I want students to understand why we want them to skip lines. Over the years, I have noticed a consistency in students’ responses, one that reveals a great deal about their attitude toward writing.

The most common response–by a wide margin–is this: “It leaves room for teachers to make corrections!” Unfortunately, this typifies the I-write-it-you-fix-it understanding that many students have of how the writing process works–especially in the elementary grades. When I talk with teachers about this dilemma, most agree that we must shift the responsibility for editing to the students. But how do we do that?

My advice to teachers for making students more self-reliant in editing their own work is pretty simple: focus on fewer, critical writing conventions; hold students highly accountable for those conventions; and make it as simple as possible for students to check on rules when they are writing or editing. Asking students to rely on a handbook as a resource for editing their own compositions is rarely successful. Many students simply are unable–or unwilling–to flip through a 400+ page text looking for information on a convention rule that they need to check.

If we are truly going to make students more accountable for their own editing, they need a quick and easy reference source for checking on essential convention rules.
Deciding what is essential, though, is a vexing question. In Errors and Expectations, Mina Shaughnessy says, “there are disagreements about the importance of different errors and about the number of errors an educated reader will tolerate without dismissing the writer as incompetent” (p. 276). Thoughtful people will disagree on what is truly essential, but teachers must set priorities.

This question of which conventions are most important has been discussed for decades. In Because Writing Matters, the National Writing Project and Carl Nagin (2003) cited a 1930 English Journal article on this subject. In it, Luella Cole Pressey suggests that “everything needed for about 90% of the writing students do . . . appears to involve only some 44 different rules of English composition” (p. 21). Pressey was onto something!

There are myriad writing conventions, and they can be overwhelming for students and teachers alike. Fortunately, the conventions of language are similar to any other body of academic content: Some things are more important than others. So what are the essential conventions? Over the last several years, I have asked many teachers about what makes some writing conventions essential. Are they the rules of language most frequently used? Are they the rules most commonly overlooked by writers? Or, are they the rules teachers feel are critical for students to master at their grade level in order to be viewed as competent writers?

One answer to these questions is Check Mate, a handy reference guide I developed that presents the essential conventions in an easy-to-use foldout folder that students keep with them in their notebook throughout the school day. The writing conventions included at each level of Check Mate are deemed essential because most teachers answer “yes” to the three questions above—for each of the rules included.

Check Mate is designed to help writers of all ages—from the primary grades to high school—become self-sufficient in editing their own compositions. So whose job is it to edit student compositions? With a tool like Check Mate–theirs!

View the Check Mate video. (5 min.)

Learn more about Check Mate.

National Writing Project & Nagin, C. (2003). Because writing matters. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and expectations: A guide for the teacher of basic writing. (1977). Oxford: Oxford University Press.