How do we get students to check their work more carefully before they turn papers in?

Gary Chadwell, Featured Blogger

By Gary Chadwell, Consultant and Author, Collins Education Associates

One important goal of the Collins Writing Program is to help students be more independent and less reliant on the teacher for improving their drafts. Some students rely on the teacher to be their “copyeditor” and identify improvements that are needed in their writing. I refer to this in my workshops (only half-kiddingly) as the “I write them; you fix them” attitude that some students have about composing.

The best writing habit we can instill in our students is oral reading—asking students to read their own draft out loud to themselves in a one-foot voice to hear how their composition “sounds.” It’s a strategy a writer never outgrows; professional writers use it. If you would like to learn more about that strategy, read my blog post, “Is Oral Reading Still the Best Way to Check Your Work?” which was featured in the October 2016 Collins Writing Exchange.

Here, I want to focus on another powerful self-assessment strategy that involves the assignment’s Focus Correction Areas (FCAs). One of FCAs’ many benefits is that we can use them to guide students’ self-assessment before we look at their papers. Let’s ask students to “mark up” the FCAs on their paper as a way of getting them to check for important writing features. Indicating where features are in an assignment can be done in several ways and can be done at different points in the writing process.

First, let’s consider how students can indicate how they have met an FCA:

  • Circling. Simply circling key words or phrases shows evidence of meeting an FCA. For example, you might have students circle key unit vocabulary terms, sentence beginnings, powerful verbs, or other specific words you are encouraging them to use.
  • Underlining. Like circling words or phrases, underlining demonstrates that certain criteria have been met. Underlining is especially effective when more than a few words are to be marked, as with claim statements, metaphors, signal phrases, or transitional devices.
  • Highlighting. I am continually amazed at how motivating colored highlighters are for students of all ages. Highlighters can be used for the same reason as circling and underlining.
  • Bracketing. Putting ideas in brackets [ ] is effective for longer passages, such as interesting leads, strong conclusions, proofs in math, or evidence statements.
  • Numbering. When an FCA has a particular number associated with it (e.g., 5 unit vocabulary terms, 3 quotes from the text, 6 steps explained), having students number them helps you see that the student has met the requirement. For example, “Number in the margin on the line where each of your underlined vocabulary terms are used.”

There are also various points in the writing process when you might use these techniques:

  • Make them part of the FCA. Students will know even before they begin writing that they will be highlighting the FCA. (e.g., “3 metaphors circled” or “5 unit vocabulary terms”).
  • Use them for self-editing. Ask students to mark an FCA after they’ve read their paper out loud to themselves. “Now that you’ve read your argument aloud to yourself and made any changes you think are needed, please put brackets around the counterclaim that you have addressed.”
  • Help bring focus and specificity to peer editing. “After you and your partner have finished reading each other’s paper, please highlight the first word in each sentence in your partner’s paper.”

I know these steps make papers look a bit nontraditional. But even though the papers may look odd, two important goals are accomplished:

  • Students are engaged in focused self-assessment.
  • Students are more likely to find errors and make improvements in their drafts.

And there is an added advantage for the teacher: It saves time in grading papers.