In the very first post of this blog, I discuss the event that led me to focus on writing instruction. To paraphrase, in the first month of my first year of teaching, I assigned an essay and then went about grading it the only way I knew how: I stayed up late to extensively correct every error and record every comment that crossed my mind. Doing this for all of the papers took me well over 30 hours, but I knew it was worth it because my personalized responses allowed me to connect with the students in a deeper way than I could during class. But when I handed back the papers, the vast majority of the students glanced through the essays, passing quickly over the comments I’d carefully crafted during late nights and early mornings, and then discarded the essays in the recycle bins or their binders with little more than a second thought. I knew in that moment that most of my lessons in those margins would go unlearned, and the next papers, which were filled with the same mistakes form the same students, confirmed that my 30 hour investment had led to minimal student gains at best.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had been a victim of what Nancy Sommers refers to as “the unwritten canon” in her landmark 1982 essay “Responding to Student Writing”. In this essay, she claims that there exists an “unwritten canon” passed from teacher to teacher about how we are supposed to respond to student writing. The chief rule at the heart of the canon is that teachers should “correct” each paper by weaving a large number of quick comments and fixes concerning every error and growth area they see through the double-spaced text and margins of student writing (see below).
Nancy Sommers in “Responding to Student Writing”
Sommers is critical of this approach for many reasons. Its haste may lead to a terse tone from the teacher that can intimidate students. The relative brevity of each comment does little to differentiate the minor concerns from the major ones. The quickly scrawled comments often lead to confusion. But her most damning criticism–one that has been echoed by a number of writing experts over the last thirty five years–is that it is simply ineffective.
To understand the reason why more in the margins might actually lead to less student learning, let’s think about how we learn. Unless we are born with exceptional gifts, we aren’t just receptacles waiting to have knowledge poured into us. We don’t learn by hearing or reading something once. Instead we must sit with a concept for a while, give it attention, process it, practice it, and often forget it before we truly understand it. Most teachers understand this when they plan for their classes and keep the number of learning objectives small. But when commenting on papers the opposite is often true. Instead of limiting lessons to what students can handle, teachers unleash a flood of ink containing 10, 20, or even 30 distinctly different lessons. Further, because of the time required to give so much feedback, the comments by necessity are often short, general, and vague. To see this, let’s take another look at the example from Sommer’s essay.
If we look directly at the comments, we see right away that no information is provided for how the writer should approach the topic sentence; the students are just expected to do it. Nor is it explained why the writer should avoid the phrases “one of the” and “it seems.” The writer is not told the reason they should elaborate or be more specific, and it is would not be surprising if the writer didn’t fully understand the vague suggestion to “Think more about your reader.” Further, while this is only part of one paragraph, five distinctly different writing lessons–topic sentences, word choice, depth, clarity, and audience–are shot at the writer in a rapidfire staccato.
I would argue that the result of this style of commenting is the same as it would be in our classrooms if we had twenty or thirty learning objectives in one lesson: most students, and especially the students who need the lessons the most, become overwhelmed and ultimately internalize few or even none of the lessons, which in turn leads to them making the same mistakes all over again.
This potential for overload is why so many important writing teachers and researchers, ranging from Peter Elbow to Linda Christensen, have promoted a new canon for responding to student writing centered around making significantly fewer suggestions that have greater depth.
Through experimentation in my classes, I have found the magic number for me to be the one recommended by the St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors that I used when I worked as a peer tutor at the University of Michigan’s Sweetland Writing Center (which has great resources for writing instruction). It recommends focusing responses on two higher order issues and one repeated mechanical mistake, and while I will admit that the exact number of elements and blend of higher order/mechanical issues depends on the demands of the paper, I have generally found the 2+1 approach to be perfect for ensuring that students have adequate understanding and bandwidth to properly learn the lessons so they don’t do them again the next time.
Here is an example of me using this method on the paper from Sommer’s essay:
Notice how I ignore the clunky wording, lack of a topic sentence, and repetitive sentence lengths in favor of the bigger issue of its depth and specificity. Because I am not tackling everything and recording every thought, I have the ability to give specific details about why depth is unsatisfactory and offer some suggestions on areas to add more depth. I also am able to squeeze in a specific compliment and a lesson on comma splices.
Now, before going further, I should admit that not mentioning every error/issue remains incredibly hard for me to this day. While I know research supports providing deeper, focused feedback, I still often feel like I am cutting a corner or depriving my students of important lessons when I pass over a comma error or choppy phrasing. I think the reason for this guilt is that so many of my mentors and favorite teachers engaged in the unwritten canon that no matter how well I logically understand that marking everything is not backed by research or experts, it still often feels like best practice.
In those moments of guilt, I strive to think of two things to keep me unleashing a deluge of ink upon the page. First, I think about the days when I marked everything in sight and saw only minor, if any, improvements paper to paper and contrast them with the major jumps I regularly see with a more surgical approach. And secondly, I reflect on the fact that while going deeper on a couple focus issues does still take a long time, by not cluttering the paper with all of my thoughts, I can respond to papers in roughly 75% of the time it used to take, which means nearly 100 found hours a year (based on an NCTE study that found English teachers spend nearly 400 hours a year grading paper) that I can use to be a better teacher, husband, and father!
Thanks as always for reading, and best of luck in creating your own canon!
Yours in Teaching,
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