How can I address the self-editing and peer editing void in the classroom?

Gary Chadwell, Featured Blogger

By Gary Chadwell, Consultant and Author, Collins Education Associates

Count me among the teachers who sometimes view self- and peer editing as the Bermuda Triangle of the writing process. It is too often a place where good instructional intentions go, never to be heard from again.

All too often, students’ self-editing is far too casual. The “one and done” attitude of some students makes it hard to get them to look critically at their own first drafts. Peer editing is also often done far too superficially because some students are reluctant to be critical of another’s work. And then there are those who lack the diplomacy to offer suggestions in helpful ways.

As educators, we need to give students the tools to be more self-reliant in their writing. Today’s writing standards expect students to write in a more academic voice and closely observe the conventions of standard English. That means students must develop an eye and an ear for reviewing and improving their drafts.  And peer editing is important, too. Working with others to both give and accept helpful input is an integral part of the writing process and a form of collaboration that is an essential life skill.

I am convinced that most of the problems we see with self- and peer editing in the classroom are not due to students being lazy or uncaring. Instead, it is because they don’t really know how to do these things and need more guidance and structure for working with existing drafts.

Here are a few suggestions that can help address the editing void in your classroom:

  • Use oral reading. One of the best habits we can develop in our writers is reading their drafts aloud to themselves before anyone else—a peer, a teacher, a public audience—sees it. Reading a draft aloud to oneself is frequently cited by professional writers as a key element of their writing process. It is a useful strategy because we are all more likely to notice omissions, repetitions, and passages that just don’t sound right when we read our work out loud as opposed to reading it silently.
  • Model and structure the process. Eventually you want students to use oral reading independently every time they write a composition. But until the habit is established, demonstrate and guide oral reading as a full-class activity. For example, when everyone in the class has a completed first draft, walk them through these steps:
        1. Read the composition in a “one-foot voice” (loud enough to be heard by the reader without distracting those nearby).
        2. Read all the way through the draft without stopping in order to hear how it sounds. Does it make sense? Is it easy to follow?
        3. Read the draft again, this time pausing briefly to place check-marks anywhere changes might be made to improve the piece (e.g., missing words, wrong words, repetition, spelling, missing or incorrect punctuation, and so on) without stopping to make any changes. Remind students that “stopping to fix and then reading on” reduces the chances they will notice problems.
        4. Give students a quota of check-marks, requiring them to make improvements. If there are no mistakes, ask students to find ways to make it better, such as by elaborating on an idea, using more precise words, and varying sentence structure.
        5. Review all the check-marks, reread the passage, and make the changes.
  • Peer edit shoulder to shoulder. Once students have used oral reading and made improvements to their own writing, they can get feedback from a classmate. Ask peer partners to work shoulder to shoulder—not knee to knee—when peer editing, because we want partners to read drafts to the author rather than the author reading to the partner. This approach allows each author to hear their piece read aloud to them by someone who doesn’t know what it is supposed to say. Now the piece is being reviewed by two people.
  • Assign a specific focused editing task. After all students have read their partners’ papers aloud and have made any improvements they can find, give them a concrete editing task with their partners. Make sure that the focused editing task is one that can help improve the quality of the paper, can be done by students of all abilities, and requires students to do something observable to their partner’s paper. Here are a few examples:
    • For basic writers, underline the first word of each sentence in green and circle the last in red (to make sure sentence markers are in place: green = go; red = stop). For more advanced writers, circle every punctuation mark that is not a period, encouraging sentence variety.
    • Circle any spelling suspects. In other words, look for suspicious-looking words; students don’t have to be great spellers to find spelling suspects.
    • Make a list of the first word of each sentence to see if the beginnings of the sentences are varied.
    • Highlight important unit vocabulary words to ensure correct spelling.
    • Check to see if any words could be eliminated (this is especially good for advanced writers) or if any words could be made more specific (e.g., instead of , use).

There are no fool-proof plans for avoiding the black hole that self- and peer editing can sometimes become. But using these steps regularly to structure and guide students can make them better resources to themselves and others—and less dependent on their teachers. And as an added bonus, peer editing will help students improve the speaking and listening skills listed in the Common Core as critical for college and career readiness.