Why Students Often Struggle With Peer Review and What We Can Do About It

When I was an education school student, I feel quickly and deeply in love with Nancy Atwell’s In the Middle thanks to quotes like this:

We laid down the old, stodgy burdens of the profession—the Warriner’s Handbooks, the forty- five minute lectures and canned assignments—and embraced new roles . . . These were heady times, as many English teachers abandoned the old orthodoxies and cleared the way for our kids’ voices.

The idea of laying aside the orthodoxies that I hated as a student–the endless worksheets and 45 min. lectures on parts of speech–and putting more emphasis on students talking with each other about their reading and writing was for me, like it was for Atwell, intoxicating.

Consequently, I remember with great clarity the day of my first peer review because I’d been excitedly waiting for it ever since reading Atwell’s words. The students were working on a hero’s journey–the Harry Potter books were all the rage–and I gave them 45 minutes to read and respond to each other’s papers. I was vibrating w/ excitement when I introduced the idea, and yet the students showed little reaction, with most averting my gaze. It didn’t take long for me to realize that something was off, and I grew more than a little bit annoyed as, regardless of my prompts and prods, most students did little more than scatter a few vague comments like “Nice work” or “Good job”  and/or provide a handful of grammatical corrections that even the more primitive spelling and grammar check programs of the early 2000s could have fixed. 

This was my initiation into peer review and unfortunately my second and third attempts yielded similar results. Soon, after enough reconfigurations without any noticeable improvement in the outcome, I wrote off peer review as something that sounds great in books and professional development but doesn’t really apply to my classroom, and for years I did no peer review at all. 

Fast forward to today and peer review is a foundational element of my classroom. It is one of the most effective pedagogical tools I have, and by the end of the year, many students identify it as the most useful thing we did in class.

The secret behind this huge swing? When I first tried peer review, I assumed that the key to peer review was getting out of the way so students could talk about writing. But it turns out that exactly the opposite is true. I now know that peer review is one of the most complex and intimidating things students are asked to do in school, and like most complex and intimidating things, we need to give students lots of preparation before expecting them to be able to properly engage in the process Here is how I do that: Continue reading “Why Students Often Struggle With Peer Review and What We Can Do About It”

A Practical Guide to Teaching Grammar Outside of Worksheets

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 5.03.06 PMIn 1963, Richard Braddock, Richard Lowell-Jones, and Lowell Schoer set out to answer the big questions concerning how to best teach writing. They collaborated with NCTE and poured over every study and paper possible concerning the subject, and the result was Research in Written Composition, which among other breakthroughs made a startling claim: direct teaching of grammar to students generally does not improve writing and in many cases it may actually do active harm.

This result shocked the writing teaching world. It frankly seems nonsensical, and yet it has been confirmed time and again since then–in well over 250 studies–leading to one of the strangest questions in all of teaching: How is it that directly teaching grammar via worksheets, diagraming, and learning of grammatical terms often has a negligible or even negative impact on writing?

Last spring, I wrote a post for Edutopia where I examined this riddle, but the word count was small, so it mainly discussed the broad take-aways. In the last week, after a mention of it in a recent post, I have gotten a flurry of questions from subscribers and readers asking for more specifics, so I thought I would take the post today to welcome you into my classroom by walking you through my thinking and giving you the exact lessons that I used this week to teach those little core pieces of grammar: punctuation. I hope you enjoy, and if you want any more details, let me know! As I often say, we are all in this together! Continue reading “A Practical Guide to Teaching Grammar Outside of Worksheets”

What We Need More Of: Teaching, Not Editing, in the Margins of Student Papers

This is the second of a mini-series that I am doing on things we need a lot more of in the writing classroom. The first was on needing more low-stakes writing and use of writing as a teaching tool, as opposed to solely as a vehicle for expressing one’s thoughts. This week’s is on how we need to do more teaching and less copyediting in the margins of student papers and why doing that is so hard.

Over the last forty years, a compelling and comprehensive case has been made that teachers should not act as editors and mark every little error on every student paper. I’ve written on this before, as have Carol Jago, Kelly Gallagher, Nancy Atwell, Penny Kittle, Donald Graves, Nancy Sommers, and [Fill in name of well-known writing teacher here]. Continue reading “What We Need More Of: Teaching, Not Editing, in the Margins of Student Papers”

I Write to Learn What I Think: Why Our Classrooms Need a Lot More Learning Through Writing

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” -Flannery O’Connor

One of the biggest misconceptions that many people hold about writing is that it is mainly a vehicle for recording and sharing what we already know. While preservation and dissemination of knowledge is certainly a key reason to write, any writer will tell you that writing just as often (if not more often) is actually about figuring out what we know.

This is why people write journals, why writing is so often a part of therapy, and why so many people write stories, essays, and ideas that are never shared with the world. It is why J.D. Salinger said, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself,” and the creator of the essay Michel de Montaigne said, “I put forward formless and unresolved notions…not to establish the truth but to seek it.”

In all of these situations, the act of writing and the knowledge it brings about ourselves, our lives, and our world are what matter most; if someone else gets to share in our thoughts, all the better, but the main reward is our deepened understanding.

While on the surface this misconception might seem like a minimal, somewhat semantic detail, I would argue the impact that it has on both students and teachers can be profound for these three reasons: Continue reading “I Write to Learn What I Think: Why Our Classrooms Need a Lot More Learning Through Writing”

Tuesday’s Teaching and Reading Tips: How teaching argumentation could be hurting students, the other PTO, and the secrets to building better habits both in and out of the classroom

Last week I introduced the blog to my Tuesday Tips that were previously just sent to subscribers. This week, it continues with, among other things, a must read for teachers of argument and the secrets to building good habits that last.

This Week’s Articles:

“We Spend Too Much Time Teaching Students to Argue”
In this EdWeek Article, Kate Ehrenfeld Gardoqui makes a convincing case that while teaching argumentation is an essential part of our job, the classic approach of teaching it by having students make arguments that they then seek to support with quotes from the text is problematic. Her reason for this is that in the silo-ed off world of 2018, seeking just the evidence needed to support a preconceived viewpoint of the world–as opposed to weighing all the facts–has become a dangerous new normal. She argues that instead what a modern writing teacher should do is to teach students to weigh the facts first and then construct their arguments. This article is a must read for any modern teacher of argumentation!

The Secret Skills of Master Teachers: Predictable Time Off

While this post isn’t about writing, it is about being a writing teacher. Arguably no teacher has longer hours or faces a greater risk of losing her/himself in the face of endless stacks of work. In this post, Dave Stuart Jr. reminds us that we do better work and live better lives when we have scheduled, regular, and predictable time off is, which feels incredibly timely in mid-October, as that is when the paper piles often begin to build and the respite of Thanksgiving is still well off on the horizon.

The Ultimate Guide to Student Writing Contests

I’ve always loved the concept of my students doing student writing contests. The times when my students have entered contests, they’ve tended to throw themselves into the writing in a different sort of way because of its “realness.” The trick has been finding decent contests for them to do, which has been really hard. We Are Teachers has potentially solved this problem for good with this guide of 30 strong writing contests from across the country. The contests are wide ranging, but what they share is that every one is a real, well-supported, and viable contest that I can’t wait to show to my composition students.

This Week’s Teaching Tip
This week’s teaching tip, is a request of you–my readers–for some tips. I am currently working on a published piece and presentation for the NCTE national conference in Houston next month concerning peer review of writing, and while I have my thoughts, I would love to hear your thoughts on what you do to get kids talking about their writing with each other. Specifically, I am curious about what works for you, what doesn’t, and how you do it! If you have things that work, know what doesn’t work, or have other key insights, please share, as I would love to bring them to a wider audience! Also, no names will not be used (unless you want) and the responses that I use will only be used once I have cleared the content with you! Here is a quick link to my contact page, if you are interested.

Book Recommendation:

This week’s recommendation is Atomic Habits by James Clear. Clear is a relatively new pop behavioral science writer in the vein of Dan Pink or Malcolm Gladwell who focuses specifically on habits. I’ve been on Clear’s subscriber list for a while now, and his work has informed everything from my writing habits to my National Writing Project post this month on building student writing identities, which begins with a quote of his. And while I think Clear’s wisdom concerning habits and identity are essential reading for any teacher, I have also found that my students love his work too! In an advisory at my school that I do, I have begun to share some of his pieces, and the response has been overwhelming and positive. This makes sense because students, like us, know that they likely engage in too many of the wrong habits and not enough of the right ones and would like the tools to hack their natural impulses, and that is exactly what Clear provides!

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,


Tuesday’s Teaching and Read Tips: Using Writing to Create Meaning, a Case for Spiral Curriculums, and the Underrated Power of Quick Checks for Understanding

While a short Tuesday list of reading suggestions and quick teaching tips has been apart of my bi-weekly Re-Write Newsletter for some time now, I haven’t included it on the blog until now. It has been such a hit with subscribers that I decided I would start to put it on the blog too, starting now! So without further preamble, here is this Tuesday’s Teaching and Reading Tips!


Discussions of how to best build relationships with students tend to center on teachers reaching out to students and getting to know more about them. While this is undoubtedly important, Doug Lemov of Teach Like a Champion fame argues in this article that what is even more critical is our instruction. Specifically, he suggests that the key to building strong student-teacher relationships is instruction that makes it clear to students that we believe in them, are paying attention to them, and are there to help. While I don’t agree with all of his assertions, overall this is a really interesting new addition to the conversation concerning how we can encourage and accelerate the growth of strong teacher-student relationships. Continue reading “Tuesday’s Teaching and Read Tips: Using Writing to Create Meaning, a Case for Spiral Curriculums, and the Underrated Power of Quick Checks for Understanding”

The Most Overlooked Yet Important Writing Instruction Stat I’ve Ever Seen

The massive 2011 “Nation’s Report Card” on writing contains a number of striking statistics. Among other things it found that…

  • barely a quarter of students in both 8th and 12th grade are proficient in writing
  • students who were assigned 4-5 pages per week of writing had the highest average scores
  • computer access translates clearly into larger writing success.

But tucked in amongst all of these stats–as a mere footnote–is one of the most important stats I’ve ever seen concerning writing. Out of all of the factors measured, which do you think was the most correlated with students’ levels of proficiency in writing? Is it the schools they attended? Their socioeconomic status? How much they wrote each week? These things were correlated or even highly correlated, but they were not the best predictor of their writing scores. That honor belonged to how many times the students hit the backspace key.

When the data was parsed out, of the high school students in the top quartile, a striking 67% hit the backspace key more than 500 times! Compare this to the bottom quartile, where only 10% hit the backspace key more than 500 times.

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From the 2011 Nation’s Report Card

No other data point from the study had such a wide division between the top and bottom quartile, and what this means for our job as writing teachers is that of all the skills we need to teach our young writers, few are more important than to teach them to develop as Ernest Hemingway so eloquently and saltily put it, “a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”

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This is not an easy thing to do. Most students are in survival mode most of the time when they write. They aren’t sitting there wordsmithing or trying on new ideas like costumes out of a costume closet. They are instead hunched over a keyboard the night before an assignment is due just trying to remember comma rules, how to format quotes, keep straight who was a Capulet and who was a Montague, and get to the two page minimum so they can go to bed. Many of these students soldier so unblinkingly ahead that they won’t even remember large swaths of what they wrote the night before if asked.

To shift this, the first step is to teach students about the writing process. So many students see revision, and especially revision that involves cutting, as something that is done only when they make mistakes, as opposed to what it really is–an essential (or even the essential) part of the writing process.

My favorite way to start this shift is to share with them clips and articles where writers discuss the necessity of revising and using our “crap detectors” to cut the unnecessary and the mediocre so the necessary and beautiful can shine through. Two of my favorites to do this are Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” (apparently shit is a favorite word of writers when talking about drafting) and this clip of Ta-Nehisi Coates talking to high school students (the part about revising and writing process is from 1:30-5:00).

I also show them how this looks in my own writing, so they know that this isn’t just another thing that adults say but don’t actually do themselves. For example, here is just a small part of the revision history of three of my ten drafts of the introduction for an Edutopia piece that I wrote on writing more and grading less.

Here was my second draft after my initial one:

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Here was my third attempt:

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And here was my seventh:

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These examples are meant to help students see the importance of learning to detect and cut crap and model a more writerly process, but I also need to teach them how to do it, as for many the cutting process is not intuitive. To teach students this, I generally start by giving them specifics about the kinds of things they can cut at a sentence level, as this type of cutting is more concrete, making it easier to access for many students. Here are some sentence level tips that I share with them (these are from the wonderful grammar manual Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace and here is a pdf):

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Once they have gotten comfortable with smaller scale cutting, we move on to larger scale revision in the following ways:

  • I have students engage in what Linda Christensen from my beloved Oregon Writing Project calls an “accordion write.” This is where you assign students to expand a scene for a page or write one page too many and then compress it back down again.
  • By having early assignments that put emphasis on concision. These can be 100 word memoirs, 6 word stories, haikus, sonnets or anything else where the parameters mean one has to be surgical with the details and wording.
  • Training students to go through metacognitive revision where they follow a series of checklist items to systematically prune their pieces down.
  • Having contests to see who can trim an overly verbose passage to the shortest amount without losing its essence.

In the end, what makes the shift to a cutting mentality cool is that it is a precursor to a whole host of other lessons. Cutting is a synonym for engagement, as when students start to truly cut their own writing, that means they have started to actually look at and think about it. Once they have begun doing this, the door swings wide on a host of other lessons–ranging from word choice to characterization–that require engagement and a willingness to take the scissors to one’s own writing!

Yours in teaching,


Connect with Matt

If you would like more about teaching the essay and all things writing instruction, join my mailing list for a weekly writing newsletter, weekly list of curated articles on writing instruction, and a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing.

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