Category Archives: revising first drafts

Peer evaluation of writing

Is it worth taking time to let students evaluate others’ writing?

Recently I asked second graders to write stories based on the picture book, Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle.  Since the book is wordless, the students were forced to write their own versions of the story relying not on the author’s words but rather on the illustrations for guidance.

Later, I selected portions of two students’ stories for comparison.  I typed and printed them side by side, so students could compare how the two students wrote the same parts of the story.

Here are some of the comments students (second through eighth grade) made:

  • I like Student One’s opening because it tells when the story happens.
  • I like Student Two’s opening because it names the girl.
  • I like the word “poked” by Student One because it shows exactly how the penguin acted.
  • I like all the ways Student Two shows what Flora and the penguin did. They skated, danced, jumped, twirled and slid.  You can see it happening.
  • I like the dialog that Student Two uses when Flora asks, “What are you doing?”
  • I like Student One’s word, “outraged.”  That is a strong word.
  • I like Student Two’s word, word “disgusted” because it shows how Flora felt.
  • I like Student One’s writing where it says that Flora feels sorry because it shows that Flora cares.
  • I like when Student Two says “just like a fishing net.” I can see it.
  • I like when Student Two says “they tugged and tugged,” but maybe there are too many “tugs.”
  • I like Student One’s ending because it says Flora and the Penguin are happy.

After their blow-by-blow analyses, I asked my students what they learned from evaluating other students’ writing.  They said:

  • Use details, lots of details.
  • Use dialog or thoughts.
  • Use names.
  • Show emotions of the characters.
  • Verbs are really important to show action.
  • Use good vocabulary words.

One second grader, who rushes through her writing, compared her  plain version with the two shown here and said, “I’m starting over.”

A seventh grader who read the two versions, said, “Second graders?  Really?  I didn’t think I could learn good ideas about how to write from second graders.”

Is peer evaluation of writing a good idea?  You decide.

Dysgraphia needs to be accommodated like other learning disabilities

Dysgraphia is a learning disorder in which a child does not want to write.  In other ways the child is normal, but he flat out doesn’t want to hold a pencil and write.  If he is forced to write, his letter formation, the spacing between letters and words, and the various sizes of letters indicate something’s wrong.

EPSON MFP imageAll children have times when they balk at writing—when they’re tired, for example.  But dysgraphia shows as a day-in, day-out struggle to get a child to write–and not just in a writing lesson but in math and social studies too.  You might think the child is having a temper tantrum, but actually he is balking at a way of learning which makes no sense to him.  Children with dysgraphia spend so much energy thinking about how to hold the pencil, and how to form the letters, and where the spaces go, that whatever they are supposed to learn by writing—whether it is addition facts or how fossils form—is lost.

Something is wrong, and that something is how the brain works.  (More on that in future blogs.)

So what can you, as the parent or teacher of such a child, do to end tears and tantrums?

  • As much as possible, for that student eliminate writing as a way of learning and testing. Some students are asked to write each new spelling or vocabulary word five times.  Don’t assign this kind of work to a child with dysgraphia.  Let the child use flashcards rather than worksheets to learn math facts.
  • Allow the child to do her work out loud. Let the child tell an adult what she knows.  Allow the child to speak her answers directly to you or into an audio recording machine.


  • If the child must write a story or an essay, or answer a question in a sentence or two, give the child time to organize her thoughts. Then let her dictate her response to you.  When it’s time to revise, let the child dictate the revisions.
  • Make learning the use of a keyboard a part of this student’s studies.
  • Allow the student to “write” on an iPad or other electronic device.
  • Try various kinds of writing tools. Sometimes smooth-flowing markers can seem not as bad as pencils or pens. Sometimes thicker or thinner tools can feel better.  The smooth surface of a dry erase board can entice a student.
  • If the child has sensory integration issues, schedule writing after recess or after a back rub.

You might be thinking: But at a certain point, doesn’t the child need to conform?

Maybe that’s the wrong question.  Maybe we should be asking how we can make learning math, languages, science and social studies possible without needing to write.  We do it in other fields.  Do you need to write to learn how to play a piano?  Create a collage?  Act in a play?

Writing is one way to learn, but it is not the only way.  For children with other learning problems, we make accommodations.  Do blind children read with their eyes?  Do deaf children speak with their mouths?

In this time of differentiated learning, children with dysgraphia need to be recognized as living with a brain impairment.  They need to be accommodated so that they can learn in a way which makes sense to them.

Use colored pencils to help students revise drafts

Most of my elementary and middle grade students write first drafts in pencil.  A few type theirs into a computer.  But when we revise–hard copies or electronic ones–we use colored pencils.


This book summary was written and revised by a third grader.

I ask students to circle verbs and verbals with one bright color, such as red.  It’s easy to find verbs when they are encircled in a bright color.  We list them, use tally marks to identify which ones are overused, and then go back to the copy to replace overused verbs or weak verbs.

Next I ask students to choose a different bright color, one that is easily distinguishable from the first color, such a violet, green or blue.  Now the student encircles the first word of each sentence with that color.  Because the color prominently displays the first words, those words are easy to spot.  I ask students to read them aloud, listening for repetition.  When we find the same word used frequently, the student rewrites the sentence beginning to add variety.

For older students, we look at those same sentence opening words and identify their parts of speech to see if the student is overusing one part of speech, such as adverbs, and under-using another part of speech, such as prepositions.  If he is, he makes appropriate changes.

Some children overuse particular words, such as “so,” “just,” “then,” and “and.”  If I notice this, I ask the student to choose another color and to circle the overused word.  The abundance of color helps the student to recognize how frequently he has overused a word.

Revision might mean moving sentences or paragraphs around, or inserting new information missing from the first draft.  That too can be identified with arrows and stars in bright colors.

For poor spellers, I either encircle misspelled words in a particular color or highlight them with a marker.  From those words, I create a spelling study guide.  At the next lesson I quiz the student on the misspelled words.

When students see a first draft spotted with color, cross-outs, X’s, erasures, arrows and inserted words, they know they have revised.  So do parents without reading a word.

Share your writing with students to improve yours and theirs

A couple of months ago I shared the first scene from a story I am writing with two of my students, an eighth grade brother and a sixth grade sister.

Teacher typing on a laptop seated between a young boy and a young girl.

Their feedback was insightful:  how I started off in the middle of a tense situation, how my short sentences made that tense situation even tenser, how they liked the tenderness of the main character, how shocked they were by something that happened just like the main character must have been, and how real the dialog of the children sounded.

I had previously taught them that writers today are encouraged not to provide back story at the beginning of a narrative, but rather to jump right into the action and weave the backstory in here and there.

“Oh, now I see what you mean,” said the brother.  “You have the mother trying to stop the car, and the 18-wheeler zooming up behind her, and the pickup ahead of her zig-zagging and trapping her.”

“Yeah, and only then you learn there are children in the back seat who are yelling because they’re scared,” said the sister.

“But you don’t tell anything about them except their names.”

“Yeah, but you still care about them because they’re kids and they’re scared.”

From this short exchange, I was reminded how useful it is for the writing teacher / tutor / parent to share her own writing with a student.

  • Sharing your writing proves that you know how to write, so your praise and criticism are respected by your students.
  • Sharing your writing makes the lesson more collaborative. The students give feedback, ask questions and suggest areas that could be improved, adopting the role usually reserved for the teacher.  The teacher, meanwhile, learns how to improve her writing.
  • Demonstrating the kind of behavior you hope your students will show, such as listening carefully to what they say, adding more information when they say that an idea is vague, and drawing arrows to move ideas around for better sequencing, will lead to the same good writing behaviors in your students.
  • Taking the students’ suggestions seriously models life-long learning, a lifestyle we hope they will adopt.
  • And perhaps most importantly, showing that you do what you are asking them to do builds their respect for you as their teacher.

The new SAT writing essay is an improvement

Big changes have come to the SAT essay.

  • It’s optional, not required any more.
  • You have 50 minutes, not 25, to complete it.
  • It’s based on a reading passage, not an out-of-the-blue idea.
  • It will be judged on three criteria: your understanding of the reading passage, your ability to analyze the reading passage, and your writing skills.

It’s still not easy, but it’s certainly more like the writing students do in college.  Often college students need to read a book or a journal article and write a response to it.  Students need to show that they understand what the reading is about, that they can analyze the thinking that went into the passage, and that they can do so in clear, sophisticated English.  Rarely are college students ever offered a philosophical problem with no warning and no preparation, and rarely too are they asked to respond with an essay in one sitting.

The old, 25-minute limit was ridiculous.  Planning a response was reduced to three minutes; writing was limited to 20 minutes; and checking for errors lasted about two minutes, or more often, not at all.  When I work with students on writing anything we spend significant time on planning, developing details and ordering the paragraphs.  You can’t do that in three minutes.  And for most of the writing college students do they have overnight or longer to provide a response.  Good writers put their writing down, take a walk or a hot shower, and then return to the writing inspired.  At least with the new SAT there is breathing room.

Even though the reading selection might contain highfalutin vocabulary, you don’t need to understand every single word to get the gist of a reading selection and to analyze it.  The reading passage is long enough and contains enough persuasive arguments that the student can readily understand it with a strong high school vocabulary.

And the essay is optional.  For students who can write, this is their chance to prove it, adding another way to impress college admission officers.  For students who can’t write well, their lack of skill will show in the multiple choice section of the writing test.

Google the new SAT writing test to find websites offering greater perspective on the change.  See if you agree that the change has improved the test.

When a student writes one or more paragraphs which don’t belong and need to be cut, what is the best approach?

The student has put time and effort into his writing, but part of that writing doesn’t work.

Child writing

  • Maybe it’s irrelevant information. The child has lost his focus and is heading down an interesting but off-topic route.  You can see this, but he can’t.
  • Maybe the words repeat. The child says the same idea he already said  and the repetition is not needed.
  • Maybe the sentences are something the student needs to write to get going. (I woke up in the morning and then I went to the bathroom and then I got dressed and ate breakfast, and we got on the plane and we flew to Las Vegas.  Ah Las Vegas!)  Everything that happens getting to Las Vegas has to be written by the student in order to start her writing, but it’s not what the essay is about and needs to be cut.


How does a teacher or parent show that words need to be cut without breaking the child’s heart?  Here’s my approach.

  • First I ask the student to read his writing aloud. I might ask him to show me where the “off topic” section is on his prewriting organizer.  He might notice it’s not there.  I say that I think the reason it’s not there is because it’s not  what he planned to focus on.  My goal here is to get the student to agree with my analysis.
  • I suggest that certain sentences probably should be saved for another essay. By saying they should be saved, I am allowing the student to save face as well as to think that all his work has not been in vain.  Usually the student says nothing.  Then I lightly, with a regular pencil, draw a big box around the words which I think should be removed, explaining what I am doing.  I do not cross out the words.  I don’t draw the box in ink or even in dark pencil.  I make it all seem tentative at first and able to be erased if the student disagrees.  My goal is to gain the student’s trust but not to force him to delete.
  • Next I ask the student to read the parts not boxed and see if they work without the boxed parts. Usually they do, but sometimes transitions might be needed.  If the box is the beginning of the essay, sometimes a new introduction needs to be written.  I ask the student to verbally say how the remaining parts can be connected if we leave out the boxed parts.  Usually the student has good ideas.  Usually he writes the new parts or the transitions between the lines or in the margins.
  • It’s important to evaluate the student’s body language through this process.  If he becomes a stone, or if he is barely able to talk, don’t press him.  Sometimes I say, let’s think about this until next lesson, okay?  And then I move the paper away and go to a different part of the lesson–a BINGO vocabulary review, for example.  My goal here is to maintain the student’s trust and to give him time to adjust his thinking.
  •  At the end of the lesson the box is still there, untouched.  The boxed writing is the student’s writing and he or she must decide whether it  stays or goes.

Did you ever see the film, All the President’s Men?  One reporter grabs the copy of another reporter and revises it without permission.  The original writer of the copy goes ballistic.  It’s the same thing when a teacher or parent changes a child’s copy without the child’s permission.  We need to respect the child and give him or her time to come around to our way of thinking.  And sometimes the child doesn’t.  That’s okay too.


How to encourage the addition of more details by students

Sometimes students balk at writing more details when they have finished their first drafts.  They think they have already included plenty of details when more details would enhance the writing.

To encourage the student to write more details, on a separate piece of paper I rewrite one of the student’s sentences needing more details and suggest we go back and forth–first me, then the student–adding details.  Here are some examples.

The student originally writes, “We walked back to the pool.”  I add, “In our flipflops and bathing suits,” to the beginning of that sentence.  “Well, of course we wore our bathing suits,” says my student, so he crosses out “and our bathing suits.”  But he adds, “In our flipflops we walked to the outside pool entrance.

Another sentence the student originally writes is, “My cousin, Johnny, picked up a glass and cut his fingers.”  This time the student starts the additions by adding “soda” to “glass.”  I ask which fingers.  He crosses out “fingers” and adds “thumb and index finger.”  But then without my asking him to, he continues. “My cousin, Johnny, picked up a soda glass and cut his thumb and index fingers.  You could see the fat and blood.  My uncle drove him in a taxi to the hospital emergency room.  My uncle sent a picture to my aunt, showing Johnny doing a pose in his bandage.”  What a difference!

Another sentence my student writes is, “We walked to the gift shop.” Before I could add details, he added “to get rocky road ice cream because it was 100 degrees F.

Why did this exercise work?  By pulling the sentences out of the student’s own work and isolating them, it was easy for the student to see the plainness of the sentences.  By my offering to write some of the additional phrases, the work seemed more like a game, and he was willing to play along.

Were we working on a computer, we could have swiped the new sentences and replaced the plainer ones, making the work even easier.