CSULA Department of English | Responding to Student Writing

Instructors in all disciplines recognize
the importance of writing to learning. In most surveys,
three-fourths or more of instructors respond that students
learn more in courses where writing is required, and nearly
all say that good writing skills are important to success in
their fields. Why then do nearly two-thirds of instructors
report that they do not have time to assign or respond to

As any experienced instructor knows, this
survey data is not contradictory. Designing effective writing
assignments requires much time and thought. When most
instructors report not having time to assign writing, however,
they are probably referring to not having time to respond to
student writing. Careful reading of and commenting on student
writing can be very time-consuming, but it doesn't have to be. 

Here are a few simple changes that can dramatically reduce
the time required to comment on student writing:



Focusing on
Audience, Purpose and Genre

Balancing Low
Stakes and High Stakes Assignments

Designing Effective

Responding to
Student Writing

Dealing with

Emphasizing Style

Using Grading

  1. Instructors can incorporate more
    low-stakes writing in their courses, where students gain
    the benefits that come from increased writing without
    instructors suffering the burden of increased
  2. Instructors can create more effective
    writing assignments that help students identify the
    purpose, audience and genre of the assignment and
    therefore produce better work.
  3. Instructors can develop clear grading
    criteria that help students understand how their work will
    be evaluated, and help instructors evaluate that work.
  4. Instructors can read more "rhetorically" and
    less prescriptively (see below). 

Incorporating only some of these changes can dramatically
reduce the time spent responding to student writing. 

Reading Rhetorically

Arguably the most controversial of the above suggestions is
the last, and yet adopting it would probably have the greatest
positive impact on instructor workload and student writing.
For many instructors much of the time spent responding to
student writing is really time spent editing someone else's
text. (This subject is taken up in detail in "Dealing
with Grammar
" and "Emphasizing
.") While instructors should pay
some attention to correctness and clarity, usually the
student's greater need is rhetorical.

To read rhetorically is to read as the audience, to assume
the position of reader for the writer and respond accordingly.
The shift is subtle but powerful. The teacher is the authority
and pronounces on correctness and incorrectness. The reader is
not the authority (the writer is) and can only comment on the
effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the presentation. In
short, by commenting on student writing as a reader (and not
as the teacher), the discussion about student writing shifts
from rules and prescriptions towards purposes and

Emphasizing the rhetoric of student writing focuses
attention on the effects (intended and unintended) produced by
the writing. The instructor reads the draft and responds as a
reader would. In general, the kind of questions readers ask
can be divided into the following categories:

Focus: What is the text about? Does the writer tell
me early on or do I have to hunt around to find it? Do I
always know what the focus of the text is or are there places
where I'm unsure? Has the writer neglected to discuss other
aspects implied by the main idea(s)?

Development: Is special and detailed knowledge
required to understand what the writer is saying? Does the
writer (incorrectly) assume readers possess this knowledge? Is
the evidence or description adequate to the task? Am I
persuaded by the evidence? Is the description detailed enough
for the writer's purpose?

Organization: Is the organization of the material
effective given the writer's purpose? Does the writer
recognize and effectively employ the conventions of this

Three Levels of Response

If responding to a rough draft, most instructors provide only
short marginal
and end comments and refrain from marking
grammatical and stylistic errors. When responding to final
drafts, instructors often offer more considerable responses.
Usually more is better than less, but research on student
writing suggests that more is not always more. According to
numerous studies, detailed written comments are often ignored or
misunderstood by students. While the instructor might believe
that the comments clearly direct the student's attention to
specific flaws, students often are unable "to see the
forest for the trees," and become discouraged by what
appears to the student to be a morass of contradictory advice.

A common approach used by writing
instructors is known as the "triage" model. Triage, from the French word meaning
"to sift," refers to the system used in hospital
emergency rooms to assign priority to patients based on the
urgency of their condition. Ignoring if we can the
characterization of student writing as an accident victim,
this model provides a helpful way of thinking about the longer
time scale of writing instruction. Instead of marking and commenting
on every problem found in a student's essay, the instructor
identifies the most serious problems and uses comments and/or
conferences to direct the student's attention to them and to
provide strategies for fixing them. As the student's writing
improves, the instructor directs the student's attention to
the less serious problems that perhaps have always been
present in the student's writing, but which were not noted
because of the urgency of other problems.

The Triage Approach

The following procedure has been adapted from writing tutor
training materials developed by Dr. John Edlund, now at Cal
Poly Pomona.

Skim the draft quickly to find the major problems or
areas of possible improvement. The instructor should try to
avoid falling into the
practice of reading the paper sentence by sentence and marking
errors as they are encountered. 

Respond to the draft by identifying problems at the global level, the
sentence level, and the grammatical level.

(the paper as a whole)

Considering the audience and format
required by the assignment or the purpose for the writing:

  • Do the content, organizational scheme, tone, and
    other characteristics serve the writer’s intention?
  • What fairly simple changes could be made in the
    paper that would immediately improve its readability or
    effectiveness? (Such changes might include supplying missing
    information, deleting irrelevant information, sharpening a
    thesis, reorganizing a paragraph, or writing a conclusion.)

(Readability or sentence-level negotiation of meaning)

  • Is the text “readable” (easy to process)? If
    not, what is the problem? (You may find problems with pronoun
    reference, missing relative pronouns, phrases that don’t fit
    together grammatically, word order problems, etc.)
  • Are any sentences awkward, unclear, or
    incomprehensible? (Here you can comment, “I don’t understand
    what you mean here.”

Grammatical Systems
(Long-term language development)

  • What consistent language problems appear that
    are likely to be problems in future papers?
  • Are there consistent problems with particular
    grammatical forms?
  • Can “consciousness raising” facilitate
    acquisition of these forms?
  • What would you put on a “personal proofreading
    checklist” for this student?
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Designing Effective Assignments
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Dealing with Grammar and Style

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