You Can Teach Writing

When giving feedback, focus on planning stages.

If you want teen and adult students to learn to write expository nonfiction competently with a minimum of fuss, concentrate  on giving feedback during the planning stages of the writing process. 

Planning is where your feedback has the most impact in students' writing. As they are planning their documents, students build the overall structure of their writing. Small changes in the structures have big impacts on the outcomes.

Students who become masters at planning expository nonfiction documents will need very little other support from you throughout the rest of the writing process.

Planning is something everybody does.

Whoever thought up the term pre-writing to refer to activities writers do preparatory to composing full documents must have had a screw loose. Pre-writing sounds like something cave men did when they weren't out hunting woolly mammoths. 

Can you imaging the PE teacher calling JV basketball practice "pre-basketball" or the music teacher calling students' practice at home "pre-music"? 

Every time somebody invents a weird, educator term to replace a familiar term everybody understands, that person makes it harder for teachers to teach and students to learn.  

What English ed folks call pre-writing is what ordinary folks call planning. It's an ordinary activity that real people do, not some weird, English-teacher thing. Planning is about as exotic as writing a grocery list. In fact, writing a grocery list is planning. 

A plan tells writers what they need to have on hand when it's time to write an expository nonfiction document

Planning reduces the need for revisions.

During the repair stage, writers who shirk planning often have to do extensive revisions, which are more difficult and usually less effective than thorough planning. 

A total revision is a huge amount of work, and the result is rarely a fraction as good as the writer could have produced by spending half as much time planning the document well. 

Believe me, neither you nor your students want to do a total revision as a deadline looms. 

Students who are not adept at planning also may struggle during the repair stage. If you see students are struggling to repair the effects poorly planned documents, give those students extra attention during the planning process.

Planning's goal isn't just the document.

When you teach expository writing, the point of teaching teens and adults to plan documents is not just so they make plans that become documents, as important as that is.

Giving feedback should help students identify pivotal choice points in the writing process.

What you are really trying to do is to help  students develop an instinct for the places in the planning process where making a different choice totally changes the outcome.

During the three planning stages of the writing process (the parts typically  called pre-writingstudents deploy four writing strategies to create three products, namely their:

  • working thesis statement 
  • writing skeleton™ (the working thesis plus three supporting reason statements)
  • complete plan.

A poor choice while making any of those items can have significant negative consequences for the final product. 

For your feedback to students to be most effective, you should be giving feedback to each individual student at those important points: working thesis, writing skeleton™ and complete plan.


Giving feedback at that level of intensity probably sounds impossible if you still associate feedback with comments on papers. If you try a different way of giving feedback — by talking to students as they write— fast, frequent feedback is very doable. 

Giving feedback through conversation is fast and useful.
Oral feedback on work in progress is fast and easy.

Some feedback is in the writing process itself.

In my strategic writing process I'll give you to teach your students,  each time students use an expository writing strategy, they end up with some written product to show for their work.

That written product is feedback. The feedback from the written product lets students know when they've finished each stage.  Students can track their progress.

Students don't have to wait for days (possibly weeks) after they've turned in a paper to find out whether they correctly interpreted the directions: Feedback built into the strategic writing process tells them. 

And, until their documents are complete and ready to be submitted, students use each written product at next stage of the writing process.

Producing something they will actually use makes students feel respected and empowered and keeps them working to improve their writing.

De-stress teaching by stressing planning.

While students are planning an expository document using the thesis-and-support pattern and writing process, they write only four sentences (a working thesis statement and three supporting reason statements) before they can tell whether their plan could work.


If you're going to do a halfway decent job teaching writing, you will need to give every one of your students personal feedback on their:

  • working thesis statement, and
  • three supporting reason statements.

When planning stage curtain rises, try giving feedback.
Best time for giving feedback.

Which would you rather do: 

  • Read and respond in writing to each of your 100 students' 500-750 word texts, or
  • Read and respond orally to each of your 100 students' thesis statements and three supporting reason statements?

Not only is giving feedback orally to one student at a time easier for you, it's also more effective for your students because it's fast, personal feedback.

Giving feedback is how you teach writing.

To help students interpret the information the writing strategies deliver, you must engage students in conversation in which you can provide feedback to them individually.

Instead of staying at the front of the classroom in the collegiate manner, circulate through the room in a nursery-school manner while students are writing.

Look over shoulders.

Ask questions.

Probe into why students are doing what they're doing.

  • What were they thinking?
  • What did they write?
  • What happened as a result of what they wrote?

See and hear for yourself whether students are practicing the writing strategies correctly.

Tailor your feedback to those who need it.

Remember feedback is a two-way process. If students don't use the strategies you taught or don't use them properly, that's telling you that you must reteach that material.

Please, no lectures to the whole class if only one or even a handful of students need additional instruction. Tailor your feedback to the students who need it.

You may only have one student who doesn't use a strategy appropriately and automatically, but you must teach that one student a second time.

It's entirely possible you might have to reteach that one student a half dozen different ways until you discover how to present the strategy so it makes sense to that student.

I know that's a pain in the butt, but, hey, that's what folks like us get paid astronomical salaries for doing.

If you spot something that will turn into a problem later in the writing process, you can chat with the writer about what s/he thinks will happen later in the writing process as a result of that particular choice.

Don't be discouraged if students don't produce good writing products at every stage of the planning process on their first or their fourteenth tries.  Each student has to figure things out at his or her own pace.

If you keep dragging students through the writing process enough times, eventually the combination of feedback from the writing process and your feedback will make sense to them.

Students need copies of in-process documents.

Students have to acquire knowledge of what works in their writing from their own experience over time: You can tell them about it, but they have to learn it for themselves.

Students, like most of us, need some time away from writing in order to look at their writing with anything like an objective eye.

If they don't have copies of all the materials they prepared in the writing process for their documents, figuring out where they made poor choices will be difficult.

To help students master the writing process, insist students keep all their work for each stage of the writing process for every assignment so they can examine it later. Computers make saving those documents easy.

Limit your comments on graded texts.

By the time students have submitted a document for grading, it is too late for feedback to have much impact. Accept that fact. Don't waste time writing long comments. Students are not going to read them.

I suggest you keep your written feedback (other than codes for IMP errors) on students' finished documents to two types:

  • a short suggestion that will have an impact on the next paper, and

  • a short suggestion the student can begin working on that won't show results immediately.

A suggestion with immediate impact is,  "Follow the directions next time."

A comment with longer-range impact is this:

You had overlapping content in two different body paragraphs. Where is the first place in the writing process where you might have done something differently to keep that from happening?

Comments or questions that get students to examine their behavior turn written feedback into a genuine learning experience.

A final point to remember about giving feedback is this: A grade is a grade; it is not feedback.

What to read next

If you're reading through all the instructional strategies pages, this feedback page is followed by one about why full documents are a strategic requirement.

If you reached this page via a search engine, you may wish to start from the beginning to see what you missed. Here are your choices:  HOME page. Instructional strategies. IS1 Teach required writing. IS2 Aim for competence. IS3 Align objectives to goal. IS4 Plan 3/4 point finish. IS5 Teach 1 writing pattern. IS6 Teach 1 writing process. IS7 Individualize remediation. IS8. Do daily writing practice. IS9 Give fast feedback often. IS10 Require full documents. IS11 Assess for competence. IS12 Wait for writing skill.

Content on this page was first posted by Linda Aragoni to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 


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Your site is wonderful and very helpful. I would like more help with grading my students' work. This is the area that I feel most insecure. ~ Adele

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